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Off the Rails: Mad Men and American Liberalism in 1968

The Wreck of the Penn Central

While liberal intellectuals were going off the rails, the business world wasn’t immune, either. In February of 1968, the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central Railroad, long arch-rivals, would merge in a shotgun marriage caused as much by over-regulation and the inability to cut unprofitable routes as by anything else. The following year, Penn Central would incorporate the New Haven Railroad into their conglomeration. Then the whole thing would go spectacularly bankrupt in the summer of 1970, causing years of misery for east coast businesses and commuters.

The Penn Central bankruptcy would spur Congress into creating Amtrak in 1971, which effectively nationalized America’s passenger trains. Far from being the staunch laissez-faire capitalists of Ayn Rand’s vision, with only few exceptions America’s railroad executives were thrilled to offload their long-distance passenger business onto the federal government; it had been a loss-leader for the railroads ever since the American highway system and jet passenger planes became predominant by the end of the 1950s.

In 1976, Congress would merge the Penn Central and five other smaller but equally bankrupt northeast railroad lines into the Consolidated Rail Corporation or Conrail for short, another corporatist railroad venture. It was only at the insistence of the Reagan administration that Conrail was eventually privatized in the 1980s, one of the very few examples of a government-created venture finally concluding.

The Penn Central Railroad was notorious among railroad fans for eliminating the handsome aesthetics of the railroads it had assimilated.  The PRR and the NYC and the New Haven all had attractive paint schemes in their heyday; they were replaced by this grim modernist monstrosity.

It wouldn’t help that as the railroad went into bankruptcy, washing equipment went by the wayside; grimy black PC locomotives were staples of small communities throughout the northeast.

But the Pennsylvania Railroad had itself already begun to cast off pre-modernist aesthetics, when it leveled its original magnificent Penn Station in New York, in 1963, five years before the merger. (Which itself was a Mad Men subplot a few seasons back.) And corporations throughout America in the late 1960s were replacing their charming postwar style with a bland modernist conformity, inspired by the European Bauhaus aesthetics of the 1920s:

The Police Are Here To Preserve Disorder

On April 4th of 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated at 39, an astonishingly young age, given how much had accomplished in his lifetime. But by the time of his death, he too was drifting further to the radical left; in a 1967 speech he proclaimed, “the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam,” when in reality, they were two sides of the same coin; LBJ was the ultimate “guns and butter” leader. The previous year, King was quoted as telling his staff:

You can't talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can't talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You're really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.

The violent deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy were compounded by further violence at the infamous Democratic Convention in Chicago, in which the aging New Dealers were confronted by their radical successors. As author Daniel J. Flynn wrote in August of 2008 in City Journal:

Forty years ago this week, radical activists descended on Chicago to protest the Democratic National Convention. In the ensuing chaos, hospitals treated 192 policemen, more than 650 people were arrested, and one demonstrator was killed. This week, a group calling itself “Recreate 68” has converged on Denver to protest the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Its name to the contrary, Recreate 68’s organizers insist that they aren’t paying homage to the ’68 protestors. Not that they believe that the protestors did anything wrong: echoing the words of the federal government’s Walker Report, Recreate 68 contends that “what happened in Chicago in 1968 was not a violent protest, but rather a ‘police riot.’”

Numerous histories from participant-memoirists unsurprisingly second the “police riot” verdict. Cathy Wilkerson, whose cadre unleashed stink bombs and phoned bomb threats to local hotels, notes in her recent memoir that the “rampant brutality” of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley “was exposed for all the world to see.” For Tom Hayden, the coordinator of the Chicago protests who was arrested for deflating a police car’s tire, “rioting police” exhibited “brutal behavior” and “mindless sadism.” Bill Ayers, who brags of pelting Chicago cops with marbles fired from a slingshot, decries the “violent police assaults” and police “rioting.” But far from political innocents clubbed into reality by sadistic policemen, the activists who squared off with cops were generally movement veterans who went to Chicago looking for a fight. As Jeff Jones and Mike Spiegel of New Left Notes wrote six months before the convention, “to envision non-violent demonstrations at the Convention is to indulge in pleasant fantasying.” By 1968, the movement had moved from mere protest to open confrontation. Leaving for Chicago, Terry Robbins—who, 18 months later, would blow himself up while constructing a bomb intended for a soldiers’ dance—told comrades: “Let’s go kick some ass.”

Mayor Daley became so flustered at the violence that had descended upon his city, he uttered his now legendary malapropism, “The confrontation was not caused by the police. The confrontation was caused by those who charged the police. Gentlemen, let's get this thing straight, once and for all. The policeman is not here to create disorder. The policeman is here to preserve disorder.”

But then, Chicago-style disorder would seep through much of America, as the New Left increasingly began to control the levers of power. (See also: President Barack Obama, and his former and current secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John F. Kerry.)

Or as Ben Wattenberg memorably quipped four years later, when he was a delegate to the 1972 Democratic presidential convention, “There won’t be any riots in Miami because the people who rioted in Chicago are on the Platform Committee.”