That Seventies Show
I've been calling 1973, as I sort through my research for a political and cultural history of the United States in the '70s, the Year Without Christmas Lights. News of fuel shortages—what would come to be called the "energy crisis"—had begun cropping up in the spring, around the same time the resignations of Nixon confidants John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman introduced to a shocked Middle America the likelihood that the Watergate scandal went all the way to the top. By Memorial Day weekend, with Texaco rationing the sale of gasoline along the most heavily traveled highways, there was talk of outlawing the Indianapolis 500. "And pleasure boating," a letter writer to the Chicago Tribune suggested: "Better to go slow on gasoline than to be cold next winter."
At the annual Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, the festivities partook of the zeitgeist: Nixon-like, a lad by the name of James Gronen was disqualified for outfitting his car with a battery-enhanced magnet. (Cheating Always Part of Soap Box Fun, shot back a headline in the Los Angeles Times; the dissenting op-ed writer called what the boy did "enterprise.") At Congressional hearings, paranoid witnesses said the oil companies, whose profits soared 62 percent in the third quarter, had rigged the shortages. In September the Republican governor of Oregon passed an edict limiting commercial and decorative electric signs at night; in October the debate was over whether to end Daylight Savings Time to save energy. Then came the OPEC oil embargo—in the same week that President Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the scary White House chief of staff, Alexander Haig, who was infamous for coming to work in his general's uniform, ordered the FBI to seal the office of the attorney general. "There was a real sense," said one of Cox's aides, of the possibility of "a fascist takeover."
By the yuletide season, with the price of crude quadrupled, the Los Angeles City Council was debating a plan to cut street lighting by 50 percent, allow businesses only fifty hours of operation a week and require business and industry to keep the thermostat at sixty-eight degrees for heating and seventy-eight for cooling. A lead Los Angeles Times editorial proposed forgoing outdoor holiday decorations. A letter writer from Whittier further suggested a moratorium on Christmas cards. Another, responding to an article debunking rumors that the Pentagon planned to turn off the eternal flame at the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy to save energy, strenuously objected: "Wouldn't it seem logical to use that gas for a better use such as heating homes or office buildings rather than just burning it for no real purpose whatever?"
Darkness fell across the land. Things fell apart. The year was rung out with the unlikeliest Top 40 hit ever—Merle Haggard's mournful country dirge "If We Make It Through December."
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While writing books about the past, I think about the present. It's not intentional, but somehow my books end up being written under the sign of a political mood. In Before the Storm, finished in 1999, I wrote in, and of, a time of heady economic confidence, with Eisenhower-era Republicans and Clinton-era Democrats both convinced of the necessity of ideological sail-trimming to manage an "end to history"; and then, in 1964 as in 1999, a more feverish ideological age seemed to beckon. Nixonland, finished in 2007, was about right-wing presidents exploiting the public's fears as a cover for betraying the public's trust. What story of our own times will my '70s book reveal? I'll know only after it's done.
I remember standing before the Capitol building on January 20, 2009, thinking about the project as I listened to President Barack Obama's inaugural address: the decade just past revealed an awful pattern of national decline, of exhausted, feckless elites and debased institutions. Obama said it was time to "set aside childish things," and I wondered whether the next several years of my life, as a citizen and a historian, would be spent bearing witness to the question of how a more grown-up national community might work through this historical trauma. Or would our nation and leaders begin to look long and hard and critically at the crises of our recent past—only to flinch and choose a blithe official optimism instead? The answer remains to be written, but the question is redolent of how we have come to understand the choices the country faced in the 1970s.
The title of the first book by a historian to canvass American culture and politics in the 1970s, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, published in 1982, was meant to be ironic; plenty happened, of course, between its covers. But when the book was reissued in 1990, the joke still signified: the world turned on a dime just about annually in the years beginning with a one and a nine and a six; in comparison, the years between the presidencies of Nixon and Reagan felt dolorous, uneventful, derivative, hardly an actual historical moment at all. Was Gerald Ford ever really president? He couldn't even get himself shot straight.
The sense that a decade of sheer uneventfulness had just passed was suggested by the conclusions arrived at in a 1978 book by the public opinion expert Everett Carll Ladd. The title—Where Have All the Voters Gone?—spoke to a widespread sense among opinion elites that the most eventful "thing" that "happened" in the 1970s was apathy. In politics, Ladd thought, given the Watergate Babies' triumph in the 1974 Congressional elections and Carter's victory in 1976, America merely returned to its natural equilibrium: Democrats on top. Nixon's eight years, Ladd concluded in a chapter titled "The Unmaking of the Republican Party," were but an odd interregnum: the "GOP today is in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War." Daniel Bell had noted in 1976, in his oracular The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, that one of the puzzles of industrial democracy was that masses of voters didn't use their electoral muscle to command a more equal distribution of wealth. He predicted that soon they would. Who could buy what the Republicans were selling? A scant four years later, blue-collar workers didn't vote themselves a raise; they voted themselves Ronald Wilson Reagan. Yes: something happened.
A wave of '70s histories appeared with the turn of the new millennium. Their common frame was still the defensive argument that arguments needed to be made about the 1970s. Bruce Schulman's The Seventies (2001) said on the flap it would take on the conventional wisdom that "nothing revolutionary, nothing with long-lasting significance" took place during the decade; another, by George Washington University historian Edward Berkowitz, was titled Something Happened. David Frum's How We Got Here was outfitted with a triple-barreled subtitle that protested too much: The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse. These books' covers were in interchangeable leisure-suit browns and oranges, though they were distinguished by an emphasis on each scholar's specialty: Schulman is illuminating on the post-'60s transformation of the South; Berkowitz, a specialist on the history of Social Security, is splendid on policy; and Frum, a conservative, is insightful on the decline of liberal religion in favor of evangelical Christianity. All lean, if softly, on the plotline of the nation's unexpected ideological shift rightward.
In this sense, Laura Kalman's recently published Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974–1980 feels more like an end than a beginning—though a notably accomplished one. Her chronological but thematic chapters (another trait all those books share) are full of wise judgments and mature summaries. Her accounts of the social and political contexts and ramifications of federal court decisions, and internal White House deliberations over legal issues like Ford's pardon of Nixon and the Carter administration's dilatory attempt to reach a position on affirmative action, are especially rich. She is also a fine explicator of the complicated transformations of America's diplomatic posture during the Nixon, Ford and Carter presidencies. Sections on culture war issues and electoral battles are more perfunctory. But laced throughout are some awesome primary-source nuggets. How did Jimmy Carter truly feel about affirmative action? "Hate to see Bakke excluded from Med School," he wrote in the margin of one memo Kalman found. Her sharply original account of the sordid US collapse in Saigon in the spring of 1975 bestows to posterity a genuinely new cold war lunatic, worthy of the likes of James Jesus Angleton and Curtis LeMay, in the person of US Ambassador Graham Martin, whose cloud-cuckoo-land cables back home are so febrile and Panglossian that Francis Ford Coppola could build an Apocalypse Now sequel around him. ("The most calming influence in Saigon is my wife who goes about her regular way, makes appointments for weeks in advance, and who has refused to pack anything at all.") Kalman is great, too, at revealing the obsessive resentment professional conservatives like Richard Viguerie bore toward Ronald Reagan while he was president for supposedly selling out conservatism.