Jimmy Carter's Sweater and '70s Style Conservation


The instrument of mass persuasion. (Jeri Rowland/HowStuffWorks.com 2009)

Katie and I spent a beautiful autumnal Atlanta day at the grand reopening of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum last week. After speeches, singing and ribbon-cutting, we got to take a turn through the renovated and expanded museum and library.

Of course the new digs are chock-full of high-tech features and interactive displays. But there's also plenty of presidential memorabilia, including what's perhaps the second-most-famous glass-enclosed cardigan in the world, or reproduction at least (my No. 1 contender being Mr. Rogers' red cable-knit housed at the Smithsonian).

Since Carter's wool cardigan occupied such a place of prominence -- the center of a display on energy and conservation -- I decided to take a peek at its history. The president wore the original beige sweater during his first televised fireside chat, in February 1977. It offered a folksy segue into a discussion on energy conservation, something that became a key goal of Carter's presidency.

Only a few months later, he gave a speech on the decade's energy crisis, excerpts of which keep popping up in today's coverage of energy news. Although the predictions about peak oil were off, other sections seem oddly timeless, especially those about conservation and renewables.

Consider this one: "Because we are now running out of gas and oil, we must prepare quickly for a third change, to strict conservation and to the use of coal and permanent renewable energy sources, like solar power." Heard that before (minus the coal bit, that's pretty dated)? Only the message's circumstances seem to have changed: Peak oil and foreign dependence were the '77 impetus for conservation. Today, it's also about emissions reductions and green jobs.

But what of the sweater? Time magazine covered the fireside chat in 1977 with an entertaining mix of sartorial shock and pleasure, mentioning that the Boston Globe found it a "powerful presidential event," while a "Wall Street executive" noted that, "I don't like a President in a sweater." The New York Times was almost frightened by it, considering it one of the most potent of Carter's "instruments of mass persuasion."

I wonder where the original has landed. The victim of a decades-long moth threat, or tucked away in some cedar-lined closet in Plains?

Sadly, Katie and I failed to eradicate guinea worm. What did we do wrong? (Jeri Rowland/HSW2009)

More: How Oil Drilling Works What is Superfund redevelopment? Top 10 Green Driving Tips