WITH more than two decades of distance, the unpleasant details that shaped the 1970s have become as grainy as old newsreel footage. Presidential corruption, record unemployment and oil embargoes just aren't as fun as the kitschy, Trivial Pursuit version of the period -- white disco suits, Billy Beer and the flaccid jowls of Tricky Dick. It's almost as if, with the passage of time, we've willed Tom Wolfe's blanket descriptor of the era -- "the Me Decade" -- to be true.
Yet the narcissism documented by Wolfe in his famous 1975 essay offers only a skewed partial view of one of the most disastrous periods in U.S. history. There was narcissism, to be sure, but it was born of fatalism. Americans had been riding the waves of postwar prosperity for nearly 30 years until a series of debilitating crises tripped up the nation's confidence in the 1970s: We left Vietnam with our tails between our legs, our president was scrambling for his political life and the Middle East played chicken with our oil supply. Coupled with record-high inflation and unemployment, it indeed felt like the end of the world as we knew it. Therefore, we were going to go out feeling fine, be it through self-realization, self-medication or seriously bad clothes and hair. Cue Tom Wolfe.
Now a professor of history and public policy and public administration at George Washington University, Edward D. Berkowitz was a member of the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties, a fancy title for a Carter administration-sanctioned think tank charged with providing a blueprint to fix the country. But the commission's report was DOA: It was issued in December 1980, a month after the electorate cast its lot with California cowboy Ronald Reagan to save the nation from Carter's dust cloud of doom and gloom.
In "Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies," Berkowitz takes an ambitious stab at cataloging the decade's political and cultural flashpoints, exhaustively connecting the dots from sundown in Southeast Asia to morning in Reagan's America. He posits that the grim downturn of the decade didn't really begin until 1973, when our boys were pulling out of Vietnam and the Watergate hearings had preempted soap operas and game shows in American homes. Berkowitz focuses on four major events that shaped the decade: Watergate, Vietnam, the oil crisis and the recession. The cumulative effect was systemic paralysis that both Republican and Democratic administrations were unable to fix. We became dependent on foreign oil, as shortages led to gas lines, rationing, higher prices and overall panic. "Americans felt themselves to be at the mercy of hostile foreign powers," Berkowitz writes.
Even President Nixon's perceived foreign policy triumphs -- detente with the Soviet Union and a highly choreographed trip to China (Berkowitz calls it "an eight-day miniseries that dominated the nation's airwaves") -- seemed more like elaborate distractions from the real problems at home. It certainly didn't help Nixon, who resigned from office in 1974. But there would be no political healing. His covert illegal activities provoked the Democrat-controlled Congress to consolidate its power, which left the executive branch further weakened.
Perhaps a strong leader could have wowed the newly empowered House and Senate, but Gerald Ford was not that guy. Berkowitz believes Ford was doomed from the outset: "He inherited both the problems of the seventies and the solutions of the sixties." But he also doomed his administration by pardoning Nixon and committing his own crucial gaffes, for which he was depicted as a clumsy buffoon by Chevy Chase on "Saturday Night Live." Ford probably nailed shut his presidential coffin by insisting that there was "no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe" during a debate with his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter.
Carter was elected as a sort of anti-Nixon. A good man with a firm moral center, the former Georgia governor believed that the way to restore credibility to the White House was by telling the truth. During a 1978 speech on inflation, he spoke of "hard choices" and a "time of national austerity." But, Berkowitz points out, America was a country that couldn't handle the truth. Americans craved inspiration from their president, and when it wasn't forthcoming, he says, evangelical Christians swooped in to fill the void. To Berkowitz, the rise of the Moral Majority signaled "the rebirth of the cardinal sins of ... intolerance and anti-intellectualism" from earlier in the century. Carter's inability to secure the release of more than 60 Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979 served to reinforce the popular opinion that he was weak.