Ronald Reagan (AP/Ira Schwarz)

Thomas Frank on Ronald Reagan's secret tragedy: How '70s and '80s cynicism poisoned Democrats and America

Nixon's lies and Reagan's charms created the space for Clinton, Carter and Obama to redefine (and gut) liberalism


Thomas Frank
November 16, 2014 5:00PM (UTC)

“The Invisible Bridge” is the third installment in Rick Perlstein’s grand history of conservatism, and like its predecessors, the book is filled with startling insights. It is the story of a time much like our own—the 1970s, which took America from the faith-crushing experience of Watergate to economic hard times and, eventually, to a desperate enthusiasm for two related figures: the nostalgic presidential aspirant Ronald Reagan, and the “anti-politician” Jimmy Carter. (I discussed Perlstein’s views on Carter in this space a few weeks ago.)

In blending cultural with political history, “The Invisible Bridge” strikes me as an obvious addition to any list of nonfiction masterpieces. But I also confess to being biased: Not only do I feel nostalgia for many of the events the book describes—Hank Aaron’s pursuit of the home run record, for example—but I have been friends with Rick since long ago, when he was in college and The Baffler was publishing his essays. I interviewed Rick on an Amtrak train traveling from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, a few weeks ago (we were there to do readings from a new anthology of essays); here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Let’s talk Watergate. It’s a Republican scandal, obviously, but here’s the thing: It’s liberalism that has never really recovered. Think about it. Your book starts with Watergate and ends with…well, it doesn’t quite get to the triumph of Reagan, but it comes close.

That’s a profound question. That’s deep. I think that liberalism indeed has never really recovered from Watergate in the following sense: It gave a certain generation of Democrats — and we’ll talk about Gary Hart. . . .

Yeah. He’s going to come up.

It gave a certain generation of Democrats an argument to take on the Republicans at the exact same moment that a new political generation was coming up that had indifference, at best, and contempt, at worst, for the New Deal tradition. So you get this class of Congresspeople who hadn’t really run for any office at all. Very young. Swept into office in 1974, very much arguing on issues of corruption, to be sure, but also lifestyle issues. Often they were representing new suburban constituencies that had traditionally elected Republicans and their spokesman was, in fact, this guy Gary Hart…

You’re getting ahead of yourself here, Rick. There’s a more direct route — I probably should have hinted at it — which is cynicism. That Watergate kicked up this huge cultural contempt for government and all its works.

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For government itself. Right, right. You know Ronald Reagan, his speech announcing his surprise challenge against Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination centered around this idea of the “buddy system” in Washington.

God, how many times have I heard that since then? They talk about this all the time…

The buddy system in Washington. And, just to kind of rewind, I was very fascinated to read a book of Mike Royko columns. You know, Mike Royko is this great liberal hero, a real champion of the little guy and the kind of columnist we don’t see anymore. This white working-class populist kind of guy.

Although they didn’t use that term populist back then. They would have just said “liberal” right?

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No. They would have probably called him a populist, I think. But I was struck by how many of his columns.… One of his genres was how cruel they’re being to the little guy. One of his genres was the lives of colorful Chicago characters. But a lot of his columns were about how incompetent government was, and he would write about how hard it is to get a refund when the bus token machine doesn’t work, or the lines at the DMV. And, by the same token, when you read the toughest political journalism of the day by someone like Garry Wills, who was writing amazing stuff for Esquire Magazine, it’s so iconoclastic.

How do you mean?

He was so good at knocking politicians off their pedestals and showing them up to be phonies. One of Garry Wills’ favorite rhetorical strategies was to find out what a politician’s favorite book was, according to his campaign rhetoric, and then ask him about the book and prove that, you know, he had no idea what was in there.

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So the point is, there was just all kinds of suspicion of government circulating in the culture. It was in the air. I mean, why wouldn’t there be after Vietnam? After Watergate? After the failure of Keynesianism? And one of the sort of diabolical, cunning accomplishments of Ronald Reagan and the Reaganites was to take that free-floating rage, rage about the failures of government and turn it to the advantage of the Masters of the Universe.

Yeah. That’s the story of our time in some ways.

It’s a story of our times.

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But the cynicism keeps regenerating. I mean we’re in a new cycle of it now…

And that gets to the first answer of your question, which was that the Democrats were hurt by Watergate in that it gave them a way to avoid, turn away from, their economic populist tradition. It gave them an appeal based on anti-corruption, lifestyle issues. That they were the hip, young, kind of sirocco, you know?

Wait, what was that word you just used?

Sirocco. It’s a wind that knocks out everything in its path. So yeah. You take this free floating rage against authority of all kinds, and the government, and a reluctance of this new class of Democrats to take on concentrated economic power. You know, Gary Hart’s stock speech, he would excoriate “Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats.” It was the worst possible thing to be.

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Why would a Democrat pick on Eleanor Roosevelt?

Because it was kind of seen as old fashioned. [There was] This post-scarcity idea that the economy was taking care of everybody, which it was in the early 1970s. The tragedy was, of course, that this rhetoric sort of beginning to pick up steam just as the economy was becoming increasingly unfair for working people. So you take these two factors and what emerges is a Democratic Party that’s superficially very strong, right, because they do very well in 1974, and of course they win the presidency in 1976. But they become strong at the expense of their historic appeal, which is to be the economic defenders of people seeking to enter and stay in the middle class.

Yeah, of average people. And they’ve become the defenders of something very different. You know, it’s funny because now when people think back about Gary Hart I’m quite certain what they think is “liberal.” If anything, more liberal than Walter Mondale, the man he ran against [in 1984].

Right, and Walter Mondale was coming out of this tradition of this guy, Hubert Humphrey, who really, now, to me, looks like a prophet without honor. He was held in contempt by the New Left because he stuck with — talking about Humphrey — the Vietnam War when he was running for president in 1968.

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Yep. That killed him. That’s what did him in.

It killed him. And a lot of these post-New Deal Democrats, by the way, come out of the New Left and the New Left had this very problematic relationship with the labor movement, who were seen as sort of the Cold War consensus. So you get Mondale, who is an heir of Humphrey’s tradition, and he is the labor candidate. But he’s seen as kind of square and old-fashioned in 1984 because he’s working on these issues that are not seen as exciting and dynamic: that if you work hard and play by the rules [Mondale thought,] you should be able to put your kids through college and they should do better than you did.

Talk about how the POW/MIAs became such a huge cultural touchstone. I mean, people don’t remember that this was very cynically masterminded by one Richard M. Nixon.

Yeah. Clever fellow that Richard M. Nixon. The baseline of this is, we know from the testimony of one of his friends and aides, Leonard Garment, that as early as 1966, Richard Nixon knew that we couldn’t prevail in the Vietnam War. And what he told a rich donor in 1966 was: The question of Vietnam was not, whether we could win or lose — we couldn’t win — but that we had to settle it on the terms that were most favorable to us. So he lied about that for seven straight years.

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As president, you mean?

Yeah, as candidate, as president. Basically, he had a terrible political problem on his hands, which was to end this war and make it look like America had done an honorable thing, instead of what they had actually done, which was pursue a war that was completely wasteful, did nothing but terrible things for the country—our country, and, of course, their country too.

So part of what he came up with was, to wrest concessions from the communists at the negotiating table, he created this issue that they were historically cruel to their prisoners and that if they really…

Did you say historically cruel?

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Right. Historically cruel.

Like, they were unusually, crazy cruel.

Unusually cruel. Right. And they were cruel, right? So there was some credibility to it. But the weren’t nearly as cruel as our guys, the South Vietnamese, who kept them [prisoners] in these underground cages and cleaned them by dumping lime on their heads and fed them by pouring maggot-ridden rice on them.

So he [Nixon] basically invents this negotiating point that if they really wanted to show good faith they would release these prisoners. Which had never happened in any other war. The prisoners are always released when the war is over. But he creates this brilliant public-relations campaign that makes these pilot—who were the guys who basically were strafing innocents in civilian areas—into these pluperfect martyrs and turned it into this touchstone of popular culture. You had Sonny and Cher wearing POW bracelets. Did you have a POW bracelet, Tom?

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No. But the first political event I ever went to was in 1972, and I got all these stickers that said — I remember I had one in my bedroom that said — “POWs / MIAs Never Have a Nice Day” and it had a frowning face.

Right, a frowny face.

I didn’t know what that meant.

But the thing is, by 1972, they did have nice days because — and Tom Hayden told me this — they stopped, I knew that Hanoi had stopped torturing the POWs in 1969. And [the way] history is recorded, no one ever knew why. But according to Tom Hayden, and this is his claim, when they met with North Vietnamese leaders they argued that this torture was terrible for them politically and kind of talked them [the North Vietnamese] out of it. So the New Left who were supposed to be the bad guys, the anti-war movement actually materially improved the lives of these prisoners, if Tom’s to be believed.

So what happened?

These kids would wear bracelets that would have the names of a prisoner on them and would pledge to wear them until the prisoner was released. Kids were go to the playground and they would trade them. You know, 10 or 20 on one arm.

And then they [the POWs] became these huge heroes.

Right, and what ended up happening was, when the war did end and the POWs were released, then there was this huge patriotic festivity that I record in the first chapter of the book. One of them [the POWs] said, “We walked out of Hanoi as winners.” And the fact that they survived and prevailed, according to this narrative, became an allegorical kind of proof that America itself had come out of Hanoi as winners. I mean it almost became this sort of perverse argument that we won the Vietnam War.

Some of them were quite heroic. You think about John McCain’s story.

Indeed. They were quite heroic and the story holds up on its own terms. Unfortunately, the Pentagon distorted it — for example, made up things that weren’t true about prisoners being hung by their wrists and having their arms permanently broken. Well, that was easily checked once they came back, and their arms weren’t permanently broken. But I have the smoking gun, which is Nixon’s Secretary of State, William Rogers, saying the POWs are serving their purpose to basically —you can get the quote from the book — putting the military on a new footing, where they should be—to kind of redeem American militarism.

Then they had them touring the country…

Right. But the thing is, it didn’t really work. And an important point I make that kind of sets up the whole argument of the book, was that this whole attempt to create these pure innocents was short-circuited because there was just too much energy in the culture questioning the innocence of America. And you began to see very mainstream publications saying very provocative things. For example, [you have] the columnist in the New York Post, Pete Hamill, writing a column — this is a working class tabloid in New York, this is being read by everybody, this isn’t The Nation or Noam Chomsky — saying that waiting for the POWs to come home reminded him of the time he was waiting for a buddy of his to get out of Sing-Sing. Because these guys are criminals, who were . . . .

Good Lord. He said this in a column?

Yes. In a column! Because they were murdering innocents. Because they were bomber pilots. So this radical critique of American militarism had worked its way all the way into the center of American public opinion. That sets of the debate of the book. That sets up the whole dynamic which is these two visions of patriotism: The old kind of salute-the-flag-whenever-the government-tells-you-to vision, and this new vision of patriotism, this kind of 1970s notion that the best way to be patriotic is to call your country to account and make it better.

But that didn’t exactly work out either, as we’ll see as we go on. But specifically MIAs, this the one…

That’s even more cynical.

Yeah, this is the little dose of cynicism that launched a thousand nightmares, through all the “Rambo” movies and everyone flying that black flag to this day…

Right. Illinois still has a POW-MIA remembrance day. So the cynicism is that, generally speaking, when a pilot would get shot down over dense jungle and they didn’t recover the body, they were classified as “body not recovered.”

Killed in action, right?

Presumed killed in action, basically. And one of the things Nixon did — and the Nixon Pentagon did — was reclassify them as Missing In Action, which served a very important rhetorical purpose: If they were missing in action, maybe they were alive. And if they were alive maybe the enemy had them alive. And so it created this sort of negotiating point. Nixon could accuse them of negotiating in bad faith unless they promised to return these soldiers that they were supposedly holding back. And that turned out to be the sorcerer’s apprentice, because he would always talk about the 1,700 Americans held prisoner or missing in action. And after the war ends and these 600 men come back…

That’s how many POWs there were?

Approximately. 592, I think, was the number. People would say “where are the other 1,100?” And their families would say, “where are the other 1,100?” And, basically, this preexisting group that Admiral [James] Stockdale’s wife had started up, the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, the White House basically turned it into their own front group and plumped [it] up into something much bigger than it had been. But then it takes this independent life of its own harassing the government for not more actively looking for their missing family members. So they played with the feelings of these absolutely traumatized families for political gain, and it eventually backfired.

It’s horrible. And all the towns that these POW’s come from and the way we think about the war, it’s all bundled up here.

It’s all bundled up in the wounded masculinity of this country that defeated Hitler, became the most dynamic economy the world had ever known, and it had been laid low by circumstances. So again, there’s this war between: Are we going to reckon with that? Are we going to sort of think about ways to body forth as an American community that doesn’t require us to have this macho self image? Or are we going to lie to ourselves and create this right-wing narrative in which we’re perfect innocents, in that our decency is only put at risk by these external enemies?

And which one did we choose? (laughs)

(laughs) Dot, dot, dot…

So, the backlash. This is one of the things that’s so fascinating about your book — so many of things that you describe starting up in the '70s are still going today in some form…

Well, Cher, for example. "Star Wars."

You dont get to that.

Next book.

But the origins of the backlash, right? The busing riots in Boston. The school books in West Virginia. That story was particularly fascinating. And nobody remembers that.

Yeah. It has huge resonance for the fight over Advanced Placement history standards that are going on right now…

Or the Common Core…

The Common Core. No, absolutely! The idea that these bureaucrats in Washington are telling our school districts what to do. One of my favorite crazy Ronald Reagan quotes in the book is him saying that the National Education Association was like the Nazis, because they tried to have a national school curriculum and then the next thing you know, they’re burning the books.

It’s that iron-clad logical thinking that endeared him to the nation. But the pattern—these things are always spoken of in class terms…

Right. The liberal elites.

Thats still with us today, burning brightly. 

Well Tom, how would we pay our rent otherwise? 

Thats very cynical, Rick.

Well, yes, that’s true, you have a mortgage. So what’s the question?

I just want you to comment on the longevity of this stuff, how it goes on and on.

Well, I date it back way before the '70s. I date it back to the 1770s. I mean, if you think about it, the fact that we have basically two different nations: one mercantilist, based on free labor, and one feudalist, based on slave labor. And the only reason they could form a constitution together was through these crazy compromises that pretended these divisions didn’t exist.

And then eventually it was settled in a really horrible way…

That’s right. It’s settled in this war in which like 700,000 Americans slaughter each other, leaving us this embittered South, which has this culture and ideology of . . . those damned Yankees.

Wait, none of these places are…West Virginia seceded from the South. Boston is the opposite of the South.

Right. But basically one of the discourses in the early 70s that political commentators, the smarter ones at least, were thinking about was the Southernization of the United States and the nationalization of Dixie. Right? So…

Well, thats still going on.

Right, so basically this culture of political grievance, midwifed out of the lost cause culture of the Confederate South, is attractive to people who abhor social change generally and to elites who are gifted and skilled and cynical at creating scapegoats for the difficulties that they themselves are visiting on ordinary people.

While this is going on—these working-class cultural grievances—youve got the Democratic Party, basically, saying “see ya!” to working-class voters at the same time.

Right. So you have…I mentioned Gary Hart. You have a character like William Proxmire, who’s remembered as a liberal hero, but basically was the inventor of the Democratic discourse of budget hawkery, in which the biggest problem America faced was wasteful spending. Which was honorable in his case, sometimes, although sometimes he was quite demagogic about it. But it was easily exploited by those who had more sinister motives. Then you get this character, Jimmy Carter, who had a very complex relationship to all these things. But fundamentally was a Southern conservative when it came to budget politics.

Let’s talk about the culture again, the vogue for disaster. You know, end of the world, crime in the streets, everything falling apart, killer bees, terrorists…

Right. And of course we have the disaster movie in which Americans from different walks of life bond together to defeat some unseen enemy. The most popular example is “Jaws” from 1975. And the metaphor of this beast under the sea that only reveals itself when a mangled corpse arrives on the beach—it really kind of speaks to the '70s condition of all these unseen dangers that show up on the front page day after day after day.

Yeah. That was a really powerful theme in the book, that drumbeat of disaster…

Yeah. The one after the other-ness, you know.

And terrorists running wild. I remember being frightened by this when I was a kid. I mean, who wouldn’t be? It was terrifying. It was, in that climate that Reagan started to make sense. That Reagan went from being a kook to being someone who made sense.

Yeah. Yeah. The FBI counted 89 bombings attributable to terrorism in 1975. By the way, America didn’t say that we had to kind of completely rewrite our ideas about civil liberties then. I think we were made of sterner stuff.

So in the '70s you had this culture of complete cynicism, mockery of institutions, and then side by side with that, you had this culture of nostalgia cohabiting. And they’re sort of opposite poles.

Well, or the same pole, right? I find it interesting…

Do they ever intersect?

Well, sure.

Not to cut you off, but I’ve been reading “Plain Speaking,” the Harry Truman book [from 1974], and he gets off some real zingers at Nixon in the course of that book.

Yeah. You should read Garry Wills’s debunking.

I will. But that’s a place that they do intersect. So he’s both, really nostalgic and at the same time…

Well. So the culture of nostalgia in the '70s — I mean, everything from “Happy Days” going on the air in 1975 to Bette Midler having a huge hit with the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” to all these restaurants like the Ground Round and Shakey’s that kind of promise this 19th century kind of…

Yes. The vogue for the 1890s—what was up with that?

…vaudeville experience. Yeah. Or “The Sting” which is about the 30s but has music from the 1890s. And then, the signal example being “American Graffiti,” which literally, the tagline of the movie was: “Where were you in ’62?” And invites people to kind of imaginatively place themselves before the 60s happens. Which was part of the huge appeal of the POWs. This idea that they had somehow skipped the 60s. And they are these perfect innocents. So, yeah, they were like these Rip Van Winkles. They devote a whole hour of the “Today Show” to explaining to the POWs what had happened in their absence. But we’re the POWs. We want to be them. We want to miss the 60s.

Now, where the disaster rhetoric and the nostalgia rhetoric come together most profoundly is something around which I organized an entire chapter which is this fascinating movie which actually did better box office than “Gone With the Wind” — “The Exorcist.”

What year was that?

’74, January of ’74, in which people are waiting in lines around the block in the middle of this really vicious winter in New York. You have this symbol of our perfect innocence, our daughters, our young daughters, who are basically possessed by demons, which of course was happening all the time. This was the winter of Patty Hearst.

And to make a long story short, the plot of the movie is that science and modernity avails us nothing to fight these demons. If you remember, there’s this kind of faithless priest who is a psychologist, and the mom takes the daughter to all these doctors who have all these fancy machines and they’re not able to do anything. And finally what restores her to sanity is this ancient orthodox priest, this medieval rite. The exorcism. And then the last scene is really striking, because you have the mom, who I’ve heard is based on Shirley MacLaine, who is this kind of liberated, pants-wearing Hollywood liberal actress. And her daughter, in the last reel when she’s exorcized, she hugs the priest who has found his faith again, the young priest, and mother and daughter are wearing outfits that make them look like Jackie Kennedy in 1962.

Again the throwback.

The throwback. So again, you have the disaster being redeemed by the nostalgia. Which is Ronald Reagan.

And then there was also the culture of scoffing, you know, Wacky Packs which I bought enthusiastically…

Right. Exactly. I mean, again, that’s the battle that’s going on at the level of culture: are we going to be a culture that turns its back on the pieties of the past, in the case of Wacky Packs that’s turning its back on commercialism, and scoffing at that? Or are we going to become a country that settles for simple patriotism like the Bicentennial?

You know, it was for kids.

Yeah! Even kids were scoffing. Right. Mad Magazine. I quote Richard Reeves who wrote an article about this stuff for New York Magazine in 1973 or 74, saying how thrilled he was that his kid was reading Mad Magazine and learning to, basically, turn up his middle finger at all settled values. Which, of course, terrified conservatives in places like Kanawha County, West Virginia, and South Boston and, in embracing Ronald Reagan, were ready to fight back.

[The PA system on the train starts playing soothing light-country Muzak.]

Suddenly we have John Denver.

John Denver. Is he in your book? Oh, he did est, right?

Est fits in with the nostalgia because everyone wanted to be somewhere else. Everyone wanted to escape wherever it was they were. Whether it was in the past, or through some kind of cult, leaving their families, having a creative divorce.

Let’s talk about the trash culture, filth culture that was so in-your-face in the 70s.

Yeah. “Bad News Bears” right?

That’s the example you give. It’s shocking just because it was a movie for children.

In which it basically glorified cheating. It was just so dark and vicious.

But there were hundreds of examples.

What are some other ones?

Well, you talk about the pornography, the porn revolution of the '70s.

Yeah.

Wait, there’s that hilarious moment in the book where Reverend Moon comes to New York, where he’s talking about the filth and the squalor of New York…

Yeah and everyone throws garbage at the stage. He basically rents out Yankee Stadium. Look, I mean, is it filth culture? Yeah. I mean, the pornography was pretty squalid, but it was also couples taking sexuality seriously and it’s also part of the culture of…

Don’t tell me you’re standing up for trash.

No. I’m standing up for sexual positivity. You know. And one of the things that was going on was people were throwing aside old pieties that were holding them back, and that was kind of part of the maturation of the culture that I think was very salutary.

And then punk rock came on at the very end of the period and you don’t really get into it, but it sort of embraced the trash culture and was horrified by the trash culture at the same time.

Yeah and only five people listened to it.…One of my critics, the former editor of Slate, I don’t know what his point was, but he said, any book that writes about the '70s and doesn’t talk about Bruce Springsteen. . .  One of the points I made in my response to his review was like, well,  he might have been on the cover of Time and Newsweek in 1975 but "Born to Run" wasn’t all that popular an album. In 1975, the best selling album was “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain & Tennille.

Did you write about Captain & Tennille?

I didn’t.

They played that song constantly. You got so sick of it after a while. You didn’t talk about Led Zeppelin either.

No. I have a hard time talking about music in the context of cultural history because most of it just doesn’t say much—I mean, Captain & Tennille?

Yeah. Before we get to Jimmy Carter, we’re talking about echoes from then to now, and so many of the political elements we associate with Reagan and Reaganism were in place before Reagan was elected president.

Well, one thing that’s interesting, as I’m researching my book on the 1980 election, is basically every Republican candidate except for John Anderson, who was drummed out of the Republican Party, was running as a conservative in 1980. And all the New Right guys, Richard Viguerie, and Howard Phillips, and Paul Weyrich, they were kind of dividing themselves among the various candidates, you know, Connally and Bush and Phil Crane and Reagan. And of course poor Jimmy Carter in 1980 is running on a record of having started the defense build-up and deregulating trucking and airlines.

That’s right. The big deregulations happened under him, some of the biggest ones…

Right, and then of course having hired as his Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker, and giving him a mandate to basically break the back of inflation by inducing a recession. So you have austerity.

The Volcker Shock…This is all before Reagan is even elected.

Before Reagan is even elected. And then when Reagan does run for president in 1980, the secret weapon in his quiver ideologically is supply-side economics which basically breaks the back of one of the most powerful appeals that the Democrats have traditionally had, which is taxing the rich and spending the money on the middle class. Which terrified Republicans because, they said, no one shoots Santa Claus. Right? But supply-side economics says: we can inject prosperity into the economy by cutting taxes and…

The Republicans become Santa Claus.

They become Santa Claus. And it’s absolutely brilliant. Just as Democrats themselves are abandoning Keynesianism because, of course, Jimmy Carter’s first act as president is canceling all these Keynesian water projects all over the country.

Is that right? I didn’t know that.

Yeah. Because he had this deep distrust of a politics of economic populism. He thought it was kind of embarrassing. And they used to say in the Carter White House, “The best way to get Carter to do something was to say it wasn’t going to be popular,” which is very much like Obama.

I’m not sure I understand this. So if something was popular Carter didn’t want to do it?

Yes, because it would show that he was stern and Baptist and wasn’t a demagogue.

Really?

Yeah. I’m sure it’s the same way in Obama’s White House.

But that’s so . . .

Anti-political. Yeah. It’s anti-political but he [Carter] was an anti-political figure. As is Barack Obama. Deeply distrusts the sordid game of the trading of favors.

We’ll get to that in a second. But the other things, like the idea that the government is not your friend, doesn’t have your back. All that is in place before Reagan came along.

Yeah. People remember Bill Clinton’s State of the Union speech in what was it, 1995 or 1996, saying the government isn’t the solution to our problems, but Carter said almost exactly the same thing in his 1978 State of the Union address. That government has never created a job, which of course is not true.

It’s profoundly wrong. I mean, look where we are [taking a train from Seattle to Portland], we’re in the land of National Parks and Navy bases…

So basically what we have here is, no Democrat will ever get credit from the Republicans or from the pundits for unilaterally surrendering on issues of economic populism. And yet they keep on trying.

They keep trying to surrender.

Yeah.

Or they keep on surrendering. They retreat and retreat and retreat. Let me ask you the big question. We’re going to take a step away from the 70s here. People ask me this all the time and I don’t have a good answer. So: if you look at opinion polls, economic populism is very popular.

Right. But it’s not very profitable.

Okay. Right.

Follow the money, brother.

Okay. Washington, D.C., is filled with consultants and political scientists, and people who look at polls. Why don’t they embrace things that are popular?

Well, it’s because of the opportunity cost. If you embrace things that are popular that basically dispossess powerful moneyed interests, you lose the favor of the powerful moneyed interests in a system where money is an outsized influence. Then you’re putting your job at risk.

And this begins with Carter. Johnson is the last Democratic president in the period that we’re describing and Carter comes along.

Right, and Carter’s budget director is his best friend, this guy Bert Lance, who is this very fiscally conservative Atlanta banker.

What leaps out at the reader of your book in the Carter chapters is the man’s amazing, uncanny similarity to Barack Obama.

Yeah. It really is a perfect embodiment of the old saw that “Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love.” This idea that you can have this fresh-faced outsider who’s not corrupted by Washington, who is embraced by liberals as if he’s one of them, is what you see. In fact, Carter was incredibly cagey in committing himself to absolutely nothing and straddling the sides of every issue. The old joke was, they wanted to put Carter’s face on Mount Rushmore — and this is from 1976 — but they didn’t have room for two faces.

But the fact of the matter is, it’s not like nobody noticed. There was an amazing article in Harper’s early in 1976 when people were falling over themselves to embrace Carter, called “Jimmy’s Carter’s Pathetic Lies” and it debunked all sorts of claims. Remember, his campaign promise was, “I will never lie to you” and yet it [the article] had almost no political effect. And what I say is, the refrain in the book, much like in 2008, was that people wanted to believe. There’s this absolute longing, there’s this absolute palpable ache to believe in someone. You know, to take us beyond this sordid mess that was politics.

The image of the blank slate.

The blank slate. Right.

Which Obama has said about himself. And you have people saying the exact same thing about Carter.

And I think that what’s so fascinating about Carter in his moment and Obama in his, is that they both hold out the promise to kind of transcend a structural division in American life. In Carter it’s the Southerner — it’s the idea that you can unite North and South. The idea that speaks to George Wallace’s populism without Wallace’s racism, was so central. That’s why I sort of say the harbinger of Carter was this great Altman film, “Nashville,” in which this literally faceless presidential candidate is campaigning through the South.

In Obama’s case, it’s the racial divide. There was this idea that electing him let us write “finis” to our structural animosities.

Yeah, and in both cases, they see overcoming the partisan division as what they’ve been brought to Washington to do, which turns out to be a big mistake in Obama’s case because in fact there’s a much bigger crisis going on at the moment. Didn’t work out well for Carter either, though…

No. It was really an impossible job being president of the United States in the 1970s. Largely because Nixon had screwed things up so badly. I mean, one of my favorite books about Nixon is called Nixon’s Economy [by Allen J. Matusow] and it shows how every decision he made on the economy was for purely short term political gain and just laid these land mines that absolutely destroyed the economy in the years to come, one after the other after the other. He had no responsible sense of the politics of oil. He just ignored it. So he left Ford first, and then Carter, with basically an impossible job. And they lost. And Reagan would have probably lost too, if he had won the nomination in 1976.

That would have spared us a lot of trouble, wouldn’t it?

I don’t know. Tom, you’re falling into that trap of believing that we can somehow transcend our problems and divisions. If we just elect the right cat…

Exactly. But the thing is you have to believe there’s some way of altering, of changing course. There’s got to be some way?

Don’t mourn. Organize.

But that hasn’t worked all too well, either. By the way, this is the third or fourth book that I’ve read in recent years to identify the '70s as the big turning point rather than the 1980s.

I’m not a big decade fan.

Of course. But everybody assumes the great turning point comes with Ronald Reagan being elected president.

Well, he didn’t emerge out of nowhere. He’s the culmination of forces that I’m trying to explain.

Is anyone nostalgic for the '70s?

I am. And for the following reason: If you read my preface, I explain that Americans at the level of popular culture, at the level of grassroots politics, were thinking very hard about what it would mean to have a country they didn’t believe was God’s chosen nation. What would it mean to not be the world’s policeman? What would it mean to conserve our resources? What would it mean to not treat our presidents as if they were kings? That was happening! And the tragedy of Ronald Reagan most profoundly wasn’t policy — although that was tragic enough — but it was robbing America of that conversation. Every time a politician stands before a microphone and utters this useless, pathetic cliche that America is the greatest country ever to exist, he’s basically wiping away the possibility that we can really think critically about our problems and our prospects. And to me, that’s tragic.


Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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