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Across the Board
March 1, 2000

That "Slum of a Decade"; Brief Article

Whalen, Richard J.

How We Got Here The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—For Better or Worse
By David Frum
Basic, $25.00

The business press reports growing incivility in the workplace, the jarring arrival of a new rudeness. Coworkers ignore each other in the hallways, interrupt when their colleagues are speaking, leave trash in the coffee room, and jump the cafeteria line. "The perception is we’re living in a society where people place cultivation of self, their own pleasure, their own convenience ahead of everything else," Johns Hopkins professor P.M. Forni told Investor’s Bus Business Daily. Where did this me-first society come from? David Frum—journalist, political analyst, and senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute—offers provocative answers in his absorbing popular history, How We Got Here.

Don’t be put off by the book’s unwieldy title and subtitle. This is an important, incisive book; its tightly written and epigrammatic prose often causes the reader to nod appreciatively. It attempts nothing less than the task of making sense of a crowded time of discontinuity and disorder punctuated with disasters. Between America’s humiliation and defeat in Indochina and the hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the United States shrank from its former proud leadership role in the world. In the Watergate scandal, a president and an implacably hostile Congress waged a shadow civil war to determine who would bear the blame for Vietnam, and Richard Nixon finally resigned rather than face certain impeachment. Inflation soared into the teens, the economy suffered its worst recession since the Depression, and the government embraced—then abandoned—price controls. Arab oil producers, losers in the Yom Kippur War against Israel, retaliated by cutting off America’s oil, increasing the price of energy fourf old almost overnight. Violent crime stalked the nation’s streets.

These were also years of liberating change. The power of giant corporations and labor unions that had long dominated the American economy began to recede. Deregulation freed telecommunications and airline travel. A society militarized and mobilized for two generations threw off government regimentation: The totalitarian power to wiretap, snoop, and burglarize its citizens at will was stripped away from the National Security State. The draft was suspended and an "all-volunteer" military born. New technology entered the home and the workplace, changing the nature of work. The personal computer appeared on desktops. Relations between men and women underwent radical change and continued to change as America experienced permanent social transformation.

Frum describes and judges this transformation at every level from the historic to the trivial, and sometimes his reach exceeds his grasp. The intellectual task of compressing the significant events of an entire decade into fewer than 400 printed pages forces ruthless selectivity and a breathless pace. In his eight pages on "the new work ethic," for example, Frum offers an elegant but foreshortened summary: "The frantic pace of life is very much a middle-class and professional-class phenomenon, the product of two inter-related events: the rush of educated women into the workforce and changing ideas about the meaning of work." True enough, but there’s much more to say on both subjects. Unfortunately, the author must cut to the chase, state his conclusion, and hurry on.

Much of this book is serious fun. Along with the Vietnam tragedy, the Watergate scandal, the OPEC-gas-line crisis, and the sexual revolution, we relive bell-bottoms, sideburns, and the Bee Gees. We smile at the emergence of the Alan Alda-type sensitive male who cries, part of a vast shift in emotional climate that Frum calls "a kind of global moistening." (The ‘70s surely prepared the way for a sincere, lipbiting, and forever contrite young pol from Arkansas, too.)

Frum, who came of age in the ‘70s, feels no nostalgia for that "slum of a decade." Rather, he feels sorry for the young who in the late ‘90s brought back styles, music, and attitudes from two decades earlier because the ‘70s "look like a time in which people had more fun than anybody is permitted to have today." Young people today "live in a zero-tolerance world in which smoking is prohibited and seatbelt use is mandatory. Possession of a couple of grams of marijuana can send them to prison. The fear of AIDS or accusations of rape hover over every date. The legal drinking age has been hiked back to twenty-one. They cannot bicycle without a helmet, cannot paddle a canoe without signing a disclaimer, cannot neck without a blood test and a formal grant of permission, cannot wear grandmother’s old fur stole without risking an unpleasant confrontation with animal-rights activists. They imagine the 1970s as a glorious moment of guiltless hedonism."

In the conventional view, the debauchery of the ‘70s yielded to a national sobering up in the ‘80s and a return to our good old moralistic ways in the ‘90s. Not so, Frum insists. The compulsive sexual promiscuity of the 1970s has subsided, he writes, but the pendulum has not swung from restraint to license and happily back to restraint again. On the contrary, "the 1970s blew to smithereens an entire structure of sexual morality." Drug abuse followed a similar trajectory. The end of the revolution in the popular culture and social attitudes did not restore the old order but, rather, institutionalized the new one, in the ways we now live.

The evidence of transformation is ubiquitous. "Mid-century Americans"—Frum’s euphemism for the older generations—did not insist on impossibly high moral standards or perfect sexual fidelity, the author writes, and they cared less about sincerity and more about responsibility. But "what they did demand was that adults live up to the obligations they had shouldered." Their classic movie, Casablanca, "celebrates two men and a woman who stifle their true feelings of love and jealousy in order to do their respective duties." Duty is a word and moral concept conspicuously missing from the post-’70s American lexicon.

"Duty" is also one of a half-dozen upper-case headings that Frum uses (such as "Trust" and "Reason") with only limited success, in an attempt to organize his sprawling narrative into a coherent whole. But even a short book cannot be organized as though it were a long essay. Frum’s prose flows beguilingly, and his insights are sometimes dazzling in their penetration to core truths. But a book remains a book, and it cannot interrupt itself in mid-argument or settle for a caricature of reality to conserve space.

Consider this foreshortened analysis: "It was the baby boom that made the inequity of the Vietnam draft possible. In 1964, the boys born in 1946 turned eighteen—and for the first time since 1940, the U.S. military had more manpower available than it needed." And so the Pentagon apparently could ship off a million and a half young Americans to the paddies of Southeast Asia because the World War II-era draft law made them available and the professional military’s lack of moral imagination made them seem expendable in a "limited" war. If that is even remotely true, no wonder a dangerous gulf has opened, as the author believes, between the civilian and the professional military worlds in present-day America. We leave Frum’s sadly truncated account and incomplete analysis of America’s central tragedy of the ‘70s wanting a fuller, more probing explanation.

In his effort to apportion blame for the Great Inflation of the ‘70s fairly between Democrats and Republicans, Frum, a conservative, reminds us that President John F. Kennedy’s economic advisers rationalized the supposed trade-off between higher inflation and faster growth in the ‘60s, and that President Lyndon B. Johnson did not face up to the need to choose between war in Southeast Asia and funding the launch of the Great Society in his fiscal policy later in the decade. But it is simply wrong to write that Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns "reignited American inflation too late (in 1975-76) to save his friend Gerald Ford." It was in 1970-71 that Burns pumped up the money supply to ensure the reelection of his dear old friend Dick Nixon. Later, in dealing with the immediate consequences of OPEC’s price-gouging, it was deliberate U.S. policy to devalue the dollar to cushion the impact of higher oil prices on ourselves and vulnerable developing nations. "We’ll print the money as fast as they pump the oil ," a high Treasury official tersely explained to me at the time.

Other avoidable errors of fact mar the book. As a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger, a bipartisan group that lobbied for a major defense buildup and a more realistic foreign policy in Jimmy Carter’s Washington, I’m puzzled to hear it described as "a constellation of influential ex-Democrats" and learn it included Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. The Committee could have used these gifted intellectual heavyweights on the firing line as well as the letterhead.

In fairness, the author’s lapses are relatively minor and easily overlooked alongside his larger achievement. Although the book is far too ambitious in its intention to "study [the ‘70s] minutely," it sheds valuable new light on the social and cultural transformation of the United States during a neglected decade. David From has written the best account of the ‘70s that we are likely to have from his generation.

RICHARD J. WHALEN is chairman of New York-based Whalen Consulting Group, a former senior editor of Fortune and The Wall Street Journal, and author of several hooks, including The Founding Father: The Story of Joseph P. Kennedy. He reviewed Edmund Morris’ Dutch in the January issue.

© 2000 Across the Board

Visit the How We Got Here webpage



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