Thursday, July 16, 2009

from jfk to obama without malaise

When Kennedy was President
we thought he was from heaven sent,
but then we had all hell to pay
when substituting LBJ.

Nixon was the man to hate
before he fell at Watergate,
and though he wasn’t quite adored,
we got along quite well with Ford,
who really wasn’t all that dumb
and could cross roads while chewing gum,
but sadly was a passing phase
replaced by Carter and malaise:
we gave him up like a bad habit
when he was hissed at by a rabbit.

Reagan made us all feel great,
presiding not four years, but eight;
when he told Gorbachev, “Pull down
that wall!” we knew he was no clown.
Born with silver spoon in mouth,
Bush Père presided and went south,
Felled by Clinton, whom, like Reagan,
brought home, or so it seemed, the bacon,
without the famous beans of jelly
that Ronald put inside his belly.
Potus-poent romps with Monica,
no saint, made Bill ironicker
than JFK, who’d also cheated,
but no one tried to get unseated.
No Marilyn, the gal he shtupped
made him appear to Starr corrupt.
Impeached, but not removed because
he lied despite Pinocchian schnoz:
he learned that if you’re not a wiz
you shouldn’t waffle about “is”.

Second Bush seemed somewhat zany,
and hid behind the chair of Cheney,
embarrassingly W’d,
and getting into trouble you’d
expect a leader to avoid,
which made the pundits most annoyed,
but kept us safe, although he killed
the language with most words he spilled.
He sent into the mortuary
his foes, condoning tortury,
which liberal bleeding hearts still vexes,
but goes down well in hearts of Texas.

Since the economy has melted,
like Bush, Obama will be pelted,
unless he rids us of malaise,
for which he may have means and ways.
The moment that his rule began
we all thought he might be the man
to make us feel, like JFK,
proud of our homeland, USA.

Inspired by Dwight Garner’s review of Kevin Mattson’s “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President,” in the NYT on July 15, 2009, and an article by Gordon Stewart in the NYT on July 14 concerning the speech Jimmy Carter gave from the White House in July 5, 2009 (“Carter’s Speech Therapy”). Stewart writes:

IN the summer of 1979, as millions of Americans idled in creeping gas lines, President Jimmy Carter was preoccupied with matters abroad: first he was in Vienna completing SALT II with Leonid Brezhnev, next pleading for it before Congress, then away in Japan and Korea, hoping to rest in Hawaii afterward. Instead, a White House reeling from approval numbers lower than Nixon’s urged Mr. Carter to get back home fast and do something. In other words, make a speech that would silence the mobs and revive his presidency. The networks cleared their schedules for July 5, 1979. We speechwriters hacked together a draft of what was to be the president’s fifth speech on the energy crisis since taking office, and sent it to Camp David, along with word that we didn’t much like it. No one there liked it either, and on the morning of July 5, The Times blared, “President Cancels Address on Energy; No Reason Offered.” When the White House press secretary, Jody Powell, eventually said the president was listening and thinking and writing, it wasn’t spin. Some 130 V.I.P.’s from Gov. Bill Clinton to Walter Cronkite were shuttled in and out of Camp David to offer their advice on what he should tell the nation. The great and wise talked and talked, and the president took careful notes. For 10 days a country already speechless with rage had a leader who said nothing. Some of the notables spoke in apocalyptic terms. Others seemed to be stocking up on even more than stories, as stewards feared they could run out of glasses inscribed with “Camp David,” while helicopter crews were far too polite to comment on the clanking jackets of departing dignitaries. Actually, Camp David is a wonderful place when you’re not trying to write your way out of it.
Meanwhile, mostly secluded in a cabin, sometimes working day and night shifts, my colleague Hendrik Hertzberg and I wrote and rewrote what we had no idea would still be known 30 years later as “The Malaise Speech.” Looking out the window of the lodge where we went to eat and avoid nervous glances, I saw Clark Clifford glide by on a bicycle and wondered how such powerful people managed to keep their hair looking so lordly. Later I learned he had fallen off. I worried it might be a metaphor for our unfinished speech….Contrary to later spin, the speech was extremely popular. The White House was flooded with positive calls. Viewers polled while watching found that the speech inspired them as it unfolded. To this day, I don’t entirely know why the speech came to be derided for a word that was in the air, but never once appeared in the text. Still, the “malaise” label stuck: maybe because President Carter’s cabinet shake-up a few days later wasted the political energy that had been focused on our energy problems; maybe because the administration’s opponents attached it to the speech relentlessly; maybe because it was just too hard to compete with Ronald Reagan and his banner of limitless American consumption. The real reason is probably that there was never any way the Jimmy Carter we all know would avoid saying: “There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.” Where the speeches of Reagan and Barack Obama evoke the beauty of dreams, President Carter insisted on the realities of responsibility and the need for radical change. Mr. Carter’s sense of our own accountability, his warnings about the debilitating effects of self-centered divisiveness were the speech’s true heresies. They are also the very elements that keep it relevant today.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 7/16/09

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