Was it the greatest speech of his presidency or political suicide?
Three decades on, the answer may well be both.
Thirty years ago Wednesday, President Jimmy Carter delivered a speech - "The Crisis of Confidence" - that became one of the most pilloried in modern American history.
It was an address in which he looked critically at himself and his own failures but also warned Americans in dire, near-apocalyptic terms about the potential consequences of theirs.
"The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America," preached the president, a devout evangelical Christian who saw in Americans a crisis of faith not in God but in the nation - and in themselves.
Delivered against a background of inflation, rising oil prices and gas lines, the address was derisively dubbed the "malaise" speech by the press. And when Carter requested resignations from his entire Cabinet a few days later, the speech became all the proof anyone needed that he was blaming Americans for his own mistakes.
What few recall is the speech's actual content - which still resonates strongly in the current economic crisis- or the fact that it was actually well-received by the public at the time.
"It was an incredibly successful speech, until he fired the Cabinet, which changed the whole tenor of things," said Patrick Caddell, who was the president's pollster and a chief architect of the speech.
"It got a great reception. I've never felt more that American political journalism bordered on Soviet history-making than on that speech," he said. "From the misnaming of it, to the trying to say later that it was unpopular - the historical revisionism. The speech itself was an extraordinary success."
"It's clear that the speech was a success on its own grounds," he says. Carter "had an incredible bump in the polls. The mail that he was receiving at the White House was overwhelmingly positive, and a lot of it was people saying they were going to cut down on their consumption of gas and cut out unnecessary trips." At least initially, he says, "a lot of it resonated."
"I do think people were ready to follow in those first days after the speech," says The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, who was the lead speechwriter on the address. "And then there was the Cabinet Jonestown, and I think that's where the elites turned definitively against Carter, and that trickled down before too long to everybody else."
Even Stuart E. Eizenstat, Carter's chief domestic adviser, who joined Vice President Walter Mondale in fighting the idea of the speech, now agrees that it was well-received.
"Mondale and I were arguing that the ‘crisis in confidence' was not among the American people, that it was in our own leadership and that we had to be careful not to appear to be pointing the finger at them rather than at us," Eizenstat remembers. He says that a meeting on an early draft was "as vigorous and rhetorically violent as any I've ever been in," he recalls. "It was a very large conference table, and if it hadn't been, I think that Mondale might have leaned across and choked Caddell."
Still, he acknowledges, "contrary to my argument, the speech was actually a brilliant success," with Carter's polling shooting up "10 or 11 points" afterward. It was, Eizenstat says, "like the old magic had come back from the '76 campaign."
Then, within days, the Cabinet firings "undercut any sense that this was a new start to the administration, that he had sort of learned his lesson and was starting afresh. It just totally stepped on the headlines of the speech."
Caddell notes that even the press responded well to the speech at first - he particularly recalls a Newsweek cover story on the address titled "To Lift a Nation's Spirit."
Thomas M. DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, who contributed to that Newsweek story, says that in the immediate aftermath of the speech, there was a sense that "it was going to kind of go either way - but it went south, not north."
"Wholesale sacking of Cabinet officers usually comes off as desperation," he says, "and I think that, plus the speech, it all contributed to the notion of Carter as a floundering leader. I think from that time on, the feeling was that Carter was on borrowed time."
Today, however, parts of the speech itself seem downright prescient.
Says Hertzberg: "Certainly it was prophetic. I think that there's no question of its value as prophecy. And as exhortation."
He adds: "When I say he was a prophet, there was a little bit of a barb in that; he was a kind of John the Baptist figure, crying in the wilderness. You could say that he's a prophet of what's come to fruition by Obama."
Carter, for example, saw a major overhaul of the country's energy policy as an opportunity to re-envision the nation's future - a presaging of Obama's current commitment to a similar goal - though today some of Carter's policy prescriptions sound more like those advocated by Republicans. (He stressed shifting from imported oil to home-grown natural resources such as coal, oil shale and "gasohol," for example.)
The Georgia peanut farmer also expressed a deep concern about excessive materialism in the speech: "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption," he warned. "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns."
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, notes that these same tendencies are at the heart of many of our problems today - "not just energy, but if you look at something like the mortgage crisis, as well, at the heart of it is our consumer patterns, our thirst for consumer goods, our inability to think through what we purchase, and our tendency to judge our value by what we own," he says.
Some of the rhetoric also sounds strangely familiar. For example, Carter railed against our "intolerable dependence on foreign oil" and argued for a return to "energy independence." He put his faith in America's "skilled work force" and "innovative genius," linking the effort required to win the "war on the energy problem" to the moon landing and noting that those listening to his words are "the heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now."
But he was also clear: "I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy. I do not promise a quick way out of our nation's problems, when the truth is that the only way out is an all-out effort."
Robert Collins, a professor of history at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has written a book on the Reagan era and is working on one on the energy crisis, says that the speech's major flaw wasn't Carter's diagnosis or his prescription but his tone.
"It seems to me that the speech was in some ways a rather accurate depiction of the mood of the country and some of the problems that the administration was facing, but I've always believed that it could be argued that the 1980s actually began with the malaise speech," he says. "It seemed to me that his observations were not at all inaccurate but that he managed to put the most pessimistic possible spin on what he was seeing and trying to communicate to the American public."
Indeed, the term "malaise" also quickly became a sort of shorthand for the president's pessimism and a rallying cry for Carter's opponents, most particularly Ronald Reagan, whose sunny outlook stood in stark relief.
Of the speech, Edwin Meese III, who served as Reagan's attorney general, says: "It seemed to cast blame on the American people, that somehow they were wrong. It seemed to ignore the fact that the federal government was not doing much to solve the problems. It was just kind of a defeatist speech."
By contrast, he notes, "one of the most significant characteristics about Ronald Reagan was, in fact, his optimism."
"It absolutely played into Reagan's theme there was nothing wrong with America that a change of leadership couldn't fix," says DeFrank. "The malaise speech became one of Ronald Reagan's most effective talking points."
In his election-eve speech in 1980, Reagan said, "I find no national malaise, I find nothing wrong with the American people. Oh, they are frustrated, even angry at what has been done to this blessed land. But more than anything, they are sturdy and robust, as they have always been."
Says Mattson of Carter: "My sense was that it was kind of a tragic situation. He really did hit upon something, opened this window - and then managed to foul it up."