2/11/13 - camelot, watergate, and three helicopter flights

In today's selection -- the 1970s stands as a decade of failures, when weak leaders presided over the long slide from Camelot to Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis. The truth was that the era of America's easy post-World War II dominance was ending. A world that had been easy to prevail over when Europe and Asia's factories lay in ruins was changing now that Germany and Japan were re-emerging as manufacturing powerhouses. And America's short-sighted postwar energy policy caught up to it as well: regulating the price of domestic oil had stunted domestic production and ceded market control to OPEC, a truth that came hard in the Middle East oil crises of 1973 and 1979 when prices tripled and then tripled again. Leadership came hard in the face of these tectonic shifts, and the new American susceptibility was symbolized by three fateful helicopter flights:

"There they are, the great men of the age martyred on the pyre of national lead­ership, the fallen heroes of a time not easily forgotten: Martin Luther King Jr. in front of the Lincoln Memorial; Bobby Kennedy reaching out, his boyish grin not yet erased; John Kennedy, coatless at his inaugural. 'Let the word go forth,' said the young president, 'from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.' In truth, these men were far from universally loved -- while they were alive -- but, ineffably, they offered Americans the sense that the nation was about big things and grand possibilities. 'I have a dream,' said Martin Luther King Jr., forcing even his implacable foes to ponder what changes his words portended. The chasm separating such iconic figures of the 1960s and the dispiriting stock imagery of the time that followed seems too deep to cross.

"The first helicopter snapshot: President Nixon on August 9, 1974, about to fly away, his presidency immolated on his own lies and deceptions, an immobile American flag above his head, his arms outstretched, fingers incongruously flashing 'V' for victory, a rictus smile, cameras broad­casting the whole sorry affair. The second helicopter snapshot: Saigon, April 30, 1975, Operation Frequent Wind, the last Americans are hauled away from the roof of the U.S. embassy while marines lob gas grenades at desperate Viet­namese allies who had been promised safe passage, defeat marked by betrayal and third-world disorder, a soundless beating of propeller blades against somebody else's skies. And closing out the decade, the third and final helicopter snapshot: the Iranian desert, April 25, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted Delta Force plan to rescue the American embassy hostages, an RH-53D helicopter burned beyond recognition, five others left behind to be taken as trophies by the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary forces, eight American fighting men dead without a shot fired against the enemy. Take your pick of presidents: the felonious Nixon; the stolid, unelected Ford; the ineffectual outsider Carter. The torch, it seemed, had fallen.

"In the 1970s, the people who were supposed to give national direction were unable to lead. Excepting Mr. Nixon, individual fault had little to do with it. In the post-Watergate 1970s, traditional national leadership did not appeal to large swaths of the population who had lost faith in the types of authorities who had betrayed them. Those in leadership were often enough ridiculed when offering their services, dismissed altogether when partially flawed, endlessly lampooned, held to standards few could meet, and metic­ulously scrutinized like no earlier generation of leaders had ever been. In part, it was a cleansing, necessary step for a culture so soiled by mewlish presidencies, mendacious generals, crazed political radicals, and a dunder-headed class of big-business executives. For mainstream political liberals, who had made faith in strong national political leadership and an activist government the touchstones of both their electoral strategy and public pol­icy, it would be a most unpleasant era. For conservatives, who had never had anything good to say about Martin Luther King Jr. or either of the Kennedy brothers, the failures of national leadership presented a sweet opportunity to devolve authority from the federal government back to the economic mar­ketplace and, to a lesser extent, to local community decision making.

"The failure of national leadership was no secret in the mid-1970s. Ritualistically, one public voice after another intoned that Americans had lost all faith in their leaders and, maybe, in themselves. Missouri congressman William Hungate, who had served on the House Judiciary Committee that brought down Richard Nixon, announced his own retirement soon after: 'Politics has gone from the age of 'Camelot' when all things are possible to the age of 'Watergate' when all things are suspect.' "


David Farber, edited by Beth Bailey and David Farber


America in the 70s


University Press of Kansas


Copyright 2004 by the University Press of Kansas


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