In advance of President Obama's Oval Office speech yesterday (he's only delivered Oval Office speeches twice before), The New York Times ran a video compilation of big-deal speeches that modern presidents have given from the Oval Office.
I couldn't help notice that the president who's widely considered the biggest loser, Jimmy Carter, delivered the only remarks that seemed prescient, transcendent, and ultra germane today.
Certainly, Eisenhower, who the NYT excerpts talking about his decision to send troops to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas to enforce desegregation, connects with issues that still feel vital.
But everyone else—Truman on Korea, Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis, LBJ and Nixon on their own political dramas, Reagan on the Challenger tragedy, Clinton on Serbia, Bush II on 9/11, and Obama on the end of our involvement in Iraq (sigh)—seems almost myopic. (Bush II's subject is certainly germane, but he didn't pursue a thoughtful policy.)
The NYT excerpts Carter's infamous "Malaise Speech" (as we all know, the 1970s were a bummer, man). But for a speech that's become known as shorthand for Carter's gloomy failures, the view from 2015 makes it look like to me like Carter was the sharpest chief executive we've ever had.
Listen to this:
"To further conserve energy, I'm proposing tonight an extra $10 billion over the next decade to strengthen our public transportation systems. And I'm asking you for your good and for your Nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense—I tell you it is an act of patriotism."
That's just the part the NYT excerpts. But there was also this:
"I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our Nation's history to develop America's own alternative sources of fuel—from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the sun."
Certainly the line about "parking your car one extra day per week" unintentionally reads a little out of sync today, given that environmentalists object to having excess (and reserved) space turned over to parking spots. But you get the idea. (I will also say that if you read the whole speech, Carter is also too enamored with coal.)
But it was hard to miss that Carter stood out. Coming from the president who installed 38 solar panels on the White House roof that same year (1979), I guess it's really not very surprising. Also not surprising: Ronald Reagan took down the solar panels in 1986 and Obama put them back in 2012.
Footnote: The NYT excerpted Bush I addressing the 1992 LA riots that broke out over the acquittal of the police officers who were caught on video tape beating Rodney King. That certainly feels relevant today. Here's Bush's speech.