A Decade Dies, a Movement Dies

Hazlitt got gloomily drunk for a fortnight after the battle of Waterloo, accurately anticipating that decades of reaction lay ahead, now that Boney had been definitely put away, with the Holy Alliance in the saddle and the French contagion safely bottled up. Smart fellow, that Hazlitt. He should have stayed drunk for a month.

Sometimes, on the edge of a new decade, things look dismal, but one has the feeling that something good just might be around the corner. The ’70s for example: At their onset, Nixon was in the high noon of his first term, presiding over frightful slaughter in Vietnam, while his Attorney General, John Mitchell, pored over plans to lock up the left at home. It looked as though darkest night was falling.

And yet there was a certain edgy, desperate hope in the air — and four short years into the ’70s, the hopers, no longer desperate but exultant, saw Nixon clamber into a helicopter and take off from the White House lawn toward his version of St Helena, in San Clemente; and nine months later on April 30, 1975, Gunnery Sgt. Bob Schlager and 10 other Marines finally caught the last helicopter off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Ah, those raucous, wonderful ’70s. Those who missed them will never know the sweetness of life, as Talleyrand said of the Ancien Regime. Sweet and sharp. I spent them in New York. No better place to be. There was an exciting edge to life.

With the ’80s, you could feel the air beginning to seep out of the tires. For one thing, Death kept missing his appointments in Samarra, after years of rigorous punctuality with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Kennedy brothers. He’d already fumbled two dates with Gerald Ford, when his chosen messengers, Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme, messed up. On March 30, 1981, another of Death’s chosen messengers, John Hinckley, tried to shoot Reagan and failed to get his man.

That would have been a game changer! We’d have had three months of Ron instead of eight weird years when America plunged into fantasy, where it still resides. We wouldn’t have heard him give the Star Wars speech, or Nancy just saying no. Or Ron saying he expected Armageddon to come in his lifetime. Or Nancy running the country with the help of Mrs. Quigley, her astrologer. We’d have had George Bush Sr. … surely a one-termer. It would have all been different …

But would it really? Clinton and the ’90s suited each other fine, and Bill gave us our last known dose of politics as fun, with the Lewinsky affair, but the decade would have had the same general contour — though a Republican president would have had much bigger problems getting the poor tossed off welfare.

And then in 2000, we had Bush and Gore, and the American people very reasonably couldn’t figure out which one to go for. The folks who knew Gore best — the voters of Tennessee — went for Bush. And then in September of Bush’s first term, we had a game changer here in America. Death finally rounded up a gang of messengers with a real commitment to getting the job done.

But “game changer” aren’t quite the words for the event that launched the Noughts. Sept. 11 just sped up basic tendencies that were already in train. Invasion of Iraq? The onslaught had been in full spate through most of Clinton-time via a lethal embargo — and the course of Iraqi politics had been set back in 1963, when the Kennedy administration okayed CIA complicity in the overthrow and murder of the Iraqi nationalist Gen. Kassim, setting the stage for the CIA’s man, Saddam Hussein.

The Afghan mess is now about to get messier. It was set up in the late 1970s, when the Carter administration supervised the overthrow of Afghanistan’s one shining moment of hope, the left reformist governments that took power in 1978. That’s when Osama stepped into the stage of history as one of the CIA’s men. Israel, the Palestinians?

Rewind the decades back to Truman and beyond.

What made the American ’70s exciting was the left — in its broadest antinomian contours — had life in it, still pumped up by successive radical generations all the way back to the beginning of the century. The last time we saw that left in action was in the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988.

In 1992, the left went hook, line and sinker for Bill Clinton and lost all independent traction. By 1996, it had become a habit. Same story in 2000. Same again in 2004 (all in behind the Democrat Kerry, in case you forget) and finally, most deliriously, with the salesman of hope in 2008, Barack Obama. The left is dead and gone as a vital force in American political life. The corporations run the show and the only vivid opposition comes from Christian populists, who’ve brought several million copies of Sarah Palin’s memoir.

The teens? Raise your glass along with Mr. William Hazlitt.

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