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Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
March 8, 2000, Wednesday

Author defines ‘70s as decade that made America what it is

Graydon Royce; Staff Writer

Who’s greater, Sinatra or Elvis? Spielberg or Hitchcock? Grandpa Munster or Uncle Fester? Americans love to pit one pop icon against another in an endless effort to understand their history.

David Frum tosses another bone to the masses with "How We Got Here," in which he argues that America today is a product of the 1970s, not the media-darling 1960s.

"All decades are pivotal and there was nothing unique about the ‘70s," Frum said during a recent interview, temporarily ceding his premise. "But this is the moment where the changes that started in the ‘50s and ‘60s came to absolutely everyone."

Therein lies the squishy part of Frum’s contention. Which is more important: the moment when a trend or movement starts, or the point at which that trend becomes mainstream? Frum chooses the latter, perhaps just to be provocative and go against the conventional baby-boomer wisdom that the ‘60s were the beginning and end of all that’s hip in this world.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Everyone needs a gimmick and besides, the more Frum talks and the more you read his book, the more convincing his point of view. Drugs? Despite the hype, they were on the exotic fringes in the ‘60s. In the 70s, they moved onto Main Street, prompting the "Just Say No" backlash of the ‘80s, and setting the stage for the ‘90s, when a baby boomer who had smoked marijuana but hadn’t inhaled presided over a zero-tolerance culture. Fitness? It wasn’t until the early ‘70s that aerobic exercise started with a jog around the block. Today, health clubs are stuffed with huffing and puffing Americans, bike paths are clogged and power walkers strut the aisles of shopping malls. Those folks were nowhere, man, in 1965.

Divorce, fuel-efficient cars, casual wear, empty churches, flex time, the Information Age. All these hallmarks of America 2000 have their seminal moments in the ‘70s. Frum writes:

"Thirty years ago most people started their day with a cup of Maxwell House. Now you can buy a cappuccino made with Sumatran coffee beans and steamed milk. A generation ago we idealized the craggy, inexpressive men epitomized by Gary Cooper. Today Clint Eastwood feels obliged to weep on screen. We live in a world made new not only by new machines, but also by new feelings, new thoughts and new manners."

Lots of this is generalization, but Frum has collected interesting details along the way to prop up his argument.

"I took the San Francisco phone book and looked for astrology listings," he said. "From 1970 to 1980, the number of listings doubled.

"In 1969, the 25 largest employers in the United States employed 7 percent of the workers. In 1998, they employed 4.5 percent. Microsoft, perhaps the most pervasive firm on the face of the Earth, employs only 40,000—about as many as worked at GM’s South Works plant in Chicago in the ‘60s. Work units have been shrunk, and this was primarily a reaction to the economic dislocation of the ‘70s."

This book could cause a sea change of thought: that political history, with which the ‘60s were charged, is ultimately less influential than the course of everyday life.

How We Got Here: The 70’s, the Decade That Gave Us Modern Life—for Better or Worse
- By: David Frum, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.
- Publisher: Basic Books, 224 pages. $25.
- Review: While many historians fawn over the ‘60s, Frum contends that the poor-stepchild decade—the ‘70s—defines America today. Maybe, maybe not. Read this as a well-written and researched look at the past 40 years and, more important, understand that history is in the details of life.

© 2000 Star Tribune

Visit the How We Got Here webpage



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