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1970s, not '60s, was real decade of change

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2000

I always felt a little guilty about having been a teenager in the 1970s.

In the 1960s, supposedly, the youth of America went out and changed the world -- protesting, becoming aware, ushering in the Age of Aquarius.

We 1970s kids had disco, polyester and The Brady Bunch. Talk about a letdown.

But now -- hah! A new book argues that the 1970s changed mainstream America a lot more than the 1960s.

Now, don't come crying to me with your fond memories of the Summer of Love. The key word here is mainstream America.

The book is titled How We Got Here (Basic Books, $25). The author is David Frum, a contributing editor to the conservative Weekly Standard.

He starts out by contending that the 1960s may have lit a spark, but it had not yet caught fire at the end of the decade.

After all, most young people in the 1960s still supported the Vietnam War. George Wallace got a bigger percentage of his votes from young people than any other candidate.

Only 5 percent of Americans had tried marijuana by 1967, according to one study. And the No. 1 song of 1969 was Sugar Sugar by the Archies.

And, I can't help adding, The Brady Bunch actually premiered in 1969.

In 1970, Frum notes, the typical American voter was a 47-year-old machinist's wife in Dayton, Ohio. The 1960s left her untouched. It wasn't until the 1970s that her husband left her, she tried cappuccino and voted Republican for the first time.

Vietnam, Watergate, soaring crime, inflation and perceived U.S. impotence abroad in the 1970s were what caused a lot of Americans to lose their faith in institutions.

It showed up in our popular culture: taking the law into one's own hands (Dirty Harry, Death Wish), government conspiracy (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View), the need for extra-governmental justice (First Blood, The Godfather).

Not until the 1970s did the concepts of duty and self-denial -- which held society together during decades of depression and wartime -- give way. The pre-1965 divorce rate was one in 20; since the 1970s it has been almost one in two.

"The tongue-biting, looking-the-other-way, shoulder-shrugging and yes-dearing that preserved the marriages of mid-century from altar to grave," Frum writes, "looked about as appealing to the Americans of 1970 as a dinner of Spam and canned wax beans." Ann and Abby gave their approval.

We let it all hang out. Betty Ford confessed her addictions. Phil Donahue pioneered the confessional TV show. Stoicism disappeared as we all went into group therapy. It was not the Pill, but social consensus, that virtually ended the idea of a virginal wedding night.

We turned away from science; the number of engineering degrees plummeted. It was the decade of pop psychology, of Gestalt therapy, of Eastern philosophy, of unprecedented popularity of astrology, of Uri Geller. We went "back to the earth," with bicycles made of Space Age alloys.

We loved The Exorcist, Carrie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Chariots of the Gods. Traditional Protestantism declined, but evangelicalism and end-of-the-world-ism flourished (The Late Great Planet Earth). We worried about environmental and economic doom. The China Syndrome was released within days of the Three Mile Island accident.

You can tell, reading between Frum's lines, that he disapproves of a lot of these trends. But to his credit, in the end he is optimistic. The 1970s were not the beginning of the fall of Rome. They were a casting-off of rigors that we had found necessary for only a few decades.

If anything, Frum finds a reassuring cycle to it all. He argues that today's America has a lot in common with the wide-open nation in 1900, at the beginning of what a lot of people would come to call "the American Century." This is not such a bad place to be.

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