A lot had happened in four years. Richard Nixon had been caught up in a second rate burglary at the Watergate apartments and had resigned to avoid impeachment. His Attorney General John Mitchell and his top White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman were sentenced to 2 1/2 to 8 years in prison for their roles in the cover-up. Mitchell was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. He served 19 months behind bars. A total 40 government officials were indicted or jailed for Watergate crimes.
Vice President Gerald Ford filled out Nixon’s term. Except for his pardon of Nixon, Ford governed without much controversy. He signed an accord with the Soviet Union in Helsinki that reduced Cold War tensions. He ended the Vietnam war, although the images of helicopters lifting Americans off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, were forever embedded in our minds. Congress passed a new Civil Rights bill. Eighteen year olds had been given the vote in 1971 and they could now drink at 18 as well.
Victorian sexual mores, blasted by the Sixties, never regained a foothold. Pornography went mainstream in 1973 as Larry Flint launched Hustler, his raunchy version of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy. The same year the Supreme Court upheld a woman’s right to have an abortion in Roe v Wade. Sex was now okay and the modern woman could avoid what T.S. Eliot called “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender which an age of prudence can never retract.”
Richard made a living on the small royalties from his novels, magazine articles, occasional editing jobs and lectures. Conservative think tanks began to appear in the early seventies, offering jobs for conservative intellectuals, but no such progressive think tanks opened up to shield what was left of the progressive left. Richard thought my prospects for work in the publishing world were poor. Lefties were out of favor. In January, Dorothy Schiff, the outspoken owner of the liberal New York Post, sold her paper to Rupert Murdock. He was busily converting it into a London style rag with a right wing bent when I returned to New York. It fit the spirit of the times. America was moving to the right. (The New York Post was the beginning of Murdock’s media empire that eventually brought us FOX News.)
The few remaining leftist groups were violent sectarians like the Symbionese Liberation Army that had captured and converted newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst at the age of nineteen. More romantic was a Native American Indian movement, AIM, which made yet another last stand for Native Americans at the Indian village of Wounded Knee in 1973. Warriors held out for ten weeks. Two year later AIM’s final shootout took place at Pine Ridge, North Dakota.
The economy was in free fall. The Seventies were years of economic decline not seen since the Great Depression. The 1973 “oil price shock” and a stock market crash in 1974 ended any progress that labor had made over the last forty years.
Bruce Springsteen, the decade’s troubadour, caught the mood of working people in Born to Run, released in August of 1975.
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
Oh-oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.
The song is the dream of a “scared and lonely rider” to get out of the trap he’s in. He’s not the only one. “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive” and the dream of leaving remains illusive at the end of the song. They may have been born to run, but the working class folks in the song aren’t going anywhere, while more affluent middle class people was fleeing decaying urban centers.
New York City lost a million citizens in the Seventies, as they fled to suburbs to avoid notoriously high rates of crime and homelessness. Robberies and frequent mechanical breakdowns plagued the city’s subway system. Prostitutes and pimps lined 8th Avenue and lingered in much of Times Square. People avoided Central Park, fearing muggings and rapes. Drug dealers occupied boarded-up and abandoned buildings in every borough.
Despite everything, Richard pointed out, the center had held. But the center had moved right, I said. I actually had no idea of how far right it had moved. If I had been paying more attention, I would have realized that the Democratic Party was turning its back on Roosevelt’s New Deal. After the debacle of the 1968 Chicago Convention, reforms effectively kicked the labor movement out of the presidential nominating system. Democrats began to put their faith in young, urban professionals, mocked by others as “yuppies.” Richard had no patience for politics, remaining an intellectual outsider, content with his bitter-sweet portraits of upper middle class New York Jewish life that brought charges of anti-Semitism from the Jewish establishment. I imagined some sort of similar life for myself, an obstreperous but successful writer.
When I picked up my backpack and slumped into the tiny bedroom Richard had prepared for me, I had a buzz on.