Jimmy Carter’s July 1979 address to the nation on energy policy, typically recalled as his “malaise” speech, is among the most maligned major presidential addresses in American history, this despite the fact that his approval ratings actually jumped 11% in the days that immediately followed. Having diagnosed a national crisis of confidence, the president’s critics seized on the address’s main themes as expressions of defeatism and claimed that his reading of the American polity were more symptomatic of his own crabbed ideology than reflective of the actual national mood. Ronald Reagan, although he had praised Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s very similar critique of American materialism given just a year earlier in a Harvard commencement speech, but by now vigorously campaigning for the presidency, responded that “people who talk about an age of limits are really talking about their own limitations, not America's.”

Although the Carter presidency is not remembered as offering the nation (m)any rhetorical high points, the themes struck by his televised summer address can be read as eerily prescient of thirty years of subsequent political upheavals: the world-historical force of petro-politics, concern regarding the capacity of American public deliberation in the context of deeply dispiriting unease and polarization, and of course the traumas visited by economic recession. And although the Obama Administration much prefers to align itself with the historical iconography of the Camelot years, interesting parallels to Carter do arise. Both Obama and Carter came to the presidency with little experience in national politics, reputations for intellectualism and dedication to a politics discursively grounded in rhetorics of change and national renewal, and having benefitted by succeeding deeply unpopular Republican administrations connected in the American imagination to failed wars and national stagnation.

Because he was widely unknown to the American people as he started his campaign for national office and because his political platform was on many vital issues intentionally ambiguous and unspecified, Jimmy Carter tended to be disproportionately judged on matters of personal character, with obsessive attention given to his religious self-identity as
born again, his confession to Playboy of having often “looked on many women with lust” and having “committed adultery in my heart many times,” and unusual interest in his standing either as a man of distinctive integrity (for his admirers) or hubris (for his critics). The resulting national conversation helped confirm the emergence of a sense in some influential circles of opinion that the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam had resulted in an eruption of national narcissism driven in part by a turn inward provoked by revulsion against the state of the wider civic health and by the pathologies of the “me” generation, which critics argued had produced a president himself given to arrogance, insularity, and self-righteous narcissism.

Much of the national thinking on these issues was driven by publication of Christopher Lasch’s best-selling book,
The Culture of Narcissism (1978). Lasch was among those invited to Camp David to meet with the president and his staff in preparation for the July national speech. Lasch’s deeply problematic critique of American culture produced research in the rhetorical and political psychological traditions in the years that followed, and for rhetoricians prompted questions that will be among those discussed at the Charleston symposium:

Is narcissism a lens through which one can productively conceptualize rhetorical interaction, either with respect to speaker or audience behaviors?

In what ways is the psychoanalytical concept of narcissism, most often theorized as manifesting an individual pathology, helpful to the analysis of broad social phenomena?

Can rhetorical texts such as the Carter “malaise” address be more fully illuminated by reference to narcissistic encounter?

In what senses can a public address be properly understood as either a rhetorical failure or success? And how can the wider social influences of the “malaise” address be best comprehended?

Thirty years after its delivery, the “malaise” speech has been recently lauded by critics on both the left and right (Kevin Mattson, writing in
American Prospect, has argued that the speech’s “language of humility and civic obligation resonates more powerfully than ever,” while Sean Scallon, writing in the American Conservative, has recently called the speech a “conservative manifesto”), a magnificent curiosity given the unusual circumstances of its formation and immediate reception that merits examination by scholars interested in rhetoric and symbolic action.


The main text to be explored is President Carter’s televised address to the nation, delivered 19 July 1979, which is easily available online.

Other texts that will help the seminar group engage the connections to rhetoric and narcissism will include:

Harold Barrett, Rhetoric and Civility: Human Development, Narcissism, and the Good Audience (SUNY, 1991), chapter 3. (Chapters 6 and 9 are recommended for those who have time. Also reviewed in QJS by David Payne).
Jesse Battan, "The 'New Narcissism' in 20th-century America: The Shadow and Substance of Social Change,"
Journal of Social History 17 (Winter 1983): 199-220.
Christopher Lasch,
The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (London: Sphere Books, 1978), chapter 4; chapter 10 is recommended.
Seymour Martin Lipset, “Malaise and Resiliency in America,”
Journal of Democracy 6.3 (1995): 4-18.
Kevin Mattson,
‘What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?’: What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?': Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Nation (Bloomsbury, 2009), chapter 4.
Gayatri Spivak, "Echo,"
New Literary History 24 (1993): 17-43.

A line-numbered version of the Carter text is available, as well as electronic versions of the other essays that can be provided to you if you are unable to track them down, by contacting dcheshier@gsu.edu.


For those interested in developing a fuller understanding of Jimmy Carter’s rhetorical presidency and of his administration in general, the following works provide a good starting point:

Keith Erickson, “Jimmy Carter: The Rhetoric of Private and Civic Piety,” Western Journal of Speech Communication 44 (Summer 1980): 221-235.
Dan F. Hahn, “The Rhetoric of Jimmy Carter, 1976-1980,”
Presidential Studies Quarterly 14.2 (Spring 1984): 265-288.
Dan F. Hahn and J. Justin Gustainis, “Anatomy of an Enigma: Jimmy Carter’s 1980 State of the Union Address,”
Communication Quarterly 33.1 (Winter 1985): 43-49.
Richard Hess, “Jimmy Carter: Rhetorical Prophet,”
Journal of American Culture 25.1-2 (2003): 209-214.
Burton Kaufman and Scott Kaufman,
The Presidency of James Earl Carter (Kansas, 2006).
Ronald Lee, “Electoral Politics and Visions of Community: Jimmy Carter, Virtue, and the Small Town Myth,”
Western Journal of Communication 59 (Winter 1995): 39-60.
Michael Link and Betty Glad, “Exploring the Psychopolitical Dynamics of Advisory Relations: The Carter Administration’s ‘Crisis of Confidence,’”
Political Psychology 15.3 (1994): 461-480.
John H. Patton, “A Government As Good As Its People: Jimmy Carter and the Restoration of Transcendence to Politics,”
Quarterly Journal of Speech 63 (October 1977): 249-257.
Laurinda W. Porter, “Religion and Politics: Protestant Beliefs in the Presidential Campaign of 1980,”
Journal of Communication and Religion (September 1990): 24-39.
Mary Stuckey,
Strategic Failures in the Modern Presidency (Hampton, 1997), esp. pgs. 116-126.
Mary Stuckey,
Jimmy Carter, Human Rights, and the National Agenda (Texas A&M, 2009).

For those interested in the argument made by Christopher Lasch, and the context of its reception, see:

Ian Craib, Psychoanalysis and Social Theory: The Limits of Sociology (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), esp. pgs. 105-115.
Juan Flores, "Reinstating Popular Culture: Responses to Christopher Lasch,"
Social Text no. 12 (Autumn 1985): 113-123.
Anthony Giddens,
Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Polity, 1991), esp. pgs. 171-180.
Richard Kilminster, “Narcissism or Informalization? Christopher Lasch, Norbert Elias, and Social Diagnosis,”
Theory, Culture, and Society 25.3 (2008): 131-151.
Richard Sennett, "Narcissism and Modern Culture,"
October 4 (Autumn 1977): 70-79.

And for those interested in the wider scholarly attention to the idea of cultural and political narcissism, see:

C. Fred Alford, "Nature and Narcissism: The Frankfurt School," New German Critique, no. 36 (Autumn 1985): 174-192.
C. Fred Alford, “Eros and Civilization after thirty years: A reconsideration in light of recent theories of narcissism,"
Theory and Society, 16 (1987): 869-890.
Harold Barrett, “Narcissism and Rhetorical Maturity,”
Western Journal of Speech Communication 50 (Summer 1986): 254-268.
Barry Brummett and Margaret Carlisle Duncan, “Theorizing Without Totalizing: Specularity and Televised Sports,”
Quarterly Journal of Speech 76.3 (August 1990): 227-246. Argues that filmic accounts of the spectatorial gaze are vulnerable to reduction to narcissistically narrow accounts of audience reception.
Mary Caputi, “American Overabundance and Cultural Malaise: Melancholia in Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin,”
Theory and Event 4.3 (2000): online.
Isaac E. Catt, “Rhetoric and Narcissism: A Critique of Ideological Selfism,”
Western Journal of Speech Communication 50 (Summer 1986): 242-253.
Lorraine Markotic, "There Where Primary Narcissism Was, I Must Become: The Inception of the Ego in Andreas-Salome, Lacan, and Kristeva,"
American Imago 58 (2001): 813-836.
Vincent P. Pecora, “The Culture of Surveillance,” Qualitative Sociology 25.3 (2002): 345-358.
Shirley Sharon-Zisser, “From ‘Guest’ to Occupier? Unstable Hospitality and the Ahistoricity of Tropology in the Discourse of Rhetoric,”
Philosophy and Rhetoric 32.4 (1999): 309-333.
Margaret Whitford, “Irigaray and the Culture of Narcissism,”
Theory, Culture, and Society 20.3 (2003): 27-41.