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The American Spectator
March 30, 2000

When It All Began to Go Very Wrong--and Right 

By Terry Eastland

"These are America's best days," writes David Frum, "its high noon of empire." But Americans are not satisfied with all they have. They feel "less content, less secure, less proud" of their country than they did a half century ago. They are often nostalgic for those days, he says, but there is never any going back. And besides, America has experienced "the most total social transformation...since the coming of industrialism." What has happened? "A people once collectivist, censorious, calculating, conformist, taciturn, obedient, puritanical, and self-confident has mutated...into a people that is individualist, permissive, emotional, enterprising, garrulous, rebellious, hedonistic, and guilt-ridden." Frum finds the answer to how we so mutated, of "how we got here," in a generously defined 70's, which starts around 1965 and runs through 1980.

Frum proves a mostly reliable guide to these years. His narrative sparkles with descriptions of events that one might think were Tom Wolfe's, and the confidence of his judgments could remind readers of Paul Johnson. Like those two, Frum is a moralist, his abiding interest being human conduct and the ideas and rules and conventions that affect it.

This is evident in the book's organization. How We Got Here does not treat the 70's chronologically but thematically, and Frum's themes evince his interest in human character, for they concern "trust," "duty," "reason," " desire," "rights," and "regeneration." Indeed, each of these words titles one of the book's six parts. Though this organization effectively conveys Frum's perspective on the 70's, it is not always apparent why he treats material in one part of the book that would seem to fit as well or better in another.

Frum also leaves out or scants subjects worthy of treatment in this popular history. He reports little about sports, but the 70's saw the advent of free agency in professional sports (recall Andy Messersmith's case) and their increasing commercialization (consider the Super Bowl). He covers the rise of investigative journalism but doesn't report other key media developments-- such as dying newspapers and the advent of cable television and the quantum leap in programming it would offer. And he much too briefly treats technology, giving it just a few paragraphs despite its obvious importance. Much that happened in the 70's (think of the creation of Ethernet, the forerunner of the Internet) brought us modern digital life. Nonetheless, Frum has managed to include most of the big stories of the 70's, and he is right to see the decade as one that produced an upheaval in the habits, beliefs, and morals of Americans of every station in life.

The conduct of the Vietnam War and then the Watergate scandal damaged Americans' trust in the federal government--a loss of trust codified in the 1978 independent counsel law. But Frum shows, too, that the 70's also marked the beginning of a loss of trust in the other large institutions that had shaped the nation for decades, including big corporations and trade unions. At times this loss of trust took the form of rebellion, which Frum says was one directed against the central planning and control that the public and private collectives alike required. "All too many Americans," he writes, "had felt like cogs in the wheel." A new individualism erupted, taking diverse political manifestations. "Resentment against the crimping and cramping of the individual personality inspired not only the New Left...but also the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign."

That disastrous campaign ultimately can be said to have succeeded when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. But the Reagan majority itself arose, as Frum shows, in response to certain events and trends: exploding criminality (which "utterly discredited the liberal ideas that had governed American public life" since World War II); repeated acts of terrorism; the genocide in Cambodia (which proved to be the death of "liberal anti-anticommunism," as Frum nicely puts it); and ever higher taxes (which, most notably, brought about California's property tax-cutting Proposition 13).

Obscenely high inflation (and interest rates) also helped elect Ronald Reagan, and one of Frum's best chapters is his account of the origins of inflation during the Kennedy years and its take-off thereafter. Frum emphasizes that the Kennedy administration consciously chose to inflate the currency, and that they did so for reasons of ideology and personal weakness disguised as hubris. He also treats the wrongheaded effort to control wages and prices under Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford's ludicrous "Whip Inflation Now" program, and Jimmy Carter's dumb but inevitable use of controls.

The 70's led not only to the Reagan and Bush presidencies but also to the New (rhetorically less liberal) Democrats of the 1990's, not to mention the first Republican Congress in 40 years, now in its sixth year. Yet the 70's also contributed to a seachange in manners and morals that can hardly be called conservative in a traditional sense--indeed Frum calls it "the greatest rebellion in American history."

Americans for decades had lived a life of "labor and toil, and its rewards were never to be reaped by oneself, always by one's children." But then " sometime after 1969," writes Frum, "millions of Americans decided that they would no longer live this way." The self came first, something Tom Wolfe noticed when he called the 70's the "Me Decade." Americans, men and women both--and, I would add, conservatives and liberals alike-- started to do more and more of whatever they wanted to do. They became preoccupied with their bodies by dedicating themselves to exercise and food--this was the age of kitchen expansion. But most of all they pursued sex. The ideal of bridal virginity virtually disappeared. And divorce, well, boomed. Until 1965, reports Frum, one in 20 marriages ended in divorce, and by 1980 more than two of five did. "No society had ever seen anything like it." The sexual revolution included the rise of the "new man," the more expressive and emotive male symbolized by Alan Alda, and the emergence of the gay rights movement.

The law kept pace and no doubt helped speed this revolution. Frum correctly observes that Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) conferred a constitutional right to buy contraceptives on married couples only. Seven years later Eisenstadt v. Baird, "the most radical and portentous case of the sexual revolution," extended the right to unmarried couples in an opinion written by Justice William Brennan. The next year came Roe v. Wade, which declared a constitutional right to abortion. A personal right of sexual freedom had emerged.     Relatedly, there was the Equal Rights Amendment, which fell short of ratification, thanks to the efforts of Phyllis Schlafly. But statutory law already was moving--rapidly--toward equal rights, and the courts were legislating them anyway. That they should have done so was not unusual. The legal profession, still intoxicated by what it had wrought through Brown v. Board of Education (1954), says Frum, continued to believe that there were no problems lawyers could not solve. Busing, one of the great disasters of the 70's, taught otherwise, but it required the 80's and the 90's for it to be phased out.

Frum, a Harvard Law graduate, is especially good on legal matters. He skillfully reports the due process revolution that took place in the public sector (Justice Brennan at work again) and the tort revolution in the private sector. And he treats the 70's decisions by the Supreme Court (starting with Lemon v. Kurtzman, in 1971) which so strictly but incoherently separated church and state.

In moving away from the old order of mid-century, which prized rationality, Americans also became more and more interested in the paranormal (remember Uri Geller?) and the occult. They became vulnerable to scaremongering and apocalyptic fantasies (remember Paul Ehrlich, "who was invited onto The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson some twenty-five times in the 1970's"?). Religion became more emotional and less theological, says Frum, as the mainline Protestant churches collapsed and evangelical ones thrived. Frum neglects to point out that the mainline churches weren't that theological in the first place. Aside from their contrasting political tendencies, with the mainline veering left and the evangelical churches tilting right, the chief difference lay in the fact that the evangelical churches preached one Way, while the mainline churches, reflecting the relativism of the times, suggested that there were many.

Frum, a Canadian-born journalist who lives and works in Washington, D.C., also covers education, immigration, smoking, regulation, civil rights (including the early affirmative action cases, from 1978, 1979, and 1980), the underclass, the Pentagon Papers, photography, the volunteer army, food scares, eschatology, obscenity, Congress, the energy crises, the snail darter, even Friedrich Hayek (winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize for economics).

How We Got Here is history of a sort you don't often find these days. Indeed, it is a throwback to an earlier era in its reminder to readers that individual choice is what makes history, and that, as Frum puts it at book's end, "it is never too late to lead a better life." He would like to see Americans make some conscious choices inspired by old ways of living that they now can see--should see--are better. He writes: "It was better when people showed more loyalty to family and country, better when they read more and talked about themselves less, better when they restrained their sexuality, better when professors and curators were unafraid to uphold high intellectual and artistic standards, better when immigrants were expected to Americanize promptly, better when not every sorrow begat a lawsuit." It was better, yes. And the answer to whether Americans now will make such choices lies, as always, in the counsel they get at home, school, and church.

© 2000 The American Spectator

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