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.