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THE CULTURE WARS

End of the Dream? These Are the Good Old Days

August 25, 1996|Bruce J. Schulman

BOSTON — 'To those who say it was never so, that America has not been better, I say, you're wrong, and I know, because I was there. I have seen it. I remember."

With that pronouncement, Bob Dole accepted the Republican presidential nomination two weeks ago and asked that the American people let him be the bridge to a "time of tranquillity, faith and confidence in action." Dole, vice presidential nominee Jack F. Kemp and virtually every other speaker at the GOP convention in San Diego pledged to restore the American dream, to retrieve the bygone era when neighbors gathered on the village green, boy met girl at the soda fountain on Main Street and no one locked their doors at night. Candidate Dole railed against the "values of the present," that had ushered in an ugly new world where the soda fountain had closed, gunfire echoed through the town square and "what we have is crime, drugs, illegitimacy, abortion, the abdication of duty and the abandonment of children."

Dole's outrageous declaration combined dewy-eyed nostalgia, tunnel vision and outright error. For most Americans, and many others across the world, the American dream seems more real today, more accessible now, than in the heady days after World War II. And what worthy values we have lost from that early postwar era derived from the collective mind-set and widespread government intervention that Dole and his fellow Republicans so vigorously repudiate.

Dole surely never asked the convention's most memorable speaker whether he shared his nostalgic vision of the 1940s and 1950s. Colin L. Powell would not have willingly returned to an era when black Americans lacked the most fundamental rights of citizenship, when even heroic soldiers fought and died for the American way in a Jim Crow army, denied opportunities for command and relegated mainly to menial tasks. In those dark days, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) grew up in an Alabama home with a shotgun always ready to hand--a constant reminder not only of the daily indignities of segregation but the deadly violence threatening any who dared tread over the color line.

Even after the civil-rights revolution, many black Americans remain disappointed with the failed promise of American life, but none pine for the days of legal segregation, restrictive covenants and lynching. For African Americans like Powell and Lewis, the American dream seems far more real, and realizable, today.

The nominee seems not to have consulted Elizabeth H. Dole, either. In the late 1940s and '50s, public policy and popular culture exalted marriage and motherhood as never before. Devotion to home and family became the only acceptable ambition for American women; "career girls" were routinely denounced as selfish, neurotic, even unbalanced. A generation of highly trained, professional women reluctantly relinquished new-found job opportunities to returning veterans, and retreated to isolated suburban homes with few opportunities for productive work or regular social contact.

In Dole's "glory" years, capable, privileged women like Elizabeth Dole dusted cabinets; they did not serve in the president's Cabinet. They might donate blood or raise money for the Red Cross, but not run the organization. Betty Friedan famously chronicled the discontent of this generation in "The Feminine Mystique." Dole's brighter, better days looked grayer and gloomier from the other side of the breakfast table.

And from the other side of the tracks. Did the American dream appear less distant then for Catholics and Jews--barred from many jobs, colleges and country clubs because of their faith? What of the great masses of humanity in Southern Europe, Asia and Latin American, longing to reach the promised land of prosperity and opportunity? Until President Lyndon B. Johnson reformed the immigration laws, the odious quota system slammed the gates shut against most of these ambitious migrants. After 1965, intrepid and industrious sojourners from around the globe flooded through the re-opened and, in their eyes, still golden door.

Elderly Americans might also think twice about returning to the '40s and '50s. Dole made much of his decision to resign his majority-leader post in Washington, to sacrifice the security of his Senate seat and run for president without a safety net. Of course, senior citizen Dole can count on a generous government pension (not to mention a large personal fortune) if the voters send him home next November, but even if he couldn't, he would still receive Social Security and Medicare. Until the 1960s, most elderly Americans struggled to survive; the vast majority of the nation's impoverished were senior citizens. In recent years, Medicare, expanded Social Security and other programs have essentially eliminated poverty among the elderly.

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