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The Wall Street Journal.

Two Years That Shook the World
January 27, 2000

By Frank Gannon

HOW WE GOT HERE, By David Frum (Basic Books, 418 pages, $25)

Every afternoon for the three years I worked in the White House during the early 1970s, I watched "The Newlywed Game." Of course I disdained the smarmy prurience of genial host Bob Eubanks's questions. But like someone reading Playboy for the articles, I was sure insights were embedded in the contestants' answers. For example, as a speechwriter, I thought it useful to know that no one understood what it meant to "meet your Waterloo."

In March 1974, Merle Haggard was performing after a state dinner. The booking was not without political significance: His hit "Okie From Muskogee" had skewered draft dodging and pot smoking. Ambling over to the East Room to watch the rehearsal, I bumped into Bob Eubanks. In addition to his game-show gig, he managed several acts, including Mr. Haggard.

Looking back, so many years later, on these fond memories of '70s popular culture, one thing seems clear: I had way too much time on my hands.

Decadewise, the '70s haven't fared very well. They have been written off as the unnecessary evil separating the '60s, when America discovered its soul, from the '80s, when America recovered its pride. All that should change with David Frum's excellent, provocative and highly entertaining "How We Got Here -- The '70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)," which definitively redresses a balance overdue for redressing. Just because the whole decade was a bad hair day is no excuse for continuing to ignore its importance.

Mr. Frum's elegantly subversive data-based thesis stands conventional wisdom on its head by arguing that the much-vaunted countercultural upheavals of the 1960s (the war, the protests, the drugs) actually pale in comparison to the outright social revolution of the much-reviled '70s.

The '60s were 10 years that shook a relatively discrete world -- particularly, certain privileged children of the middle class. The '70s were, in Mr. Frum's telling, the IPO that took the '60s public. The real subversives weren't the Columbia students occupying the president's office but the Peoria factory workers going downtown with their wives to see "Deep Throat." The real revolutionary wasn't the Cambridge hippie reading Marcuse in 1964 but the union member, disgusted by the social dissolution around him, voting Republican for the first time in 1978.

During the '70s, the institutions that had hitherto sustained the majority of Americans -- schools, courts, churches, families, the military and, yes, government -- seemed to stop working; worse, they seemed to start working in reverse. Suddenly, a war was being fought but not won. Criminals were being apprehended but not punished and children bused but not educated. Courts were setting precedents, not following them; and divorce courts were doing land-office business un-plighting eternal troths. The result was a loss of faith in institutions so profound -- and consequential -- as to be revolutionary.

At times, this revolution expressed itself in the popular culture. Take, for example, the popularity of essentially selfish self-improvement schemes, ranging from Werner Erhard's est to Jim Fixx's jogging ("a mass migration of people to rival the crusades -- minus only a destination"). These represented a real reversal of the '60s' ostensible altruism. If America's charmed life appeared to be ravaged from within, didn't something similar happen to little Regan MacNeil in "The Exorcist"? This cross-media phenomenon (a best-selling novel, a boffo-box-office film) was the first of a spate of "satanic" entertainments (including "The Omen" and its offspring) that flourished during this decade.

Although the devil may have been in Miss Jones (1973), rather more mundane forces were actually at work, according to Mr. Frum. America didn't become ungovernable in the '70s; it was "being governed by new institutions, in new ways, and for the benefit of new interests." But the cultural context of the decade was shaped by individuals rather than by impersonal historical forces. Among them were: William Brennan, who led the Supreme Court toward ever more liberal decisions; federal judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who gave Boston busing and "triggered a whole new perception among ordinary middle-class people of the malignity of public authority"; and, not least, talk-show host Phil Donohue, who taught his audience "to react to the squalid, the disgraceful, the immoral exactly the way he did -- with an attentive ear and a sympathetic nod of the head."

Mr. Frum reminds us how important the economy -- in the worst slump since the Depression -- was to the decade's dismal character. The Fed's loose-money policies played no small part. If runaway inflation pulled the carpet out from under the middle class, Fed Chairman Arthur Burns's fingers were on the fringe: "White-haired, fond of pipes and tweeds, Burns looked just the way a central banker should look. Perhaps it would have been better for the country if he had dyed his hair pink, fastened a safety pin to his nose, and come to work in black leather."

Best approached with an open mind and a proactive imagination, "How We Got Here" is an original, beautifully written, big witty pudding of a book. It compensates with themes for what little it might lack in organization. Today, at 30 years' remove from the 1970s, our dissatisfaction with how we got here is leading us to make a new set of decisions that will determine (for better or worse) how we get to 2030. For that crucial purpose, not least in this political season, this important book can serve as prophecy and primer.

--- Mr. Gannon has been a staff member in the Nixon White House and a producer for "Late Night With David Letterman."

©2000 The Wall Street Journal

Visit the How We Got Here webpage



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