How Have We Changed?


Between then and now—let’s play with the summer of 1965 as a turning point, when troops were sent to Vietnam and Watts burned—there was a remarkable turn of the centrifugal. The movements—racial separation, feminist particularity, Afro-Native-Euro-Hispanic-Asian hyphenations of “American,” straight-versus-gay sexual differentiations, ideological polarizations, new sectarianisms, and other elements that produced what is now called multiculturalism—came to dominate.

There may be signs of backlash in 1994 against too much particularism and exclusivism. There are signals of widespread hunger for some return of national community and of concern for the common good. But meanwhile, I would still insist, the change of direction after 1965 created a vortex that consumes a great deal of citizen energy in matters secular and sacred and will provide subject matter for historians in decades ahead.

I do not know whether the change I have noted is the most important or most interesting change that has occurred in the last forty years in America, but it certainly is one of the most overlooked—namely, the change in the functions and relationships of the major institutions of the federal government. The Senate, beginning in the period of the leadership of that body by Lyndon Johnson, was changed into a kind of advanced House of Representatives, with emphasis on committee meetings, and roll calls, and discouragement of Senate debate, and attention to primary responsibilities over defense and foreign policy. In the same period, the years of the Vietnam War, the House of Representatives was encouraged to become affirmatively active in foreign and military policy, being asked and encouraged to act as equal to the Senate in these areas through the passage of resolutions and by placing riders on both authorization and appropriation bills. Reforms and reorganization of the House and of the Senate have significantly reduced the powers of both bodies, and also their responsibilities, leaving them more subject to bureaucratic and presidential domination (as in the current budget process). State and federal distinctions have been confused; Clinton, in this mode, ran for governor of the United States. The executive branch has usurped legislative functions. The courts have become executives—in running schools, savings and loans, and communications. And the Congress gradually becomes a judicial review agency.

African-Americans can use the bathrooms in any standard establishment along all of America’s major roads. This may sound like a flippant response, but it took the achieving of just so basic a right as this to begin building the still-incomplete record of other, loftier rights gained.

The recent change in American life that has been most surprising to me and most significant in our national life has been the radical revision of the time-honored relationships between the sexes. The wild changes in patterns of courtship and marriage have left me gasping. I am a strong supporter of women’s liberation and have written favorably about it, but being a man, I also have to consider the powerful effect these changes have had on American males. I grew up believing that boys should compliment girls and exchange the banter of adolescence. Now what I did is called sexual harassment, and as an adult who works with many women, I have to be constantly on guard lest I say something in friendship that could be construed as harassment.

Even so, I am glad to see women attain power in American life. I have a woman editor, a woman lawyer, a woman business counselor, three brilliant women assistants, and women in all other aspects of my life. I much prefer the present systems of courtship to the stupid, rigorous patterns to which I had to conform when I was young, but I am distressed to see the number of fine young men I know and teach who have opted not to marry because the new rules are so poorly defined and often so unfair to the fumbling husband. Friends tell me: “Jim, you’re too old. The young men coming along will be educated differently, and all will balance out.” I hope they prove to be right.

Four decades ago the United States was given the opportunity to vote for a presidential candidate who could follow in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the one President in this century who led the nation in peace and war and set the moral compass for a majority of Americans.

In 1952 and again in 1956, Adlai E. Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, was nominated by the Democratic party for President. He was defeated twice by General and then President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was the greatest missed opportunity in our time for changing the course of American and world history.

During the Eisenhower years the Cold War continued and expanded, with the activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles talking ceaselessly about the American duty to protect the “free world” from communism. It led to the most unpopular war and the greatest defeat for such a concept—the Vietnam War. The Eisenhower Doctrine of “falling dominoes” was continued by President Kennedy and President Nixon-Kissinger as well as President Johnson; all are responsible for the names on the Vietnam War Memorial. It must be remembered that Vice President Nixon was Eisenhower’s choice, which led to the Nixon Presidency and disgrace.

Of course, it was near impossible to defeat General Eisenhower; similarly, General Grant won on the coattails of war. Neither goes down in history for his legacy in the White House.