Commentary Magazine

How We Got Here by David Frum

How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life—For Better or Worse
by David Frum
Basic Books. 418 pp. $25.00

My own capsule history of postwar America goes something like this: the 1950’s, Ike and postwar prosperity; the 60’s, passionate protest and revolutionary blather; the 80’s, a huge conservative comeback and victory in the cold war; the 90’s, squalor in the Oval Office and a dreamboat economy.

Unaccounted for in my sequence are the 70’s, a decade that lacks a theme or, possibly, has too many themes: Republicans creating price controls, the trauma of Watergate, a seemingly omnipotent OPEC, Jimmy Carter’s tragicomic moment speaking of our national “malaise,” the hostages in Iran, the final collapse of South Vietnam, stagflation, forced busing, the rise of racial quotas in employment, the Soviets in Afghanistan, spectacular increases in crime, terrorism, illegitimacy, and divorce. In short, David Frum is certainly right to call the 70’s a decade of “sourness and cynicism,” even if he fails to mention the detail that most soured my broker: the Dow Jones average was lower in 1979 than it had been in 1969.

Frum, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a classy writer, witty and incisive, a contributing editor of the Weekly Standard, and a frequent commentator on the oped pages of our major newspapers. I expected that his evocation of the follies and misfortunes of the 1970’s would be engrossing, and it is. Proceeding not chronologically but by way of successive takes on assorted happenings of the decade, he places less emphasis on politics and economics and more on the realm of popular culture, where he displays a marvelous eye for the emblematic movie plot, song lyric, and dopey bestseller. In the process, he dredges up a long series of unforgettable nuggets: Norman Mailer discerning a link between the taste of Wonder Bread and the American defoliation of Vietnamese jungles; the soaring pregnancy rate on board the USS Vulcan after a federal judge struck down a law restricting navy women to hospital and transport ships; the change in the New York Times style guide mandating that, just like everybody else, convicted felons would henceforth be identified as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss (Ms. came later), and not merely by their last names.

The most insidious transformations of the decade, Frum argues, centered on the American character, which began a seemingly inexorable drift toward self-indulgence and narcissism and away from the “ethic of responsibility” previously taken for granted. A major theme in the pop psychology of those years was the right—indeed, the obligation—of parents to put their own interests above those of their children, a notion surely related to the explosion of divorce among the middle-aged. In the 60’s, Nelson Rockefeller had lost his shot at the presidency because he left his wife and persuaded a much younger woman to leave her husband and marry him. By the 70’s, such behavior had come to seem entirely within the norm, and was a non-issue by the time Rockefeller himself was sworn in as Vice President under Gerald Ford.

The 70’s also introduced us to crime as a major American preoccupation. A 1975 Gallup poll, taken against a backdrop of high inflation and deep recession, asked adults to identify their worst problems. The box score showed 5 percent for inflation, 11 percent for unemployment—and 21 percent for crime. Among Americans living in large cities, a majority reported feeling unable to walk in their neighborhoods at night.

The crime wave itself had begun in the 60’s, but back then, demands for “law and order” had come mainly from George Wallace voters. By the mid-70’s, college graduates had caught up with rednecks, and were equally furious at the lenient treatment accorded to law-breakers. The proportion of Americans supporting the death penalty rose from less than half in the 60’s to two-thirds in the mid-70’s. Today, of course, crime has declined, but the decade of the 70’s has left its stamp in the still-ubiquitous fear it engenders.

So, too, is the stamp of the 70’s visible in the country’s, and the courts’, continuing efforts to come to terms with our new and vastly expanded conceptions of “rights.” In 1970, the Supreme Court decided that drug addicts could not be removed from welfare rolls without a full evidentiary hearing and a right of appeal to the federal judiciary. In that same year, another Supreme Court decision, which Frum aptly labels the “Bad Kids’ Magna Carta,” gave similar protections to children suspended for disciplinary infractions in school. In 1972 the Court declared laws against vagrancy unconstitutional. In 1979, it nailed down the due-process rights of insane people, and guaranteed the growth of homelessness by saying that the mentally ill could not be treated against their will without “clear, unequivocal, and convincing” evidence that they posed a threat to others or themselves.

The ineffable nuttiness of the “rights” revolution (recently on display again in the discovery by the Vermont high court of a right to same-sex marriage in the state constitution) clearly belongs on any list of enduring social transformations of the 70’s. But many of the other motifs elaborated in How We Got Here have not endured. Forced busing, notoriously exemplified in Judge Arthur Garrity’s long tyranny over the Boston school system—a subject to which Frum properly gives considerable space—is now totally discredited. Ditto for price controls, which also merit a lot of space here. Ditto for expansive versions of welfare. Ditto for apocalyptic notions of a world running short of food and fuel. If some parts of the 70’s mindset have turned out to be near-permanent, others fell off the table.



And this brings us to a shortcoming in Frum’s account: nowhere does he explain why some aspects of the 70’s endured and others did not. Nor does he ever quite get around to developing any main point about the decade. At one juncture, he dwells on the thought that the multiple missteps of the 70’s should be understood as efforts to push too far many of the most promising social and economic programs of earlier decades (e.g., Keynesian economics). “Unfortunately,” concludes Frum,

every human idea, even the very best, is true only up to a point. Equally unfortunately, we usually only ascertain where that point is by bumping into it—hard. In the 70’s, Americans did not merely bump into the limits of the ideas that had governed the mid-century world, they crashed.

Perhaps. But it is intellectually unsatisfying to explain the disasters of one particular decade by invoking a mechanism that could apply just as well to any other.

Strangely enough, Frum is also a bit blurry on the question of whether the 70’s were, in the end, a good time or a bad time. Open a page of his book at random and you are reasonably certain of finding yourself in a tale of foolishness or knavery. Yet you will also find occasional passages indicating that the mishaps of those years were “liberating as well as destructive,” and, in the book’s final sentence, a reference to “the follies and triumphs of the 70’s.”

Triumphs? Admittedly, some are mentioned. There was a fair amount of deregulation. New privacy rights were built into the restrictions on wiretapping (but these also set back law enforcement in some measure). Gerald Ford signed a bill making it legal for private citizens to own gold. Still, everything taken together, it is hard to see the 70’s as a time of “triumphs.” With or without the declining Dow, it was a rotten decade.


About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.

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