It was the spring of 1973 when I knew the Sixties were over. I was in Kathleen's dorm room late one night when we heard crowd noises outside. "Panty raids," she said. Only a year before, those sounds would have meant an antiwar demonstration. But now that the Vietnam war was over, at least for American combat troops, the mindless college antics of the Fifites had returned. While it didn't dawn on me at the time, I would not have be spending the night in my fiancee's dorm room in the Sixties, when parietal rules were strict and strictly enforced.
What are we to make of the Seventies? Tom Wolfe called it the "Me Decade." Many popular historians see it as just a transition between the Sixties and the Eighties.
In his new book, 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America, historian Andreas Killen sees the decade as one of national paranoia. The book's final chapter is titled "Conspiracy Nation." An epilogue about the Patricia Hearst kidnapping follows.
Killen focuses on 1973 as the pivotal year of the decade--the year of Roe v. Wade and the Arab oil embargo. Yet he discusses these subjects only in passing. Instead, he focuses on the PBS series, An American Family, Andy Warhol, the returning prisoners of war, the New York Dolls, cults and deprograming, the films American Graffiti and Badlands, airline hijackings, and the novels Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong and Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. One chapter focuses on Watergate, primarily to further Killen's argument for the "Conspiracy Nation." Killen devotes more space to the Comet Kohoutek than to the energy crisis. Remember Kohoutek? It was supposed to provide a spectacular light show between Christmas, 1973 and New Year's 1974. Some religious cultists thought it would usher in the Second Coming. In fact, it was barely visible to the naked eye.
I'll admit that my experience of 1973 is not an unbiased one. Kathleen and I were married August 1 of that year. I was young, idealistic, and completely in love. We went to Washington, D.C. on our honeymoon (on the train, of course). I had worked for Dick Clark (not the Bandstand guy, but the Iowa senator) the previous summer, so we had no problem gettiing to see Congress at work. We got to see the representatives lounging about the House floor, drinking bottles of soda while Gerald Ford was arguing that strikerr didn't deserve food stamps. We skipped waiting for hours in the Capitol basement to see the Watergate hearings for half an hour. It was more important to see the National Gallery.
I didn't watch An American Family. It seemed too voyeuristic. I didn't want to watch a marriage and family fall apart. I saw American Graffiti years later. Ditto for Fear of Flying. I had never heard of the New York Dolls, and I've never read Gravity's Rainbow. I haven't ever seen The Exorcist. So when it comes to 1973 cutlure, I'm definitely deprived.
But I remember it as a time of hope--a hope that America's madness was coming to an end. The Watergate hearings were exposing Nixon and his aides for the criminals they were. The Arab oil embargo made Americans reconsider their lifestyle. People began trading in their gas-guzzlers for small cars. Mass transit systems stopped shrinking and somtimes even expanded. When the Nixon Administration proposed to slash the Amtrak system, Congress said no.
By 1974 there was a liberal Democratic majority in Congress. Yes, America went back to its madness late in the decade. By 1980, conservation was out and waste was back in. President-elect Ronald Reagan called the Vietnam War a "noble cause."
But during 1973 and 1974 there was hope for a sane America. I was reminded of that hope last week, when Ned Lamont defeated Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. Once again, some Americans are rethinking the status quo. Perhaps this time, we can overcome the waste, corruption, war, and, well, madness which dominates American government.