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How The Seventies Changed America
The “loser decade” that at first seemed nothing more than a breathing space between the high drama of the 1960s and whatever was coming next is beginning to reveal itself as a bigger time than we thought
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
I remember being enormously impressed by Carter’s speech at the time because it was a painfully honest and much thought-over attempt to grapple with the main problem of the decade. The American economy had ceased being an expanding pie, and by unfortunate co-incidence this had happened just when an ethic of individual freedom as the highest good was spreading throughout the society, which meant people would respond to the changing economic conditions by looking out to themselves. Like most other members of the wordmanipulating class whose leading figures had advised Carter at Camp David, I thought there was a malaise. What I didn’t realize, and Carter obviously didn’t either, was that there was a smarter way to play the situation politically. A president could maintain there was nothing wrong with America at all—that it hadn’t become less powerful in the world, hadn’t reached some kind of hard economic limit, and wasn’t in crisis—and, instead of trying to reverse the powerful tide of individualism, ride along with it. At the same time, he could act more forcefully than Carter, especially against inflation, so that he didn’t seem weak and ineffectual. All this is exactly what Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, did.
All the other candidates were selling national healing; Reagan, and only Reagan, was selling pure strength.
Actually, Carter himself set in motion the process by which inflation was conquered a few months later, when he gave the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board to Paul Volcker, a man willing to put the economy into a severe recession to bring back price stability. But in November fate delivered the coup de grâce to Carter in the form of the taking hostage of the staff of the American Embassy in Teheran, as a protest against the United States’ harboring of Iran’s former shah.
As with the malaise speech, what is most difficult to convey today about the hostage crisis is why Carter made what now looks like a huge, obvious error: playing up the crisis so much that it became a national obsession for more than a year. The fundamental problem with hostage taking is that the one sure remedy—refusing to negotiate and thus allowing the hostages to be killed—is politically unacceptable in the democratic media society we live in, at least when the hostages are middle-class sympathetic figures, as they were in Iran.
There isn’t any good solution to this problem, but Carter’s two successors in the White House demonstrated that it is possible at least to negotiate for the release of hostages in a low-profile way that will cause the press to lose interest and prevent the course of the hostage negotiations from completely defining the Presidency. During the last year of the Carter administration, by contrast, the hostage story absolutely dominated the television news (recall that the ABC show Nightline began as a half-hour five-times-a-week update on the hostage situation), and several of the hostages and their families became temporary celebrities. In Carter’s defense, even among the many voices criticizing him for appearing weak and vacillating, there was none that I remember willing to say, “Just cut off negotiations and walk away.” It was a situation that everyone regarded as terrible but in which there was a strong national consensus supporting the course Carter had chosen.
So ended the seventies. There was still enough of the sixties spillover phenomenon going on so that Carter, who is now regarded (with some affection) as having been too much the good-hearted liberal to maintain a hold on the presidential electorate, could be challenged for renomination by Ted Kennedy on the grounds that he was too conservative. Inflation was raging on; the consumer price index rose by 14.4 percent between May 1979 and May 1980. We were being humiliated by fanatically bitter, premodern Muslims whom we had expected to regard us with gratitude because we had helped ease out their dictator even though he was reliably pro-United States. The Soviet empire appeared (probably for the last time ever) to be on the march, having invaded Afghanistan to Carter’s evident surprise and disillusionment. We had lost our most recent war. We couldn’t pull together as a people. The puissant, unified, prospering America of the late 1940s seemed to be just a fading memory.
I was a reporter for the Washington Post during the 1980 presidential campaign, and even on the Post ’s national desk, that legendary nerve center of politics, the idea that the campaign might end with Reagan’s being elected President seemed fantastic, right up to the weekend before the election. At first Kennedy looked like a real threat to Carter; remember that up to that point no Kennedy had ever lost a campaign. While the Carter people were disposing of Kennedy, they were rooting for Reagan to win the Republican nomination because he would be such an easy mark.