Jimmy Carter at the World Affairs Council: Not your grandfather’s American Exceptionalism

A younger, less popular Jimmy Carter (photo from flickr user gademocrats)

The lights are low and excitement high at the Paramount Theater in downtown Seattle.  Murmuring gives way to whistling and foot stomping and finally shouting and thunderous applause. A smiling white-haired man steps onstage.  No, it isn’t Bono or the Boss, it’s former President Jimmy Carter, and Seattle loves him.

I knew three things about Carter ahead of attending his sold-out World Affairs Council talk “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope” last week.  I knew he was a peanut farmer from Georgia, that he looked like my grandpa, and that he once dared to challenge American Exceptionalism in his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech 33 years ago.

Carter, it turns out, symbolizes a lot of different things to different people.  To some he’s a defeatist Democrat who’s presidency spawned the term “stagflation”. To others he’s a post-Presidential environmental crusader, figure head of Habitat for Humanity and Mid-East peace activist.

Carter left office the year before I was born, and from the stories my parents told of him, he was an unlikely politician.  He seemed humble and honest. He even wrote poetry.  In short, a far cry from the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush decades I grew up in.

But as I asked around about Carter, it was that one speech, that’s come to be known as the “malaise speech” delivered on July 15th, 1979, that interested me most.

“He told us we just had to lower our standards,” was how my father once described it.

“He was honest with us and we didn’t like it,” said my father-in-law when I asked for his thoughts on the speech.

David Domke, who studies political communication at University of Washington (and chairs the Department of Communication, where I also work), said this about Carter’s speech in his recent lecture on American Exceptionalism (part of a series examining the current presidential election),

“This was a moment when a president came before the nation and said, ‘I’m scared and worried…’ and one thing Americans will not stand from their leaders is that kind of honesty.”
As a journalist who has traveled to countries that may be worse off for US intervention (Pakistan and Iraq most recently), Carter symbolizes a brave willingness to suggest that our belief in American Exceptionalism in fact be a negative quality.

What’s funny about the actual text of the speech is that I can’t find anything in there that really challenges the belief that America is an exceptional nation with a unique (possibly divine) destiny and a mandate to rule the world.

Carter is really just talking about hard times–citing a failed war, a poor economy, political divisions and an energy crisis as the reason for a moment of low national self-esteem (sound familiar?)

Regardless, this speech has long been seen as a deep critique of American entitlement and self-aggrandizement (There’s even a book titled: The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism” that addresses the speech in chapter one).

So when I heard that Carter would be discussing international issues at the World Affairs Council I thought he might challenge the whole US-as-superpower-and-beacon-of-light-to-the-world thing.

Not so.

I was right about him looking like my grandpa, with bushy white eyebrows and a gentle demeanor (though I literally thought Ronald Reagan WAS my grandpa for the first decade of my life, so I’ve long suffered from president/grandpa crossover confusion), and he is indeed a loveable farmer type  (he told a story about how square dancing won him the Governor’s office in Georgia), but Jimmy Carter clearly believes that the United States has a special destiny to lead the world.

He presented a vision of a benevolent superpower—one defined by generosity and compassion not military might and greed—but a leader of the world all the same.

“We live in the greatest nation on earth…” he said late in the evening, “We have an opportunity in the future to correct mistakes…work towards the alleviation of suffering and the sharing of resources.”

I would love to see our nation work towards correcting mistakes, alleviating suffering and sharing resources, but there was something in this kinder, gentler superpower stuff that exhausted and depressed me.

“What’s wrong with me?” I wondered in the packed theater, “Am I alone in wanting someone to tell me that America shouldn’t be a superpower that we don’t have a special destiny from God?”

And then I thought about the war-weary, economically gutted country my generation stands to inherit.  I thought about people I’ve met in Iraqi refugee camps in Syria and terrorist-gripped regions in Pakistan—and I thought of all the other people out there that have been caught in the crosshairs of my country’s destiny.

But maybe I am alone in my “crisis of defeatist malaise,” because as the talk ended and thousands streamed out onto Pine Street, a young man beside me turned to his date and said, “I like his whole ‘new superpower’ thing.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “And he totally reminds me of my grandpa.”


Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.