Washington — The nation held its breath. Reporters could hardly contain themselves. President Carter was scheduled to deliver a long-awaited speech on the energy crisis, but delayed it without explanation. He was at Camp David, and scores of businessmen, clerics, and politicians were visiting him, consulting with the silent President.
About what? Nobody knew.
It was July 1979, and Mr. Carter's approval rating had dropped dramatically. Hardly more than one American in four approved of the way he was conducting his office. That was the lowest performance rating since presidential polls began, lower even than Harry Truman's before Truman went on to surprise almost everyone by winning the election of 1948.
What did Carter's Camp David retreat mean?
Word came that he would break silence Sunday, July 15. The nation sat before its television sets at 10 p.m. This reporter finds his notes on ruled yellow paper:
First came advertisements, then the words "CBS News: Special Report." And then there was Carter, sitting direct and unsmiling, with lines under his eyes and a strained, taut face.
"I need your help," he said.
The nation, Carter declared, was in crisis deeper than the problem of energy -- which, he said, was only a symptom of the country's inability to get together and decide on action.
There was a "malaise," he said. The problem marked "a fundamental threat to American democracy. . . . The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our nation's will."
No other President, using the communications media, had talked to the nation this way. It was arresting, a little breathtaking. My yellow pad carries the words, "Fixed me with a steady and embarrassing stare. . . . Hypnotic!"
Mr. Carter was putting into presidential words what academic observers had asserted for years: that the country was under stress and betraying it. What were the symptoms?
?. . . . For the first time, a majorit of our people believe that the next five will be worse than the past five years. . . .
"Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. . . .
"The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all the other people in the Western world. . . .
"There is a growing disrespect for government and for churches, schools, the mass media, and other institutions. . . ."
In short, said Carter, looking and sounding a bit like a preacher at an experience meeting, ". . . this is not a message of happiness and reassurance, but it is the truth, and it is a warning."
Reaction to the solemn speech, with its self-criticism of his own performance , was generally favorable. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. called it "one of the strongest and best speeches he has made."
Editors were impressed. "There is little question that this was Jimmy Carter's best hour so far," said Hugh Sidey, for the Time-Life News Service.
Washington Post staff writer David Broder said, "Jimmy Carter found his voice again last night. The speech he delivered to an expectant nation, after 10 days of isolation, may or may not rescue his faltering presidency, revive public confidence, and set America on the road to energy independence.
"But it will surely go down in history as one of the most extraordinary addresses a chief executive has ever given."
Many agreed with the judgment that "he delivered the text more effectively than he has ever done before."
One year later, with a presidential campaign in full swing, a further examination of the Carter "malaise" speech is being made.
As Mr. Carter repeatedly said himself, he had found problems in his incumbency that he had not expected. The speech may be remembered as a kind of culmination of two separate developments: the "malaise" of the nation itself, and, second, a kind of coming-of-age of the Carter administration, the acknowledgment that governing America from Washington, under a system of separated powers, is far more difficult than a one-time Georgia governor, Navy nuclear engineer, and peanut processor had expected.
It was a kind of spiritual watershed, both for America and for America's President. Dealing with the first, Carter cited the changes that had come in recent years to the US involving "shocks" and tragedy":
". . . Murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. . . .
"We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes always just -- only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. . . .
"We respected the presidency as a place of honor -- until the shock of Watergate. . . .
"We remember when the phrase 'sound as a dollar' was an expression of dependabilit -- until 10 years of inflation began to shrink our dollar and our savings. . . .
"We believed that our resources were limitless -- until 1973 when we had to face our growing dependence on foreign oil. . . ."
So much for the shocks to America. But then Carter came to a matter that involved him personally, a matter that has urgency in the 1980 presidential campaign.
He seemed to acknowledged for almost the first time what political scientists have hammered at for years -- that the political process in America is fragmented. It is increasingly difficult to get national policies formulated into laws on great subjects under the system of divided powers and particularly (though Carter naturally did not dwell on this ascpect) when newly elected presidents have had virtually no experience with the intricate Washington governmental machine.
President Carter raised the issue but he did not analyze the causes.
"What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country," he said, "is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath, by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.Often you see paralysis, stagnation, and drift. You don't like it, and neither do I."
But how about the other instrument of government in Washington that the public ultimately turns to, the presidency? Even here, there has been fragmentation and attrition during the past quarter century unequaled in history. No President since Eisenhower has served two full terms.
Students of American politics say the discipline of political partis is diluted, the power of legislative leaders reduced, the growth of special-interest groups accelerated. The Carter incumbency exemplifies all these.
Mr. Carter came to office with little experience with the intricate federal machine, which some say is like putting an amateur in to run a nuclear power plant. Carter was the first American President who sealed victory through the route of caucuses and state primaries rather than through screening by his peers at a political convention -- the so-called "bosses" and the "smoke-filled rooms" -- or by service in Congress.
Carter was not versed in the system of labyrinthine subgovernments that rule Washington: congressional subcommittees, executive bureaus, and powerful, entrenched lobbies. Pledges that Carter made in his 1976 campaign showed a conception that was sometimes naive or even simplistic.
He said that he was going to reduce the number of government agencies to 200, or knock $5 billion to $7 billion off the defense budget. After a year or two in Washington, Carter's views altered on many things. The July 15 speech a year ago showed a realization of how difficult it is to formulate a major policy -- in this case on energy.
Some students think fragmentation of power involves danger to the United States: There is no other country, they say, in which it is so difficult to put into effect quickly an emergency policy on such major matters as economics, energy, and foreign affairs. The constitution of no other democracy separates the powers of government, always with the latent threat of deadlock, stalemate, and paralysis.
Now in 1980, Carter has modified his views on many things under the rough test of experience. When he came to office he referred lightly to the "inordinate fear of communism." But when the Soviets invaded AFghanistan, he called it "the most serious threat to peace since the end of the Second World War."
Some thought the July 15 speech marked a kind of coming of age in two respects: an outline for the nation of the disillusioning events of the past generation and of the new relationship of America to the world at large.
It also was a kind of coming-of-age of the Carter administration. AFter 10 days' deliberation at Camp David with assorted advisers, he acknowledged quietly that some things in government were not what he expected, that things were more intractable, that sometimes it was almost impossible even with his strongest endeavor to achieve a consensus.
He ended on a hopeful note, as presidents must. But before he reached his appeal, and outlined his purpose on the energy front, he noted the difficult situation which he implied that he (or by inference, any president) must face in the modern world:
"Looking for a wa out of this crisis, our people have turned to a federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation's life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide."
Carter seems to have learned a good deal since he walked down Pennsylvania Avenue informally with his wife and daughter on Inauguration Day in Januar 1977.