Saturday, May 30, 2009

The 70s, my thoughts and a book review

This morning, listening to the radio, I heard Maureen McGovern sing “The Morning After.” This was the theme song to the Poseidon Adventure, one of the worst movies of all time in my humble opinion. But listening to the song this morning, words I first heard on my AM/FM radio that I received as a Christmas present in 1970, I realized that the song spoke to that age.

There’s got to be a morning after
If we can just hold on through the night
We got a chance to find the sunshine
Let’s keep on looking for the light.
In the summer of ’73, when the song was a hit, things were pretty messed up. I was reminded of this as I read a new book on the 70s. I had my 13th birthday party just 16 days into the decade that would shape my life. Over the next ten years, I would graduate from high school and college, get a drivers license, work in a supermarket and then a bakery, begin a doomed marriage, and visit Japan. The decade ended on a rainy night driving back from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, listening to the FM radio, or maybe an 8-Track. Gas was expensive then, over a dollar a gallon for the first time. It was 35 cent a gallon when I got my driver’s license in January 1973. Somewhere around Wilson or Mt. Olive, driving on wet pavement through a dark night, the 80s began.

Here is my review:

Edward D. Berkowitz, Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 283 pages.

For Berkowitz, the 70s as an era ran from 1973 to Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. He cites ’73 as a beginning because so many things that helped define the era occurred that year: the end of American involvement in Vietnam, an Oil Embargo, and the crisis of a president that included the resignation of the Vice President (Nixon would resign a year later). Berkowitz does a great job of describing the 70s, reminding me of all the twist and turns we had in those turbulent years. We had a president who, by visiting China, changed the history of the world in ways that we can only begin to understand. I don’t think I realized how close we were to National Health Insurance in the early 70s, an idea that died with the economic downturn in ’74. And then we had a whole series of scandals, starting with Nixon and Agnew, but they weren’t nearly as colorful as Wilbur Mills and his strippers.

The sixties was an optimistic decade; the seventies were pessimistic. In the 70s, according to Bruce Schulman, America got made over, and ‘its economic outlook, political ideology, cultural assumption and fundamental arrangements changed.” It was an era of declining productivity and extreme inflation. It was the era when much of the United States industrial strength started to slip and countries like Japan made great strides in their own productivity.

Politically, Berkowitz divides the seventies into political eras: the fall of Nixon, the Ford years, and the Carter years. Reading the book, I felt sorry for Carter (and am reminded of Obama’s challenges). First of all, most of his problems were inherited. Berkowitz points out that Carter’s attempt to be “transparent” actually made it harder for him to get things through Congress. Furthermore, Congress had new found powers inherited from a weakened executive branch following Watergate. Carter was also the first post-World War II president not to have a period of economic growth. Then, just when it seemed his luck couldn’t get any worst, it did. His administration ended with Three Mile Island and the Iranian hostage crisis. Berkowitz notes that the problems Carter inherited and faced may have been beyond any politician ability to handle, but that Carter’s moralizing issues didn’t help and probably only made things worst.

Civil rights for African-Americans was the focus on the post-war years. According to Berkowitz (and others like Thomas Wolfe, whom he likes to quote), the 70s was the decade that everyone began to demand rights. Women’s rights were at the forefront. 1970 saw the release of a new brand of cigarettes that focused on women. Virginia Slims were advertised with the logo, “You’ve come a long ways, baby.” Much of the decade was spent arguing over the ERA amendment. I hadn’t realized that the ERA passed Congress with the support not only of the left, but with right-winged senators like Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater. Berkowitz goes into detail on reasons why it failed. One reason was the economic downturn, which made people afraid of change. The other two major reasons was the political savvy of those against it and the ERA debate being framed around the abortion issue. In addition to women’s right, the 70s saw the rise of the gay movement, disability rights and rights of immigrants. In many ways, all the new groups demanding their rights paralleled a shift from the Civil Rights era views of doing what was good for all America, to a focus on more individual concerns. The 70s is seen as the “ME” decade, which helps explain the rise of Reagan in the 80s.

Growing up in the South in the 70s, I was shocked that Berkowitz discussed the integration of Boston’s public schools and spent little time talking about the integration of the schools in the South or other areas of the country. Interestingly, the ruling that got busing started wasn’t in Boston was from North Carolina (Swan vs Charlotte Mecklenburg, 1971). Three years later, this ruling was used in Boston. As a Southerner who’s lived much of his adult life up north, I am still shocked at how segregated schools remain up here and find it strange that in upscale neighborhoods around northern cities, one can still find school districts that are mostly white.

Berkowitz does a better job on describing the political changes in the s70s than the culture changes. Culturally, he explores only movies and TV in depth. Although he acknowledges significant authors like John Updike, he does not explore the role they played in defining an era. In movies, he focuses mostly on “blockbusters,” a new way of marketing movies in an era that was seeing declines at the theater. As for TV, the 70s were the golden years as they didn’t have competition from cable and other forms of media. He discusses not only sitcoms, but also news programs and sports. Outside of a few brief mentions, he does not discuss the role of music. Maybe it was because I spent most of the decade as a teenager, that I think that music defined the era. It was the day when “album stations” bucking the top-40 trend were exiled to FM, the era of Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and southern rock. It was also, sad to say, the era of disco.

I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it; I just wished Berkowitz had gone further. He does a wonderful job discussing American politics. One final criticism, he overlooks lots of major world changes that were occurring, especially in Africa. Maybe the book should have been called a political history of the 70s in America.


  1. Oh they play that song on Pickle! BTW for going to a HM concert you deserve to be dad of the decade!!!

  2. I love how you went through your life in the 70s in only one paragraph, although I'd like to hear more about your job at the bakery and your trip to Japan.

    I remember sitting on my front steps in the summer of 1970 watching the "Hike for Hope," not knowing a word of English or what it was all about.

    The Berkowitz book would be an interesting one for the book club. I may suggest it.

  3. This was not my era, but you have a gift of summarizing it in a way that I feel as if I am so informed! Thanks so much for your supportive note about Trevor Tredaway, Sage. We are all pulling for him! :)

  4. About the song....there is a saying that when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. In the 70's, you weren't at the point where you could get the real meaning of the words, but now you are.

  5. I personally enjoyed the original version of the movie, and thought it was better than the '05 re-make. My summer of '73 was one of the best I ever experienced - I was 11 and spent it in South Dakota on my aunt and uncle's farm. Quite a bit different from living in a Los Angeles suburb.

  6. Did Berkowitz discuss how it was in the late 70's that American Politics changed forever.

    Another Reagan legacy began when he started negotiations with Ayatollah Khomeini while still a private citizen. Undercutting all of Carter's attempts in foreign policy in the Middle East.

  7. Mistress, The song isn't too bad, except for when it's played over and over like it was back then!

    Scarlet, I'm not sure what the "Hike for Hope" is about. I have six long posts of bakery memories and at least one post on Japan (it was flying there and along the way experiencing a riot in LA). I should write more about Japan.

    Michael, you're that much younger than me?

    Kenju, I like that saying! Thanks.

    Dan, good to see you back. I liked the Mad Magazine version of the Poseidon Adventure!

    Walking guy, he did talk about Carter completing the Watergate cycle but I don't remember him mentioning Reagan's underground work.

  8. Oh man I wasn't ready to start thinking about the '70's this morning! I was a little younger, but one way or another that decade really shaped who I am.

    That's a soulful song, and I remember watching the movie. The song actually won an academy award and that movie was one of the most popular in '72. I'll never forget Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters as they have to figure out how to swim down around the ship to save themselves. Many times later on various ships I would think of that moview :)

  9. Great post Sage. I would like to explain why I believe Berkowitz talked so much about Boston

    Boston was supposed to be the "cradle of civilization." It was one of the largest cities in the country with the most amount of colleges in and around it

    Boston was more segregated than the South. I know people could fight me on that but I moved to Cambridge (an oasis) from NY. I "learned" to fear running into Black people and some White people in Boston. It was damn scary

    Idid my Urban Studies internship in "White Dorchester." The org I worked for was supposed to be a housing org and in 19 other cities it was

    In Boston it was an anti-busing front. Have your kid drop out of high school. What is he learning anyway?

    I don't look particularly Jewish and besides hating Blacks they hated Jews. I'm half Irish by birth and Slavic so I kind of used that identity--my adviser wouldn't let me change internships as I had stumbled into the one that would teach the most

    I have never been scared in the South. I was never scared in NY--even during the years I was supposed to be. Boston was a place where I was constantly afraid

    When people talk about how segregated North Myrtle is and it is--and how racist the people, I agree with the first and disagree with the second. I talk about Boston--there are some excellent books written about school desegreg--one won a Pulitizer, I think I have it and will look for it for you

    Sorry for the length of this comment. The 70s were a pivotal decade and to fully understand the 70's in America Boston has to come into play

    Oh disco--I will always hate it and never long for it no matter how sentimental I get

  10. You strolled through life so casually, Sage. It is always interesting to read about life in the 60's, 70's, 80's, especially when we were there once, but not now. Life is expressively historical at times. We tend to revert back to old memories just to get a boost to live the present. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Ah, yes, The Poseidon Adventure matched only by The Towering Inferno as a cinematic masterpiece.

    I remember waiting in line at the gas station with my mom in the 70s, and I remember volunteered in one of the south Florida campaign offices of Jimmy Carter. I was 12 at the time. I didn't fully grasp all of the issues, but my gut told me he was a good person and that sufficed for a 12 year old.

    I hate that there is still such segregation. I'm ashamed of it.

    Excellent post, Sage. I really enjoyed it.

  12. I'm with Dan - the original Poseidon Adventure was the classic disaster movie - often copied, but rarely bested.

    1972 we took our only real family vacation - driving from so cal through Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. The Olympics were on tv, and our neighbor was medaling in swimming. And the Isreali athletes were taken prisoner.

    It was a different time.

  13. I am amazed by the way you can read so much of non-fiction!

  14. Beau, the 70s were an interesting decade and I guess helped shape many of those who read my blog.

    Pia, interesting history of you working in the Boston area. I sure that the reason I was shocked at the emphasis on bussing in Boston was that I was involved in cross-town bussing three years earlier. And I agree with you about disco!

    Cyclops, it is interesting how we draw strenght and meaning from the past.

    Stephanie, Wow, good for you working in the political process at 12. The gas lines were really something, but they only lasted a few months, from what I remember

    Diane, that vacation sounds like it would have been fun, through some of my favorite parts of this planet! Welcome back, I assumed your rested and tanned and hope we'll soon hear of your recent trip.

    Gautami, I like good non-fiction, especially creative non-fiction (this didn't fall into the later category, it was more academic)

  15. I hated that "Morning After" song with a white hot intensity.

    As for all the Seventies, as far as I'm concerned it was a real kidney stone of a decade, even though I did graduate from high school. God, I hated disco.


  16. Well the 70's started without my presence so I don't have much to say about that. When the 70's ended, I was just one of two kids living with a newly divorced mom trying to get by on little of nothing. My few memories of the 70's aren't popular ones in my mind.

  17. nice overview of the 70s overview.

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