There are fleeting moments when the public scene recalls the Weimar republic of 1932-33. In this American phantasmagoria, an empty-faced girl in a scarlet cloak and a clown’s hat points a gun… the unemployed mill about.. the largest city is about to go bankrupt… a feckless President, another wooden titan, drones stolidly… exorcists, astrologers, and strange oriental gurus wander through… the screens, large and small, pulsate with violence and pornography…. the godfathers last tango with clockwork orange in deep throat… women in pants bawl lustily while anguished youths try to be gay… a motherly woman raises her gun and fires…screams… Underlying all this is a new spirit of nihilism, a radical disbelief in any rational, objective basis for ethical norms or for orderly political change.

— New York Times columnist William Shannon

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Patty Hearst posing with the SLA insignia

If there is a more descriptive caricature of America in the middle 1970s I have not yet read it. The “Weimar” summer the writer referring to was 1975 and up to that point it had been a pretty bad year: runaway inflation; a stagnant economy; New York City fiscally bankrupt; Cambodia and Vietnam falling into Communist rule in dramatic fashion; two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford’s life; terrorist bombings (89 over the course of the year); heiress Patty Hearst on the lamb with the radical outfit Symbionese Liberation Army; textbook wars in West Virginia; antibusing riots in Boston; and a congressional commission investigating systematic abuse and murder by the CIA. This in the aftermath of the OPEC embargo and energy crisis in 1973 and the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon in 1974. There was, in politics, economics, and in all walks of social life, a “crisis in confidence.”

The writer’s reference to Weimar Germany in 1933 signals the author’s dire pessimism of what might come to pass. On the other hand, one would have thought that all this turbulence would be a catalyst for reflection, for significant change, for “growing up,” which entailed abandoning the myth of American exceptionalism and the harsh reality we might be as flawed as the banana republics where our CIA was fomenting agitation and death. Yet the following summer in our Bicentennial year, Ronald Reagan, a former B-list actor that not a single pundit took seriously, nearly won the GOP nomination for President. He did this on a radically conservative agenda that almost entirely ignored the reality of a culturally diverse and economically complex superpower. Four years later he would take this movement mainstream winning a landslide election and once and for all twisting the knife in 1960s idealism. Rick Perlstein’s wonderful history of the middle 1970s, The Invisible Bridge, is about how the fall of Nixon led to the rise of Reagan and the modern conservative movement that took hold in America.

there might not have ever been a Reagan Revolution, and all of its attendant disastrous consequences. It would have been a different world, almost certainly a better one. Click To Tweet

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Interesting TImes

Operation Frequent Wind (better known as the Fall of Saigon)

In 1974, a retiring congressman said, “Politics has gone from an age of ‘Camelot’ when all things were possible to the age of ‘Watergate’ when all things are suspect.” Perlstein often references the “small and suspicious circles” who go from a Greek chorus chattering in the margins to the mainstream, their voices expanding into a din. The suspicious ones are vindicated time and again for their paranoia, most especially for Watergate. The revelations therein: Nixon’s “enemies list,” suitcases of cash, burglaries, break-ins, forgeries, plans to kidnap activists during the Republican convention. Meanwhile, the Moonies, EST, and all kinds of cults are thriving, as the hippies moved back from the communes but couldn’t quite readapt to the system. “Once upon a time ‘the occult’ had been the redoubt of rubes. Now, in a world where the usual sources of authority no longer had answers for anything, the weird stuff was getting more serious consideration.” In a bestselling paperback written by psychics, Predictions for 1974, a stock market crash, swarms of locusts and floods “like the plagues of Egypt” were augured. Many feared Nixon wouldn’t leave the White House without calling in the army and maybe staging a coup, or even going nuclear in an alcoholic delirium. Unfounded fears, as Watergate finally did bring down Nixon but when his replacement, the mild-mannered Midwesterner, Gerald Ford pardoned him “absolutely,” he too marked himself as an “insider,” one of them.

Around the time of Watergate, an exposé by journalist Seymour Hersh revealed CIA drug running in Laos, assassination attempts, pivotal roles in coups setting up right wing dictatorships, and more. Led by Senator Frank Church and New York congressman Otis Pike, an investigation uncovered numerous illegalities, but at a certain point the public suffered scandal-fatigue. The New York Times and The Washington Post, both instrumental in bringing down Nixon, buried the stories. And while many worried about the State of the Union for America’s 200th birthday, the collective mood of the country ended up feeling good and proud. Americans were frankly tired of feeling guilty about Vietnam and Watergate. They were ready to move on.

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The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein

The Invisible Bridge is long– 800 pages long– and while it is comprehensive of the era, covering economic and social issues, as well as pop culture (The Godfather infecting Watergate criminality, The Exorcist touching on cults brainwashing daughters, Jaws as the invisible, uncontrollable menace lurking just out of our sight), Perlstein is a politics geek. Much of his research is devoted to the rise of Ronald Reagan. The historian covers his impoverished childhood with an alcoholic father, his unwavering belief in self, his lifeguard stint, his nearsightedness (and refusal to wear glasses), his leftism in college, a radio career, movie stardom, his marriages to Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis, spokesperson for GE, his move to the right and strong anti-communist stance, Governor of California and his vilification of student activists, and finally a rich man on the speakers’ circuit commanding $5000 for an hour’s talk. Always aware of being watched, of presenting an image. Here was a man capable of making all the cruelties of conservatism tolerable, even likable. The momentum for him to be elected reminded him the nature of his work as a lifeguard: “Then along came Ronald Reagan, encouraging citizens to think like children, waiting for a man on horseback to rescue them.” Whatever complexity encountered could be reduced by him to a matter of good and evil.

After the midterms elections of 1974– so-called “Watergate Baby” Democrats sweeping many Republicans out of office– the race to be the presidential nominee in 1976 should have been wide open but Jimmy Carter, a heretofore unknown former governor of Georgia, won outright by conveying the strongest anti-Washington “outsider” stance. Normally, incumbent presidents don’t expect much of a challenge from their party, but Ford, who had Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in his cabinet, was not conservative enough for the reactionaries who wanted a Reagan candidacy. Beyond the culture war– abortion, busing, history textbooks, the Equal Rights Amendment– the power brokers wanted deregulation, smaller government, and lower taxes, basically deconstructing the New Deal. As former speechwriter Pat Buchanan put it in his column: “Ford is a conservative… a conservatism marked by wariness of status quo… It is a don’t-rock-the-boat conservatism exemplified by what Mr. Ford calls the politics of cooperation, conciliation, compromise, and consensus… But Reagan was there to lead Republicans who believe that conflict, not compromise, is the essence of politics.”

After more than six months of primaries and caucuses, Ford had only a slightly larger lead than Reagan and the nomination process had to go all the way to the GOP convention in Kansas City. Ford clinched it when he swayed the Mississippi delegation to his side after some raucous politicking and backroom dealing. Ford might have won the battle but Reagan won the war for the soul of the Republican party. The delegates at the convention ratified a pro-life, anti-detente, pro-gun, antibusing, pro-school-prayer platform.

This was not yet a popular view in 1976. When Gallup polled voters on a Reagan vs. Carter match, Carter consistently topped Reagan by three times as many votes. Had they gone against each other in 1976, Reagan might have been defeated, soundly even, his reactionary platform discredited as unwinnable, a failure. Perhaps then not every single president in the last few generations would have taken his cue, dividing citizens and nations into good guys and bad guys to fit Manichean world views. Moreover, there might not have ever been a Reagan Revolution, and all of its attendant disastrous consequences. It would have been a different world, almost certainly a better one. That said, there is something about Reagan and his flamboyant charm that seemed inevitable. It’s poor taste to ever use that adjective with history, but with someone like Reagan, it seems appropriate. Germany got Hitler in its Weimar moment, we got Reagan, which isn’t to say we didn’t lose too. Losing can be complicated and difficult to define, notwithstanding some presidential philosophies.