Malaise All Over Again

Posted: Jun 22, 2010 12:01 AM
Malaise All Over Again

Surely it's just my fallible memory, but I can't recall a presidential address that has fallen as flat as Barack Obama's last week, at least not since Jimmy Carter gave his (in)famous Malaise speech back in the dismal summer of 1979.

Without actually using that French-sounding word, which may have been the one mistake he avoided in that overwrought and overthought speech, that beleaguered president got his message across clearly enough: He was the victim of a crisis of confidence on the part of the American people.

And if we would just regain our spirit, all the other crises his administration faced would go away -- from gas lines to hyperinflation to the general feeling that no one was in charge. It was really our fault that he was proving such a failure.

Strangely enough, We the People didn't buy all that, maybe because we expected a president of the United States to take the lead in solving problems, not go on national television to psychoanalyze them, and us.

As it turned out, the American people did have a lot of confidence in themselves; it was their president they lacked confidence it -- a feeling that would be borne out by Mr. Carter's defeat in the next presidential election a year later by Ronald Reagan, the happiest warrior to occupy the White House since FDR.

Having campaigned on a promise to give America a government as good as its people, Jimmy Carter had come down from his mountaintop, specifically Camp David, where he'd spent two days getting advice from everybody in sight, to tell the American people that we weren't as good as his government. Which was a funny way to restore people's confidence.

Glenn Beck

If I recall correctly, it took a couple of days for the full force of public opinion to set in against that speech, and then descend on the White House like an avalanche of negative reactions.

Things happen much faster in these computerized, iPhoned, YouTubed times. Barack Obama had scarcely finished his speech last week about the oil spill and what a great job he'd been doing to contain it when the rotten tomatoes started flying. We've just never been that big on Malaise in this country; we would rather a leader tackled problems than analyze them.

Dr. Carter's diagnosis of the American psyche -- a bad case of Malaise -- might have gone over well in a different country. France, say, where they seem to enjoy contemplating the futility of things. What other people could have produced existentialism followed by deconstructionism and then early retirement? The French seem to luxuriate in La Tristesse, savoring every delectable, mournful sip. Like a good Beaujolais.

The end of every French movie I can remember seeing -- excuse me, the denouement -- has been: And They Lived Unhappily Ever After. And then everybody slowly drifts out of the movie theater sighing deeply, enveloped in a bittersweet self-satisfaction, absorbed in their own deep sensitivity. Ah, there's nothing like having one's cynicism borne out by events. Although it does tend to spoil the popcorn.

But that's just not the American way. We've got things to do, places to go, people to see, oil to trap, skim and vacuum. Lamentation just takes up too much good time that could be spent on, say, holding down a second job or playing in a garage band. Philosophy has never been our strong point; on the whole, we'd rather make money.

Rather than follow some ascetic creed, we prefer our faith on the positive side. He helps those who help themselves and all that. If we can't have a purpose-driven life, we'll settle for just a driven one.

But one thing we're not likely to settle for is a leader who analyzes instead of leads. Which may be the big reason the president's address Tuesday night fell flat as a flitter. Or as Mark Twain said of a different performance, it wasn't American, it wasn't un-American, it was ... French.

Our current president's much touted call to arms against the oil spill somehow managed to disappoint both left and right, and center, too. And even those who don't much follow politics. Talk about a comprehensive impact. Who says the man can't unite us?

Pragmatist or idealist or just innocent bystander, all seemed just a little miffed the morning after, or even the night before. The talking cure just doesn't seem to get it done this side of the Atlantic, or at least in flyover country, where introspection may be taken as just an early symptom of constipation.

Over here, we like our leaders chipper, especially when the roof is falling in. Think Churchill while the V-2s were raining down on London, Maggie Thatcher when she was reminding Bush I that now was no time to go wobbly, Ronald Reagan when he inherited the Carter Malaise but acted as if he had just been handed the lead in a musical comedy co-starring Jimmy Cagney -- and the happy ending was waiting in the very next reel.

There is much to be said for having an actor in the White House, preferably one who specialized in B-movies full of all-American melodrama. Maybe because American history is one heckuva screenplay itself.

So we were all waiting for the president to say what he was going to do about this sea of oil headed into the Gulf, but he seemed so ... detached. Removed. Cool, man. As if this were somebody else's problem, really. Which is what brought poor, out-of-his-depth Jimmy Carter to mind. The country doesn't need another president like that. But it seems to be getting one. The prospect is enough to fill most of us with ... malaise.

So could we please just fix this oily little matter, Mr. President, which ain't so little after all, before we start gazing fondly at our navels? There'll be plenty of time for philosophizing after this well has been safely plugged. Till then, let's concentrate on Job No. 1. And git 'er done. Then we can go back to arguing politics. Till then, the country could use a president who leads, follows or just gets out of the way. Instead it's got this ... community organizer.

Wake up, Mr. President!

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