A Terrible Place

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Forty years ago, in the winter of 1975, I was a freshman in high school. My first girlfriend and I were falling for each other, and on Valentine’s Day, we would pledge our devotion. I had discovered FM radio the previous fall, and so I frequently listened to my new favorite stations on Mom and Dad’s gigantic console stereo. I know I must have had day-to-day concerns, but they’re forgotten now. All that remains is another treasured season of my childhood, safe and protected in a world that seemed manageable, and that held out to me the promise that I could do and be whatever I chose. There were a lot of seasons like that in the middle of the 1970s. Collectively, they were the Best Time of My Life.

Rick Perlstein’s book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is the second of a trilogy that will ultimately tell the story of the unraveling of the post-World War II liberal consensus and the more fractious, more conservative state that arose in its wake. (Perlstein’s first book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, covers the years 1965 through 1972; a future volume will tell about the Carter years and Ronald Reagan’s eventual election to the presidency.) The Invisible Bridge is a political history of the period between Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter, but it also paints a vivid picture of American culture in the middle of the 1970s.

And in the middle of the 1970s, Americans weren’t just in a terrible place—America was a terrible place. Culture wars threatened to crack society wide open, over textbooks in West Virginia and school busing in Boston, to name but two places where liberal notions about progress were coming into direct conflict with people who had no desire for that kind of progress. Crime rates rose. The economy shuddered and shook—food and energy prices skyrocketed, growth stopped, unemployment rose, and President Ford (pictured) told New York to drop dead. The superpower that had once stood astride the world was forced out of Vietnam with its tail between its legs. Between 1973 and 1976, Americans came face-to-face with the likelihood that its best days were behind it.

The Invisible Bridge traces Ronald Reagan’s life story from his Illinois boyhood to Hollywood to the California governor’s mansion and afterward, when he used a nationally syndicated radio program and newspaper column to argue that no, America’s best days were not behind it, and ultimately, that his leadership could restore America’s greatness. The climax of the book involves Reagan’s unsuccessful campaign for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. After Ford was defeated by Carter, most commentators believed Reagan’s political career was over. But as we know, it was not. Reagan would harness the resentments unleashed in the middle of the 1970s—and, to be fair, the hopes of Americans battered by the cultural and economic storms—and ride into the White House four years later.

I have said, and may even have written here, that I always felt as though nothing bad would happen while Jerry Ford was in office; in Perlstein’s telling, Ford was a well-meaning man for whom the presidency was probably too much. In other words, a lot of bad stuff really did happen, and we were lucky there wasn’t more. Even though I heard the news on the radio every day, watched it on TV every night, and read the paper most days, the creeping awfulness of that time somehow escaped me then. What The Invisible Bridge made clear to me that the Best Time of My Life was not nearly so safe and secure as I felt it to be.

Forty years ago this week, a record called “Please Mr. President,” written (apparently) by a news reporter at CKLW in Detroit and recorded by a 10-year-old girl named Paula Webb, debuted on the Hot 100. It would reach #60 in a four-week run. Little Paula explains how times are hard for her family, and she asks Ford to do something to help her unemployed father get his job back. It’s probably a more truthful snapshot of American reality in February 1975 than anything you’re going to read from me.

6 thoughts on “A Terrible Place

  1. i too was freshman that year,concerned with what any 15 yr old male is..music and girls..i just remember my Dad glad that none of his 4 boys would have to go Nam..yes it was the best of times..glad i was insulated from the worst back then..

  2. David

    I really appreciate Rick Perlstein’s work, including the “prequel” to the trilogy, “Before the Storm,” about the rise of Barry Goldwater and the development of modern conservatism. I wasn’t around in the mid-1970s, and don’t doubt that it was a particularly confused and uncertain time, as the post-war economic order was dying and new social movements were confronting conservative backlash.

    However, I wonder whether Perlstein’s particular method of story telling–which gives a blow-by-blow account of events around the country by looking at news publications in chronological order (rather than by focusing on independent interviews he himself has conducted years later)–lends itself to, and perhaps overstates, the sense that America was going through an almost apocalyptic time. Using the same “newspaper-focused” methodology that selectively focuses on certain events, I’m sure one could go back to a comparatively placid time (say the late 1990s) and find dire signs of disruption and disunity. David Halberstam’s book “The Fifties” in some ways did the same thing for that decade, which is typically thought of as the calm before the storm.

    Maybe Perlstein’s approach is the more honest one, and the answer is that every time period has its particular disruptions and uncertainties (which often taken on greater meaning as forebodings when viewed with retrospective knowledge), and that our memories of more stable, unified times are simply the product of our own lack of awareness/youth.

    1. I have finally gotten to Perlstein’s work in the last few months and had the same feeling — it’s a fine line between accurately capturing the mood of society, and cherry-picking the worst stuff out of the papers to support your hypothesis.

      As much as I respect Perlstein’s work (and as much as I have, in the past, embraced the notion of the Seventies as a maelstrom of chaos and weirdness), his books feel to me like he’s being very selective about the news he presents.
      The people I know who were adults in the Seventies don’t seem to have been consumed by the crumbling of America.

      Of course, most everything looks brighter in retrospect.

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