Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (12 page)

So how did Carter respond? By canceling a big televised Fourth of July Oval Office address at the last minute and spending the next ten days writing a new one. His call to action was austerity, reducing our use of imported oil—not for environmental reasons but because oil had gotten so expensive. The speech, however, was like a scene from a remake of
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
written by and starring Wallace Shawn. Carter spent the first two-thirds on a half-hour jeremiad about America’s “crisis of confidence,” wondering “why have we not been able to get together as a nation,” bewailing “the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives” and “a system of government that seems incapable of action”—but it’s worse than that, he said, because “all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America.” After this dire diagnosis, he offered no cure except a vague wave back to the wonderful past—somehow restoring “faith in each other” by relying on “all the lessons of our heritage”—and then fired half his cabinet. Because he privately referred to America’s
malaise
as he’d prepared the speech—“the President will try to transfer the wide dissatisfaction with his own performance into a ‘national malaise,’ ” the Republican ex-speechwriter Safire previewed in his
Times
column forty-eight hours beforehand—journalists afterward named it “the malaise speech,” and that stuck. The president continued with scolding jeremiads for the rest of his term, such as one about high inflation in which he reminded Americans of the “discipline” that they needed to start exercising and the “pain” and “painful steps” they’d be required to suffer.
*1

Americans wanted to
feel
a jolt of old-fashioned national solidarity, of the kind they remembered or imagined feeling before the late 1960s, not merely be reminded by Parson Carter they weren’t feeling it anymore. One of the points of the 1970s pivot toward the old days was to feel happier about being Americans—
Happy Days
was the name of the TV show—because Vietnam and the rest of the 1960s had made so many people feel ambivalent or worse. Carter was unwilling or unable to indulge the manic performative patriotism that was becoming obligatory for American politicians in the 1970s.


In many senses, America’s 1970s were not a repudiation but an extension of the late 1960s. The new norms and habits of mind spread and scaled, became entrenched, and no longer seemed remarkably new. Female and nonwhite people were treated more equally. The anti-Establishment subjectivity and freedom to ignore experts and believe in make-believe that exploded in the ’60s was normalized and spread during the ’70s and beyond. Freedoms of religion and speech continued to be exercised extravagantly. The signifiers of bohemian nonconformity—long hair, drug use, casual sex, casual clothes, rock music—became ubiquitous, standard, mainstream. A single two-year period in the mid-’70s seems like a hinge moment in this regard: the Vietnam War ended, the oldest baby boomers turned thirty, the youngest baby boomers entered puberty,
Rolling Stone
moved from a hippie dump in San Francisco to a fancy Establishment building in midtown Manhattan, the new president was a Dylan fan,
Saturday Night Live
went on the air, the Apple II was invented, and Microsoft was founded.

In retrospect, Milton Friedman’s 1970 manifesto on behalf of shameless greed amounted to a preliminary offer by the philosopher-king of the economic right to forge a grand bargain with the cultural left. Both sides could find common ground concerning ultra-individualism and mistrust of government. And by the end of the 1970s, only the formalities remained to execute the agreement. Going forward, the masses would be permitted as never before to indulge their hedonistic and self-expressive impulses. And capitalists in return would also be unshackled, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes, or social opprobrium. “Do your own thing” is not necessarily so different from “every man for himself.” That could mean calling it quits on a marriage more quickly—the divorce rate doubled in the 1970s—or opting out of marriage altogether, or smoking weed, or wearing blue jeans every day, or refusing to agree to gun regulation—or rich people paying themselves as much as they wanted, or banks misleading borrowers and speculating recklessly. Deal? Deal.

So around when Tom Wolfe named it the Me Decade in 1976, the new hyperselfishness expanded beyond personal vanity and self-absorption and extreme religion to encompass the political economy as well. And indispensable to that was the one way the American sensibility definitely
changed
after the 1960s: nostalgia became a mania. With so many Americans so charmed by the cultural past in so many ways, it was easier to persuade them that restoring a version of the economic past would somehow make them happier—the past when the federal government didn’t give away so much to the undeserving poor and fought wars they didn’t lose.

The great political opportunity at the end of the 1970s was to play to the Me Decade’s narcissism by using nostalgia—cynically, smoothly, theatrically—to cut through the despondency. A new majority of Americans were ready to be impressed by a president who convincingly and comfortingly promised to lead them into an American future resembling the American past.
Comfort
was key. Since the early 1960s, the conservatives’ political harnessing of backlash against kindly liberalism had been unsmiling and scary, all ferocious contempt. That’s why Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide, why George Wallace was a national pariah, why grim Richard Nixon was smart enough not even to try to make the right-wing economic case. A reframing was required. Instead of emphasizing conservative
disgust
with the
new,
somebody had to serve up delicious-looking gobs of the beautiful past.

Ronald Reagan was an ideal figure to take advantage of the moment in every conceivable way.

He didn’t just talk about the good old days, he stepped right out of them, as cheerful and easy to like as his genius pal Walt Disney’s make-believe Main Street USA. Reagan was an avuncular artifact of Hollywood’s golden age, sixty-eight when he announced in 1979 but a very modern American kind of old, sunny and ruddy and energetic and fun, riding the horse, wearing the jeans, doing photo-op chores around his fancy California ranch.
*2
For years he’d been popping up on TV in old movies and an old TV series he hosted, playing generic good guys and war fighters from various old days. He was
familiar,
a charismatic celebrity (like Jack Kennedy) but never such a star that voters couldn’t easily accept him in this new role, an old-fashioned midcentury American TV dad who wasn’t a weenie or a tool or a crook like his immediate predecessors. Long before Dad Jokes became a meme, Reagan was a chuckling virtuoso of the form who put a fun candy coating on right-wing propaganda: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” he loved saying, “are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ”

He was also a twinkly quasi-Christian, unlike his authentically Christian sermonizing predecessor. Reagan appealed to America’s newly extreme and politicized Protestants, repeatedly affirming his belief in the End Times and the Second Coming. But he did that without any of his Moral Majority allies’ angry nostalgia for the old days, which alienated other voters. American Protestants were undergoing their own rapid and extreme theological makeover, from about a third belonging to evangelical churches in the early 1970s to 60 percent by the mid-1980s, and he was the ideal political recruiter for binding them to the reborn party of the old-fashioned hard-core economic right.

But in addition to being in sync with the new post-1960s conditions—extreme individualism, extreme religious belief, a sweeping embrace of nostalgia—Ronald Reagan also found himself at the convergence of three longer-term historical trends. And he possessed the perfect combination of skills and temperament to take political advantage of those as well.

The first was the general national hankering for friendly familiarity and calm following the frenzied circa-1970 finale of the century of nonstop
new,
a conservative reaction that was much more about culture and psychology than economics.

The second was that the natural evolution of the political economy had reached a critical point. Forty years after the cascading flood of change that gushed forth during the 1930s, the New Deal had lost its propulsive power as it widened into a big boring American reservoir on which everyone depended but lately took for granted or held in contempt. That finally gave the New Deal’s enemies their chance to undo as much of it as they could. In this effort, they exploited another definitive late-1960s change. Reagan was a conservative but was so far right he came across as a renegade. “The one unifying thing about the baby boomers,” a Republican strategist told a reporter back then about that younger generation, “is that they are anti-Establishment and anti-institution,” and “the Reagan appeal is to people who don’t go for the Establishment and for big institutions.”

The third long-term historical trend was the evolution of modern media and celebrity from words to pure images. Thirty years into the TV age, show business and presidential politics became so intertwined that Americans were ready to elect a professional entertainer-in-chief. Ronald Reagan’s job from the 1930s through the mid-1960s had been to perform for cameras, reciting words written by other people, so cynics are apt to look no further than that for an explanation of his subsequent political success—good-looking TV dummy, strings pulled by right-wing puppet-masters. But that’s not correct.

Reagan was no intellectual, but he’d always been a cheerful, politically engaged ideologue, and by the time he ran for office, he was more fluent in political economics than most politicians. At age thirty-five, after morphing from sincere left-winger to sincere anti-Communist liberal, he continued making political ads decrying corporations’ “bigger and bigger profits” and Republican tax cuts for “the higher income brackets alone,” and he repeatedly got reelected president of his show business union, the Screen Actors Guild. But before he was fifty, after reading books like Hayek’s libertarian manifesto
The Road to Serfdom
and giving hundreds of speeches a year as GE’s $1 million–a–year traveling ambassador
,
he’d turned into a sincere right-winger.

Way before the liberal 1960s, Reagan was a Milton Friedmanite giving speeches about the “stultifying hand of government regulation and interference,” the “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital” that presumed to “plan our lives for us,” and—remarkably right-wing—“the immorality and discrimination of the progressive tax.” Then in the fall of 1964, there on NBC in prime time was the star of the weekly Western series
Death Valley Days,
but now in a suit and tie, nominally endorsing his pal Barry Goldwater—this was the half-hour ad the campaign
did
run nationwide—but in fact introducing himself to America as a political figure. Because he wasn’t running for anything yet, he was free to be blunt, even extreme—in favor of letting the well-to-do opt out of Social Security, declaring that “government does nothing as well…as the private sector,” warning against Medicare as proof that “it doesn’t require expropriation or confiscation of private property or business to impose socialism on a people.” One week after his network TV talk, voters repudiated that ultra-conservatism decisively—for now. But with Goldwater done, the right had a
new
avatar, another horseback-riding, fifty-something southwesterner who wasn’t too stern or scary.

And when he ran for president in 1979 and 1980, Reagan suggested his administration would resemble those of beloved dead
Democrats,
fondly alluding to FDR and Truman and JFK. It was nostalgia for old heroes and for his own younger days—probably sincere but also well played at a time when voters’ own nostalgic yearnings had become all-embracing. As he ambled briskly to the presidency, Reagan’s ultra-conservative agenda for the political economy was cloaked behind an old-timey, almost nonpartisan scrim.

“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” Barry Goldwater had famously said in his speech accepting the Republican nomination. He
owned
it and lost. As the 1980 election cycle got under way, Goldwater marveled in his diary about the normalization of the hard right since then, which was about to permit his fellow traveler to be elected president. “It is interesting to me to watch liberals, moderates and conservatives fighting each other to see who can come out on top the quickest against those matters that I talked so fervently and so much about in 1964”—against regulation and unions and taxes and sharing more of the wealth, against government. “Almost every one of the principles I advocated in 1964 have become the gospel of the whole spread of the spectrum of politics.”

In fact, Milton Friedman thought Goldwater had self-sacrificially fought the necessary opening skirmish for the long war that he and the rest of the economic right and big business seriously launched in the 1970s and won. “I do not believe Reagan would have been elected in 1980,” Friedman said during his presidency,

if Goldwater had not carried out his campaign in 1964. You’ve got sets of political ideas and values that take a long time to develop and have an enormous momentum. It takes a long time to turn them around. Goldwater was enormously important in providing an impetus to the subsequent move away from New Deal ideas.

*1
On its editorial about this speech,
The
Boston Globe
accidentally and infamously printed a joke headline—
MUSH FROM THE WIMP
.

*2
In addition to being the oldest president until recently, he was the first to have been divorced—just the right dash of louche to suggest that his conservatism wasn’t the unpleasant old-fashioned judgmental kind.

During my first visit to Washington, D.C., in June 1972—on the very evening of the Watergate break-in, as it happened—a mod young Department of Education bureaucrat informed me over dinner that the liberal political era in America was ending. As a seventeen-year-old fresh from Nebraska looking forward to wearing my
MCGOVERN FOR PRESIDENT
button to a White House reception for a hundred new high school graduates with Vice President Spiro Agnew the next day, this was a shocking revelation.

The guy turned out to be right, of course. And when I started college, I saw firsthand that the youthquake and student movement and greening of America, everything I’d spent the past few years getting stoked about, was palpably, rapidly ending. The U.S. war in Vietnam was winding down and nobody was getting drafted, so fighting the Man started to seem more like a pose than an authentic passion. I was still politically liberal, but the overwhelming focus of my college years was being on the staff of
The Harvard Lampoon
. The highlight of my sophomore year was a public
Lampoon
roast of and raucous private dinner with the right-wing icon John Wayne, who arrived at our headquarters in an armored personnel carrier a year before the U.S. surrender in Vietnam. My senior year I volunteered for the 1976 presidential campaign of Democratic senator Fred Harris, an economic populist from Oklahoma whose campaign catchphrases included “The issue is privilege” and “Take the rich off welfare.” He’d been the one member of the Senate to vote against confirming Lewis Powell to the Supreme Court. My senior thesis argued that more and more white-collar jobs, thanks in part to technology, were apt to become more and more proletarian, and it discussed whether workers in such professions might follow the lead of federal air traffic controllers, who’d recently unionized.

I wasn’t romantic or enthusiastic about unions the way liberals used to be. The basic college-educated-liberal attitude toward unions was evolving from solidarity to indifference to suspicion, the result of a crackup at that very moment of the old New Deal political coalition. The antiwar movement and counterculture, coming right after the successful civil rights movement, had generated intense mutual contempt between the two main kinds of white Democrats, members of the working class and the expanding New Class. The televised beatings by Chicago police of protesters outside the Democratic convention in 1968—beatings encouraged by Mayor Richard Daley, the principal national white-working-class Democratic power broker—was the most spectacular early episode in the crackup. But a lesser-known instance two years later in New York City was an even more perfectly focused display of that cultural-political fissure in its early stages.

It was 1970, a cool May morning in New York City. Two months earlier a squad of young left-wing bomb-makers had accidentally blown themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse owned by their comrade’s dad, an ad executive who’d been vacationing on St. Kitts. And in another two months
Joe,
a movie about a factory worker who hates liberals and teams up with a Manhattan ad executive to massacre hippie communards, would become a big hit. On the Monday of that week in May, National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio had shot thirteen students in and around an antiwar protest, killing four of them. So that Friday in lower Manhattan on Wall Street, around the statue of George Washington in front of the Federal Hall National Memorial, a thousand people, mostly students, gathered for an antiwar protest and memorial vigil. Not far away at City Hall, the American flag had been lowered to half-mast. New York police were in position around the demonstration.

Suddenly a couple of hundred union construction workers, a lot of them wearing hard hats and carrying tools, swarmed into the crowded intersection, chanting
All the way, U.S.A.
and
Love it or leave it
. “The workers, marching behind a cluster of American flags, swept policemen aside and moved on the students,” according to the
Times
account. They beat up scores of protesters as well as random passersby, kicked them, bashed them with hard hats, and struck them with crowbars and pliers. The attack was organized by the leaders of the workers’ union; a Wall Street executive told the
Times
he’d watched “two men in gray suits and gray hats ‘directing the construction workers with hand motions.’ ” Then the mob moved north, where some smashed the windows of a college building and pulled down and burned a peace banner. Across the street, others burst into City Hall and raised the lowered flag. After a city official re-lowered it, angry workers bullied a deputy mayor into raising it again.

The Hard Hat Riot got extensive national press attention—as a kid in Nebraska, I watched film of it on TV and read about it in
Time
. Plastic hard hats became a nationalist antiliberal icon. And union workers in New York City kept at it, marching in the streets day after day for nearly two weeks, “vaulting police lines to chase those who raised their fingers in the ‘V’ peace salute.” The mayor had condemned the initial riot, which made him—John Lindsay, handsome prep-school Yale WASP, a liberal Republican for whom “limousine liberal” had been coined one year earlier—a natural target for the marching workers. They carried “signs calling the mayor a rat, a commie rat, a faggot, a leftist, an idiot, a neurotic, an anarchist and a traitor,” a news story reported. (The construction workers’ union was already in a fight with Lindsay for his executive order requiring them to increase black and Hispanic membership.) Watching a final 100,000-person antiprotester protest march in Manhattan that had been officially organized by the union, a Brooklyn college kid told a reporter, “I’m scared. If this is what the class struggle is all about, there’s something wrong.”

Beginning right then, in fact, the suspicion and contempt between less-educated white people and the liberal white bourgeoisie
was
what the American class struggle was most visibly and consciously about. And it would define our politics as the economy was reshaped to do better than ever for yuppies and worse and worse for the proles, regardless of their ideologies and cultural tastes.

During the 1960s, liberals had started falling out of love with unions for reasons more directly related to the political economy. It was another side effect of triumphalist liberal complacency, how Americans in general were taking for granted the progress and prosperity that the New Deal had helped make possible. Sure, back in the day unions had been an essential countervailing force to business, but now—having won forty-hour weeks, good healthcare, good pensions, autoworker salaries of $75,000 (in 2020 dollars), OSHA, the EEOC—organized labor was victorious, powerful, the Establishment. “These powerful institutions,” the former machinist Irving Kristol astutely wrote at the beginning of 1970, just before publicly moving full right, were “inexorably being drained of meaning, and therefore of legitimacy.” As a result, “trade unionism has become that most dangerous of social phenomena: a boring topic,” and “none of the younger reporters is interested in spending so much time in the company of trade union officials.”

Apart from organized labor’s apparently permanent hold on decisive power at the time, another reason people like me found unions kind of boring was that a unionized job was almost by definition a boring job. When I started work as a writer at
Time
in 1981, I joined the union, the Newspaper Guild, but I understood that everything I cared about in that job—good assignments, decent salary increases, titular honorifics—would be entirely at my editors’ discretion, not a function of union rules.
*1
A union? Sure, fine. But I was
talent
. I was
creative
. I was an
individual
.
*2
College graduates tend to want to think of themselves that way, younger ones all the more, younger ones starting with baby boomers the most. And the intensified, all-encompassing individualism that blew up during the 1960s and then continued—
I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations—
wasn’t a mindset or temperament that necessarily reinforced feelings of solidarity with fellow workers or romantic feelings about unions.

What happened with organized labor in journalism during the 1970s is an excellent illustration of those early days of the deepening, widening fracture between upper-middle-class and lower-middle-class (white) Americans. It encompasses both the cultural split, yuppies versus yahoos, and the introduction of transformative technology in the workplace.

Between the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and the end of Watergate in 1974,
The
Washington
Post
became a celebrated national institution, sexy liberalism incarnate. Following immediately on those two heroic achievements was another milestone episode, neither very celebrated nor heroic but likewise emblematic of the moment. In the spring of 1974, the journalists of the
Post
went out on strike—bumblingly. They didn’t even ask the paper’s blue-collar unions to join them, they refused their own Newspaper Guild leaders’ request to walk a picket line, the paper continued publishing, and after two weeks they gave up and accepted management’s offer.

It was a generation before websites and browsers, universal PCs and cellphones, thirty years before print dailies entered their death spiral, but technology was already changing newspapers in a big way—the
manufacturing
part of the operation. Owners were eliminating typographers, who operated obsolete, elephantine
Brazil
–meets–
Willie Wonka
Linotype machines that turned molten lead into blocks of type, and they also wanted to pay fewer workers to operate the printing presses. A large majority of the
Post
’s two thousand employees were those blue-collar guys, and a large majority of them were suddenly redundant. In 1975 the two hundred pressmen wouldn’t come to terms and went on strike, and the other blue-collar unions at the
Post
went on strike in solidarity, as unions are supposed to do. On their way out, some of the pressmen sabotaged some of the presses, a major strategic error. Quite a few of the nonunion strikebreakers whom management hired to replace the (white) strikers were black, a brilliant strategic decision.

And absolutely key to how it played out was the behavior of the
Post
’s journalists. Just as the recent exposure of the secret Pentagon report on Vietnam and Nixon’s crimes had been game-changing work by journalists with the essential support of management, the crushing of the strike and pressmen’s union, also game-changing, was the work of management with the essential support of journalists.

Two-thirds of the
Post
’s unionized editorial employees didn’t stop working at all, and a majority voted again and again against striking in solidarity with the pressmen. “What I find ominous is that a number of Guild people don’t think they have common cause with craftsmen,” a
Post
journalist told a reporter at the time. “They feel professionally superior to guys with dirt under their fingernails.” At a guild meeting, a
Post
reporter referred to the striking pressmen as “slack-jawed cretins.” Four weeks into the five-month strike, a
Times
article reported that “if a
Post
Guild member is asked why he or she is not supporting the strike,” many “say they do not see themselves as ordinary working people. One said, ‘We go to the same parties as management. We know Kissinger, too.’ ” And while probably none of the pressmen knew the secretary of state, their average pay was the equivalent of $111,000, about as much as reporters, which is the excuse one of the paper’s reporters gave for crossing the picket line from day one. “If they got slave wages, I’d be out on the line myself,” said thirty-two-year-old Bob Woodward, co-author of the second-best-selling nonfiction book of the previous year.

The strike ended just before the release of the film adaptation of
All the President’s Men,
a fictionalization that only intensified the love of American liberals and journalists for
The Washington Post,
even though the
Post
pressroom was about to become nonunion and membership in the journalists’ union, the Guild, strictly optional. As a
Post
columnist wrote back then in
The New Republic,
“The pressmen’s strike was crushed with methods and with a severity that the press in general or the
Post
in particular would not be likely to regard as acceptable from the owners of steel mills. Yet because it was a newspaper management that broke the strike, no other newspaper has touched it properly, or even whimpered a protest.”

When I arrived at
Time
a few years later, I went out of my way to produce copy the
modern
way—abandoning my office Selectric to use one of the special computer terminals crammed into a special little room, holed up with a few of the other young writers. That technology presently enabled the company to eliminate the jobs of the people downstairs who were employed to retype our stories. At the time I probably shrugged, like the newspaper reporters who hadn’t cared much about the redundant Linotype operators and pressmen.

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