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Bush Tries on the Cardigan | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Bush Tries on the Cardigan

"Our energy problems have the same cause as our environmental problems -- wasteful use of resources. Conservation helps us solve both at once." -- Jimmy Carter, 1977

Despite the quagmire in Iraq, his bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina and mounting concerns about the U.S. economy, President Bush has not yet delivered his "malaise" speech.

But as times get tough, Bush is borrowing a page from former President Jimmy Carter and becoming the nation's top pitchman for conservation. That's a bold move for a conservative Republican, as Bush's ideological compatriots have spent the better part of three decades dissing Carter for urging Americans to sacrifice rather than put the pedal to the medal.

Ever since a weary and frustrated Carter tried to get the country to think about the need for an energy policy by referring to a national "crisis of confidence" during a speech to the nation on June 15, 1979 -- Carter didn't actually use the term "malaise" in that speech, but he uttered the "m" word in reference to it several days later and the term stuck -- conservatives have ridiculed the nation's 39th president for his supposed weakness and willingness to surrender to circumstance.

Above all, the attacks have focused in on the fact that the former president, who during the 1979 energy crisis appeared on television wearing a sweater to urge that Americans turn down thermostats, responded to the great challenges facing the nation by preaching the dreaded ethic of conservation.

Carter has taken a lot of hits over the years. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole dismissed him as a "southern-fried McGovern," while author Steven F. Hayward (The Real Jimmy Carter: How Our Worst Ex-President Undermines American Foreign Policy, Coddles Dictators, and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry) says the big problem of the Democratic Party is that it has been "Carterized." For the uninitiated, that translates as wimped out. Former Reagan administration aide Mona Charen has described Carter as "sniveling." Fox blowhard Sean Hannity delights in characterizing the ex-president as "weak." And historian David Oshinsky -- a far more thoughtful and moderate commentator than Charen or Hannity -- probably captured the conservative critique best when, in a New York Times book review a few years back, he mocked the image of "Jimmy Carter battling the energy crisis in his cardigan sweater" and declared that Carter's talk of conservation and sacrifice "made a gloomy decade seem positively morose. His motto could have read: 'The fun stops here.'"

But now, almost a quarter century after he left the White House, Carter has found a Republican ally.

Responding to rising concern about shortages of gasoline and spikes in energy prices caused by the havoc Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have wrecked in the refining regions of the Gulf Coast, President Bush has delivered a distinctly-Carteresque call for conservation.

Bush is urging people to avoid unnecessary car trips and preaching that, "We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy."

Bush even promised, in another echo of Carter, that the federal government will take the lead. "If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees," the president said this week. "We can encourage employees to car-pool or use mass transit, and we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There's ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation."

The president is right about the wisdom of conservation, and the need for the government to lead -- even if his own administration's energy policies make a mockery of Carter's wise conservation proposals of the 1970s. Sure some will dismiss Bush's conservation call as just the latest act of post-Katrina political theater scripted by Karl Rove. But who knows? Perhaps Bush, who has staked his presidency on a global crusade to defend energy supplies from threats to "the American way of life," may yet come to recognize that Carter was right when he said of the need to commit to conservation: "If we fail to act soon, we will face an economic, social and political crisis that will threaten our free institutions."

So let's not dismiss Bush as a hypocrite just yet. Give the guy a chance to find the right cardigan. Maybe he'll even bring back the wood stove that Carter used in the White House living quarters -- and that Ronald Reagan ordered removed, along with the the solar panels that Carter had installed. Then its probably only a matter of time before a sweater-sporting Sean Hannity praises his president for launching a new front in the war on terror: Conservation.

Either that, or the conservatives will go back to their tried-and-true practice of responding to energy issues by ridiculing the first and only president to take conservation seriously for the sin of "battling the energy crisis in his cardigan sweater."

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