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The New Democrat
November, 1999 /December, 1999

Bad Old Days, Part II

"Blame Yesterday First" Conservatives Find a Ripe New Target in the ‘70s

By Andrei Cherny; Andrei Cherny is a contributing editor of The New Democrat and its sister publication, Blueprint.

How We Got Here: America Since the Seventies—For Better or Worse
By David Frum
Basic Books * 224 pp. * $25. 00

"Sure I remember the ‘70s. There were a lot of drawn blinds and dark rooms.”
—U. S. actor Dennis Hopper, quoted in Face magazine (May 1993)

Near the conclusion of his forth-coming book How We Got Here (due to go on sale Jan. 1), David Frum observes that "nostalgia is the weakest and most useless of emotions: the narcotic of the defeated and the helpless.” These might seem strange words coming from a leading light of conservatism—a belief defined by its comfort with tradition. As William F. Buckley once explained, "A conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop. ’" The last Republican presidential candidate offered himself to voters as a bridge to the past.” To those who say . . . that America has not been better, I say, you’re wrong," Bob Dole said.” And I know, because I was there. I have seen it. I remember.”

Frum, however, isn’t the only conservative knocking nostalgia these days. Unable to find enough to censure in America’s present, these "Blame Yesterday First" conservatives sift through the annals of our recent past to find new targets of condemnation.

For decades, in bulky tomes and breathless tracts, conservative commentators gave no quarter in their war against the 1960s. The Bennetts and Buchanans of the GOP built their careers attacking sex, drugs, and rock and roll; the long, hot summers of urban riot; a War on Poverty that became a War on Property; the angry yippies in Chicago in 1968; and the muddy hippies at Wood-stock a year later.

The problem is, this story has been told so often it has grown stale. Not wanting to appear like out-of-touch fuddy-duddies, conservatives are catching up with America’s newfound fascination with the ‘70s. Today’s popular "retro" styles in music and clothing come from that era. When the ‘90s began, the Beatles were back. Today it’s disco. Lava lamps and bell-bottoms have been consigned to the basement for another 20 years, while Studio 54 makes it to the big screen. On prime-time television, The Wonder Years has been replaced by That ‘70s Show.

In Frum’s new volume, we learn that the ‘60s weren’t that bad after all. But the ‘70s—now those were the locust years.” It was the 1970s, not the 1960s, that created modern America," he writes. After hectoring the public for years about those damnable ‘60s, conservatives—like the character Emily Litela from the golden years of Saturday Night Live—are now telling us, "Never mind.”

To make Frum’s long (though ably told) story short, the lowered standards foisted on the country by the 1960s counterculture came home to roost in the following decade. Although too many of his examples actually come from the late 1960s, Frum’s thesis is persuasive at times.

"The 1970s," writes Frum, "were America’s low tide. Not since the Depression had the country been so wracked with trouble. Never—not even during the Depression—had American pride and self-confidence plunged deeper.”

Frum paints a picture of a decade in which all hell broke loose. Crime exploded. Divorce soared. Werner Erhard, a former used-car salesman, conned hundreds of thousands of Americans to subject themselves to his east training. A president of the United States was forced to resign in disgrace (unfairly, says Frum). Colleges defined achievement down. Mainline Protestant churches withered while 6 million Americans tried transcendental meditation and 5 million took up yoga. The Population Bomb warned of imminent global famine and mass starvation. Government stuck its regulatory nose into every nook and cranny of American life. Teen starlet Brooke Shields declared on television that "nothing gets between me and my Calvins.” Americans, on average, ended the decade poorer than they began it. Mainstream movies began to feature frontal nudity. U. S. helicopters fleeing Saigon in 1975 signaled our final defeat in Vietnam. The wreckage of U. S. helicopters in the Iranian desert in 1980 symbolized our military impotence. Five million otherwise sane Americans shelled out $5 each to buy a pet rock. The interval between "Baby, what’s your sign?" and "So, your place or mine?" shrank to an eye blink.

Other than that, Frum considers the ‘70s a slice of utopia.

One of the downfalls of Frum’s thought-provoking and admirably detailed volume is that his Manichaean exposition leaves little room for the complexity and contradictions of the decade. The 1970s were many things, but they were not simple. In 1976, millions of Americans proudly celebrated their nation’s bicentennial. In a precursor of the Internet phenomenon, the CB radio craze connected Americans (from the White House, Betty Ford quietly joined in under the handle "First Mama.”). One of the decade’s best-selling records was Sister Janet Mead’s rendition of the Lord’s Prayer—selling more than 2 million copies in 1974.

For a book subtitled, America Since the Seventies—For Better or Worse, Frum allocates precious few pages to the "for better" part. As he mentions in passing, the 1970s saw the initial development of the Internet, a stirring of renewed commitment to fight the Cold War, and the beginning of the deregulation that would spur economic growth over the next two decades. In the wake of the Democratic Party’s humiliation in the 1972 elections, a new generation of Democrats emerged carrying the seeds of the party’s resurgence. Frum grants each of these subjects a few paragraphs of discussion, at best. Each deserves more.

As the hit 1970s television series Happy Days drew to an end, its producers acknowledged criticism that the show reveled in imagined simpler days. The final episode ended with Robin Williams returning in his role as Mork (a minor space-alien character that became the basis for a spin-off hit series) in a dialogue with his off-screen superior, Orson.

ORSON: Mork, you seem to like the ‘50s.

MORK: Yes, sir. It’s a wonderful, naive, and romantic time. I went back to visit the Cunninghams and their friends. They’re really nice people, but a little mondo-mundane—I’m talking white bread and mayonnaise. But, you know, they all seem to block out one thing—Senator McCarthy.

ORSON: Ah, yes—those were sad days.

MORK: I guess that’s why its so romantic—they never remember the sad things.

The danger for many Republicans today lies in their inability to remember the happy things. Since the 1970s that Frum so vociferously decries, the Soviet Union has pulled out of Afghanistan—and out of existence. Millions of Americans have moved off welfare, and millions more walk the streets with less fear. When the earth’s population hit 6 billion recently, nobody predicted impending doom and if anyone had, no one would have believed him. And at least a Beanie Baby is somewhat more useful than a pet rock. By most measures, America is better off today than it was in the 1970s—and conservatives deserve some of the credit for making that so. That’s why it would have been nice if Frum had decided to write less about How We Got Here and more about where we’re going.

© 2000 The New Democrat

Visit the How We Got Here webpage



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