Rick Perlstein: That Seventies Show





[Rick Perlstein's most recent book is Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.]

I've been calling 1973, as I sort through my research for a political and cultural history of the United States in the '70s, the Year Without Christmas Lights. News of fuel shortages—what would come to be called the "energy crisis"—had begun cropping up in the spring, around the same time the resignations of Nixon confidants John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman introduced to a shocked Middle America the likelihood that the Watergate scandal went all the way to the top. By Memorial Day weekend, with Texaco rationing the sale of gasoline along the most heavily traveled highways, there was talk of outlawing the Indianapolis 500. "And pleasure boating," a letter writer to the Chicago Tribune suggested: "Better to go slow on gasoline than to be cold next winter."...

While writing books about the past, I think about the present. It's not intentional, but somehow my books end up being written under the sign of a political mood. In Before the Storm, finished in 1999, I wrote in, and of, a time of heady economic confidence, with Eisenhower-era Republicans and Clinton-era Democrats both convinced of the necessity of ideological sail-trimming to manage an "end to history"; and then, in 1964 as in 1999, a more feverish ideological age seemed to beckon. Nixonland, finished in 2007, was about right-wing presidents exploiting the public's fears as a cover for betraying the public's trust. What story of our own times will my '70s book reveal? I'll know only after it's done....

The title of the first book by a historian to canvass American culture and politics in the 1970s, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, published in 1982, was meant to be ironic; plenty happened, of course, between its covers. But when the book was reissued in 1990, the joke still signified: the world turned on a dime just about annually in the years beginning with a one and a nine and a six; in comparison, the years between the presidencies of Nixon and Reagan felt dolorous, uneventful, derivative, hardly an actual historical moment at all. Was Gerald Ford ever really president? He couldn't even get himself shot straight.

The sense that a decade of sheer uneventfulness had just passed was suggested by the conclusions arrived at in a 1978 book by the public opinion expert Everett Carll Ladd. The title—Where Have All the Voters Gone?—spoke to a widespread sense among opinion elites that the most eventful "thing" that "happened" in the 1970s was apathy. In politics, Ladd thought, given the Watergate Babies' triumph in the 1974 Congressional elections and Carter's victory in 1976, America merely returned to its natural equilibrium: Democrats on top. Nixon's eight years, Ladd concluded in a chapter titled "The Unmaking of the Republican Party," were but an odd interregnum: the "GOP today is in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War." Daniel Bell had noted in 1976, in his oracular The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, that one of the puzzles of industrial democracy was that masses of voters didn't use their electoral muscle to command a more equal distribution of wealth. He predicted that soon they would. Who could buy what the Republicans were selling? A scant four years later, blue-collar workers didn't vote themselves a raise; they voted themselves Ronald Wilson Reagan. Yes: something happened....

A wave of '70s histories appeared with the turn of the new millennium. Their common frame was still the defensive argument that arguments needed to be made about the 1970s. Bruce Schulman's The Seventies (2001) said on the flap it would take on the conventional wisdom that "nothing revolutionary, nothing with long-lasting significance" took place during the decade; another, by George Washington University historian Edward Berkowitz, was titled Something Happened. David Frum's How We Got Here was outfitted with a triple-barreled subtitle that protested too much: The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse. These books' covers were in interchangeable leisure-suit browns and oranges, though they were distinguished by an emphasis on each scholar's specialty: Schulman is illuminating on the post-'60s transformation of the South; Berkowitz, a specialist on the history of Social Security, is splendid on policy; and Frum, a conservative, is insightful on the decline of liberal religion in favor of evangelical Christianity. All lean, if softly, on the plotline of the nation's unexpected ideological shift rightward....


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