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A serious look at how we got Frum there to here
America was not a happy place in January 1974: Richard Nixon was on the verge of being driven from office, American troops had suffered a stinging defeat in Vietnam, and the economy was in a tailspin, weaker than it had been in 40 years. Joseph Alsop, a prominent American newspaper columnist, captured the zeitgeist when he declared that ‘‘I have begun to think that the ‘70s are the very worst years since the history of life began on earth.’’
That’s exaggerated, of course. But as Canadian writer David Frum shows in his latest book, How We Got Here—The ‘70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse), there was good reason for people like Alsop to be pessimistic about America’s future, and to stay that way for the rest of the decade. ‘‘The 1970s,’’ writes Mr. Frum, ‘‘were America’s low tide.Not since the Depression had the country been so wracked with woe. Never—not even during the Depression—had American pride and self-confidence plunged deeper.’’
The 1970s tend to be remembered in the popular press as a time of tacky clothes (leisure suits, bell bottoms), questionable trends (streaking, pet rocks), and bad music (KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees)—and little more than an interlude between the revolutionary 1960s and the conservative 1980s. But Mr. Frum, wielding a bevy of statistics and anecdotes like a master chef would his carving knives, skilfully slices and dices this conventional wisdom. The reality, he writes, is that the 1970s were hugely significant, as they produced ‘‘the most total social transformation that the United States has lived through since the coming of industrialism.’’
Consider divorce. Until the 1970s, only one in 20 American marriages ended this way. Since 1980, nearly half have. Or consider attitudes about childbirth. In 1967, 40 per cent of Americans thought four or more children constituted the ideal family. But just six years later, just 20 per cent agreed.
Expanded access to abortion and birth control partially explained the sea change, but more important was that as the workforce opened to women they began to see children as more of a burden than a blessing. In a sign of the times, the popular Look magazine published an article in 1970 entitled ‘‘Motherhood: Who Needs It?’’ in which the author argued that ‘‘even the most adorable children make for additional demands, complications and hardships in the lives of even the most loving parents.’’
This was a decade, argues Mr. Frum, in which people ‘‘celebrated the emotive and intuitive and denigrated the rational and the intellectual.’’ Thus one afternoon in the spring of 1977, Margaret Trudeau, wife of Pierre, took a tapestry hanging in the official residence and tore it to shreds because the words embroidered on it—la raison avant la passion—offended her.
Nor were such hijinks limited to Ottawa. In April 1975, the wife of President Gerald Ford publicly acknowledged she was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Amazingly, her approval ratings skyrocketed, thus rendering her confession almost as important as her capitulation, and setting the stage for a confessional culture that’s rewarded the likes of Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
The 1970s were also a time when Americans began to think more in terms of ‘‘rights’’ than ‘‘responsibilities.’’ By 1973, nearly one-quarter of young Americans believed they had a ‘‘right’’ to leisure, nearly one-half believed their children would have a ‘‘right’’ to a college education, and more than one-half said they had a ‘‘right’’ to top-notch health care. This burgeoning entitlement mentality stemmed from the habit of government and the courts ladling out special protections for blacks, homosexuals, the disabled, and even animals. If everyone else is getting a piece of the pie, went the thinking, shouldn’t I get a piece, too?
In Mr. Frum’s telling, the 1970s leave little to be proud of. But he is not all gloom and doom, writing that ‘‘out of the failure and trauma of the 1970s (Americans) emerged stronger, richer.’’ Key industries like aviation and trucking were deregulated, the personal computer became a reality, and the voters knew enough was wrong with their country in 1980 to install a president—Ronald Reagan—who promised an end to the malaise.
Mr. Frum, like Herodotus, has cracked countless myths with ‘‘How We Got Here.’’ Even better, he’s produced a serious work of history that’s a joy to read. Today, such books are about as rare as mood rings. This is one that shouldn’t be missed.
Matthew Rees is a staff writer at the Weekly Standard, a Washington political magazine.
© 2000 The Ottawa Citizen
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