One of the leitmotifs of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is the shell game that “progressives” (more on the scare quotes in a few moments) use to transfer bad decisions of progressives and liberals of the past to American history as a whole. FDR’s decision to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II? America’s shame. Eugenics? It was embraced wholeheartedly (and then some) by such early progressives as Margaret Sanger, Woodrow Wilson, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and John Maynard Keynes. And was rejected wholesale by the Catholic Church and religious conservatives such as G.K. Chesterton. Despite that, as Jonah notes in Liberal Fascism, quoting Yale historian and professor of surgery Sherwin Nuland, Nuland and other writers at the New Republic and similar left-wing publications are convinced that “Eugenics was a creed that appealed to social conservatives, who were pleased to blame poverty and crime on heredity.”
In an essay today at Red State titled “Forgetting History,” Erick Erickson writes that this shell game even works on even more recent history. Erickson spots an attempt by the left to salvage the reputation of Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise speech”:
Ezra Klein, who once said no one pays attention to the constitution because it is so old, has decided Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” was popular. You will no doubt be not exactly surprised to learn that Hendrik Hertzberg totally believes the malaise speech was awesome too. Hertzberg was the speechwriter.
But that gets history wrong. Twenty and thirty-something pundits should know better.
As Ben Domenech, himself a former speech writer, notes in the context of Presidential speeches, the Carter speech was popular at first, but historically it is wrong to say it was popular as it came to be viewed very negatively. A pundit claiming it was popular should really note the popularly was fleeting instead of simply claiming it was popular. To this day, when seasoned politicos reference “malaise speeches” they do not mean popular speeches.
From Ben Domenech, relevant to the larger question of Presidential speeches:
These two pages from Steve Hayward’s book share some reaction. Hayward notes that at the time, The New Republic editorialized that the speech was a “pop sociology stew” filled with “servile flatteries”: “Carter seems to think that teaching us to sing ‘Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella’ can be a substitute for leading us in out of the rain. Fortunately, he utterly lacks the rhetorical skill for such a con job.” The Economist labeled it “amateurism.” One labor leader who had supported Carter in 76 was quoted as saying: “The fault is his, not ours, and asking us to say something nice about America is like Gerald Ford telling us to pin on little lapel buttons and Whip Inflation Now.” The point is that the people responded positively in the immediate, but a critical eye quickly tore the speech apart. It became the starting point for mockery of Carter’s essential failing: that, as Hayward has written elsewhere, that “Carter ran for president promising us ‘a government as good as the people,’ only to discover the people were no good.”
This should serve as a reminder that speeches aren’t just assessed in the immediate – it’s whether they have lasting value that matters and determines their relevancy over time. [Emphasis added]
Too many pundits say stuff like “the malaise speech was popular” and it seems most of the ones who do are the twenty and thirty somethings who really have no sense of history. I was four years old when Carter gave that speech and I am aware enough of history to know that the reception to the speech hurt Carter.
As Erikson writes:
This may sound like a Matt Lewis inspired “get off my lawn” screed, but put very simply, a lot of pundits of the twenty and thirty-something variety have absolutely no sense of history. For them, partisan politics began at Bush vs. Gore and history did not exist before November of 2000.
There are multiple reasons for that. The first is the shell game that Jonah describes above. The second is that for many people, the online world didn’t arrive in full until broadband reached their home, which started to happen around 1999 to the early naughts. (If I’m recalling the year correctly, my Northern California neighborhood didn’t get cable modem access until the spring of 1999, and we were pretty early adopters.) The political Blogosphere didn’t fully arrive until the arrival of Instapundit in August of 2001, and the rapid growth of blogs on both sides of the aisle in the wake of 9/11. (If you’ll recall back then in those pre-MSNBC days, neither side liked the “objective” establishment-liberal tone of the MSM — for the right, that tone was too left-leaning and too reflexively anti-Republican; for the fightin’ left, that tone was too wimpy and bland.)
Additionally, for most of America, the most important — horrific, soul-searching, angry, depressing — day of their recent lives was September 11th; for America’s hard left, that day was almost a year prior. “For activist and professional Democrats, the most ignominious day in their collective political lives” wasn’t 9/11, but an event that occurred in the previous year, Daniel Henninger wrote in the Wall Street Journal last September: the Florida presidential recount. “The 2000 election ended only when the Supreme Court resolved it in favor of George Bush. Republican and independent voters moved on, but many Democrats never did; they were now being governed by an illegitimate president.”