Who Stole My Country 112 – News in the Late Seventies

It’s great fun to produce a daily news show. The ATC slate (in our case a white board) was clear in the morning and erased when we went home at night. Except for the occasional personnel problem and a few pieces that required development over time, my plate was clean at the end of the day. It was not like the agonizing six months we routinely spent on a documentary at ABC.

It was a fascinating time to run a daily news show. Jimmy Carter, who began his presidency on a high note, was struggling. He persuaded the Senate to ratify a controversial Panama Canal treaty that gave control of the canal back to the Panamanians. He devised an ambitious energy plan to reduce American dependency on foreign oil. He negotiated a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians. He put human rights at the top of his foreign agenda even if his efforts on the issue were not always commendable.

Carter helped shepherd us through our first great nuclear crisis, when on March 28, 1979 a partial core meltdown took place at Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pennsylvania.  For five days the country waited anxiously until the reactor was deemed under control.

When I became producer of ATC the country was still buzzing about Carter’s July 15th speech, which the media called his “malaise” speech, although Carter himself never used the word. He had been scheduled to address the nation on July 4th, but abruptly cancelled his talk when the draft prepared by his staff seemed unresponsive to the dire situation in which the country found itself. The economy was in the toilet and gas lines stretched for blocks around those stations that still had fuel to sell.

Carter retreated to Camp David and invited a wide range of ordinary citizens to come and talk with him. Ten days later he delivered a speech like no other in American history. I watched it again in 2017. It’s a Sunday school sermon, a deeply felt, personally researched look into the American soul. Carter spoke of “a crisis in the American spirit,” of a people who had lost “confidence in the future” and had a “growing disrespect for our basic institutions, the government, the news media, the business community.” We had become “self-indulgent and consumptive,” defined by “what we own instead of who we are.”  This was 1979!

He listed a litany of failures: Vietnam, the 1968 assassinations of political leaders, our dependence on foreign oil. Carter predicted it would get worse over the next five years. He called for a decrease in foreign oil consumption, funds for alternative sources like coal and natural gas and he asked us to get 20% of our energy from solar power by the year 2000. He called for energy conservation, warned of possible rationing, called for $20 billion for public transportation and more money to help the poor pay their rising energy bills.

Initial reaction to the speech was positive, but that quickly changed in the days ahead as the media pounded home the narrative that “the malaise speech” blamed the American people for their own troubles.

Farsighted as Carter was on energy, he was hardly a New Deal progressive. As Gary Hart had made clear in 1972, the Democratic Party leadership had already abandoned the New Deal. Carter implemented a pro-business agenda based on the conclusions of the Trilateral Commission, which were not that much different from the notorious Powell memo. (Sees my post #104 – Attack on the New Deal  https://chriskochmedia.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1867&action=edit). He increased the defense budget. He enacted the first big tax cuts for the rich and the first big deregulation, going after the airline and trucking industries, throwing labor under the bus in the process.

I quote at length from 2014 Jacobin piece by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones explaining the social consequences of deregulation.

“By drastically reducing ticket costs, the major airlines would take on an unsustainable amount of debt that, combined with the loss of business to the new entrants, would lead to layoffs or bankruptcy. Pension funds were then raided and labor contracts voided to pay for the price wars. With each airline company collapse, thousands of employees were laid off, decimating union membership.

“To compete, the legacy airlines also drove down the salaries of their pilots, and cut benefits and vacation time. Besides a reduction in compensation, a two-tiered pay system has been set up with decent pay for incumbent pilots and markedly low wages for new entrants. Starting salaries for pilots are now as low as $15,000 a year, even as CEO pay rises inexorably. Remarking on a career in which he had seen his pay cut in half and his pension eliminated, captain Sully Sullenberger told the BBC in 2009 that he did not know ‘a single professional pilot who wants his or her children to follow in their footsteps.’”

Deregulation swept through America like a disease under the next administration of Ronald Reagan, but Democrats need to acknowledge that it began under Carter. The median level of inflation-adjusted household income peaked in the United States in 1973. Working people saw wages stagnate and under Carter they began to decline.  The idealism of popular culture in the Sixties and early Seventies had changed by 1980.  The ruthless oil baron J.R. Ewing of the new popular television show Dallas eclipsed the beloved working-class Archie Bunker.  All In The Family was off the air by April, 1979, although a sequel hung on for four more seasons.

The new working class hero wasn’t Norma Rae of the 1979 film by the same name nor Jim Casey of Grapes of Wrath but Tony Manero, of the immensely popular Saturday Night Fever. Moreno wasn’t fighting for the working class.  He called his buddies in Brooklyn “assholes” and escaped to upwardly mobile Manhattan. Only a few winners got out of American hopelessness.  In America, a silver medal Olympic athlete explained, “second place is first looser.”

Popular music expressed the same despair.  Johnny Paycheck’s country song, “Take This Job and Shove It” played on stations across the country, in workplaces and bars during the Carter years. At first listen it sounds like rebellion, but the actual lyrics tell a different story.  “I’d give the shirt right off of my back / If I had the nerve to say / Take this job and shove it!” But he doesn’t have the nerve.

In 2016 the abandoned working classes finally had their revenge with the election of Donald Trump who promised to care about them.

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