James Fallows: Carter's Sunny Day

Roundup: Talking About History

[James Fallows was chief speechwriter for President Carter.]

Things were tough as Jimmy Carter prepared for his 1978 State of the Union address, one year into his term. But they seemed, strangely, hopeful. The president’s big domestic initiative that year was a national energy policy. The gas-station lines and first-ever spike in fuel prices in the mid-1970s made this a genuine emergency. He hadn’t yet gotten the whole plan through, but the previous summer he had signed legislation creating the Department of Energy and begun imposing standards that, even after he was gone, kept improving the fuel efficiency of American cars, buildings and factories....

Inflation was going down. Job creation was going up. So as time came to put the speech together, everyone involved dared think about what else the administration could do, after such a good start. “There is all across our land a growing sense of peace and a sense of common purpose,” Mr. Carter said in his address — a sentence I cannot remember writing and in retrospect can hardly believe was uttered at all. “For the first time in a generation we are not haunted by a major international crisis” and therefore have “a rare and precious opportunity to address persistent problems” that otherwise would just get worse. And so he laid out his bright plans, which included making government activities more transparent and reducing the role of lobbyists.

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