As Steve Hayward wrote in volume one of The Age of Reagan, in 1964, America was at the apogee of post-war optimism:
Despite the trauma of Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson took command of an America that was in its most optimistic frame of mind since the 1920s. The “unraveling of America,” as historian Allen Matusow labeled the 1960s, would unfold slowly over the next few years. Like the parable of the frog being slowly boiled, there would not be any single moment or event that signaled a decisive turn in America’s fortunes. In 1964 America was enjoying the Indian summer of its postwar prosperity and contentment; it might well be thought of as the tail end of the tail fin era.
Since World War II the American economy had become a colossus. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 7 percent in 1964—it would grow even faster in 1965—while inflation was a tame 1.2 percent and unemployment a tolerable 5.2 percent. GDP for the year would stand at $576 billion, and the federal budget would be balanced at less than $100 billion. There was no Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), no Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), no Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the Federal Register, which lists all government regulations, was less than 17,000 pages. Over the next 10 years, the Federal Register would balloon to more than 60,000 pages.
Personal income had more than doubled between 1945 and 1964. Per capita income was $2,592; the average manufacturing job paid $2.53 per hour. Twenty-nine percent of the workforce was unionized. The stock market was booming; the Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed above 800 for the first time on February 17. The number of Americans living in poverty had fallen by half. Many economists thought the business cycle had been mastered at last, that serious recession might never be seen again. Twenty-five million women—about half of adult women—were employed, accounting for a third of the adult workforce. Only a third of married women were in the workforce. With such a benign economic climate, it is not surprising that less than 10 percent of Americans in opinion polls listed the economy as the most important problem facing the nation. Trust in American leaders and institutions ran high. Three-quarters of the members of Congress were veterans, and polls found that 70 percent of Americans had confidence that the government in Washington would do the right thing most of the time. (By 1995 this number was down to 18 percent.) This trust perhaps explains a paradox that shows up in polls from that year; while 51 percent in a Gallup Poll identified “international relations” as the most important problem facing the nation, 63 percent said they were paying little or no attention to events in Vietnam.
By 1970, it would all fall apart of course. The same liberals who believed that they could simultaneously go to the moon, fight the Cold War, fight a hot war in Vietnam and Texas-size the New Deal with the Great Society would come crashing down to earth, and become obsessed with a whole host of reasons why the nation — and the planet — were royally screwed. Environmentalism, zero population growth, a so-called energy crisis and a whole plethora of other doubts were the symptoms of a self-created mental depression that once manic liberals found themselves wallowing in during the entire 1970s.
And while you can blame some of their self-doubts on the accumulated weight of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King being assassinated in 1968, followed by the election of their bete noire that November, Moe Lane spots a clip of Bobby Kennedy on the campaign trail that year that shows how quickly the rot had seeped in. Compare RFK’s rhetoric as he tells a classroom of young kids that they were doomed to spend their adult lives trapped in a Soylent Green-style eco-apocalypse, with the optimism of his brother, and it was clear that the end of the New Frontier was well in sight:
What would Bobby Kennedy think about today’s Occupy Wall Street? It depends on which period RFK you spoke with. Late period RFK — the man who told a group of college students in 1968 that America needed to “breed men who riot” — would love it. An earlier RFK would have wire-tapped its leaders.
But still, you’ve got to admire the man’s prescience. They told Bobby Kennedy that if America voted for Richard Nixon in 1968, a decade later New York City would be unlivable due to the stench in the air and the foul emanations in the street — and they were right!
As John of Verum Serum writes, “Hat tip to Chris Moody for this clip. This comes from a film called Early Warnings. It shows a 1979 protest in New York on the 50th anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash. See if the vibe isn’t familiar.”
1979 was also the year of Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech. As Hayward wrote in volume one of The Age of Reagan:
The New Republic [called] the speech “pop sociology stew” filled with “servile flatteries.” “Carter seems to think that teaching us to sing ‘Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella’ can be a substitute for leading us in out of the rain. Fortunately, he utterly lacks the rhetorical skill for such a con job.”This represented a striking turnabout for The New Republic. When Carter first declared the energy crisis to be the “moral equivalent of war” in the spring of 1977, The New Republic editorialized in a vein that anticipated the Carter of July 1979: “To us, whatever contraction of affluence this country may suffer over the next few years appears no more than a byproduct of the contraction of the spirit we are already suffering.”62 A labor leader who had supported Carter in 1976 complained that “The fault is his, not ours, and asking us to say something nice about America is like Gerald Ford telling us to pin on little lapel buttons and ‘Whip Inflation Now.’” And naturally Carter’s message rubbed Reagan the wrong way: “People who talk about an age of limits,” Reagan said, “are really talking about their own limitations, not America’s.”
The Reagan era meant a moratorium on such pessimism — and it’s no wonder that disillusioned former Obama supporter Mort Zuckerman sounds awfully nostalgic for a return to that period of American can-do optimism:
Unprompted, he spends much of our discussion reminiscing about the Reagan presidency. Mr. Zuckerman has for years owned U.S. News and World Report, and in 1986 its Moscow correspondent Nicholas Daniloff was seized without warning by the KGB.
Mr. Zuckerman immediately flew to Russia but returned home when Soviet officials refused to release their new prisoner. “I worked in the White House for the next four weeks virtually every day and through that I met Reagan,” says Mr. Zuckerman. Reagan secured Mr. Daniloff’s release in a swap that included a Soviet spy held in the U.S.
“Reagan surprised me,” says Mr. Zuckerman. “He got the point of every argument. . . . He was very decisive. And everybody loved working for him. They followed his lead because they really respected his decisiveness and his instincts.”
‘I was not a Republican and I was not an admirer of his before I knew him,” continues Mr. Zuckerman. “And you know, Harry Truman had a wonderful definition for the presidency. He said the president has to be someone who can persuade the American people to do what they don’t want to do and to like it. And that’s what you have to do. Somebody like Reagan had that authority. He was liked so much and he had a kind of moral authority. That’s what this president has lost.”
“Democracy does not work without the right leadership,” he says later, “and you can’t play politics.” The smile inspired by Reagan memories is gone now and Mr. Zuckerman is pounding his circular conference table. “The country has got to come to the conclusion at some point that what you’re doing is not just because of an ideology or politics but for the interests of the country.”
Because otherwise, as this Financial Times headline today punitively states, “America must manage its decline.”
No thanks, we’ve done that already. We’re ready for some change the rest of us can believe in.
Update: Ride the Mobius Malaise Loop!