* Ford began gaining—until his campaign was rocked by a gaffe.
It turned on the issue of race. Richard Nixon had once been a friend to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, receiving 40 percent of the black vote in 1960. Then, however, the Republican Party changed directions on the issue for good: they nominated Barry Goldwater, who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He got only 6 percent of the black vote. In 1968, Nixon followed Goldwater’s lead, aiming his appeal at white segregationists in the South, and white Northerners opposed to busing to desegregate public schools.
In 1972, nonwhites were practically the only voters who didn’t support Richard Nixon, giving him 13 percent. But for some Republicans this new reality had not yet sunk in.
Mal MacDougall predicted Ford would receive “what a Republican presidential candidate can normally expect”: 30 percent of the back vote.
Not likely now. Late in September
a Rolling Stone dispatch related a conversation that took place aboard an airplane bearing pop star Sonny Bono, the squeaky-clean crooner Pat Boone, and a member of Ford’s cabinet to California after the Republican convention.
“It seems to me that the Party of Abraham Lincoln could and should be able to attract more black people,” Boone reflected. “Why can’t this be done?”
The cabinet secretary smiled mischievously: “I’ll tell you why you can’t attract coloreds. Because the coloreds only want three things. You know what they want?”
Boone shook his head.
“It’s three things: first a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit. That’s all!”
Another magazine divined that the jokester was Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. He was an enormously consequential figure, the person most responsible for radically transforming American farming from a family-based to an industrial enterprise, but now the main thing he would be remembered for was a racist dirty joke. The press pounced—once their nervous editors figured out how to report it in a sufficiently family-friendly manner. (In San Diego, the biggest local paper offered readers a copy of the unexpurgated text only upon written request.) Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, a Republican, the Senate’s only African American, demanded Butz’s resignation. Ford dithered for several days, then, on October 3, he convened a press conference at which an ashen-faced Butz announced he was quitting, then left the room; then, Ford warmly praised him.
* Almost immediately, commentators began latching onto Ford’s “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” formulation as a bubbleheaded misstatement, a “gaffe”—evidence that Ford was losing a step.
The facts were more complicated. Ford was speaking accurately about a complex reality on the ground. Conservatives described the nations occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II as an undifferentiated mass of “slave states.” But Poland had resisted Russian control to a sufficient degree that Eisenhower granted it most favored nation trade status. (Joseph Stalin himself had supposedly observed that trying to impose his will on Poland was like trying to saddle a cow.) Kennedy said America should “seize the initiative when the opportunity arises” to reward Communist Bloc states for good behavior. Richard Nixon said Eastern Europe countries were “sovereign, not part of a monolith.”
This was why Ford refused to apologize for what he saw, at worst, as an infelicity of expression. But reporters kept pestering him. Eastern European ethnic leaders—who had prevailed upon Congress in 1959 to establish a Captive Nations Week observance every July—piled on, too.
* AT FIRST THE PRESIDENT, A staid Episcopalian, was reluctant to talk about faith; the campaign pressed the message via surrogates, like Ford’s seminarian son Mike, who said, “Jimmy Carter wears his religion on his sleeve but Jerry Ford wears it in his heart,” and released Ford’s private letter to an evangelical film producer named Billy Zeoli: “Because I trusted Christ to be my savior, my life is His.”
Then, Ford stuck his finger in the wind, and took the plunge himself.
Shortly after the foreign policy debate,
Ford hosted thirty-four evangelical leaders—proprietors of telecasts like Back to the Bible and The Hour of Freedom , executives from Billy Graham’s ministry and the Campus Crusade for Christ, Christian radio station owners, publishers, Bible college deans—for seventy minutes in the cabinet room. The star attendee was a preacher who’d first come to the nation’s attention after Brown v. Board of Education , when he demanded, “Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision… to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made—a land of the free and the home of the brave.”
He also said the movement for racial integration was “aching of idiocy and foolishness,” that the “idea of the universal brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God is a denial of everything in the Bible,” and that civil rights activists were “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” He claimed to have never seen a movie in his life and never intended to—until an actor named Ronald Reagan persuaded him that not all of them were sinful… His name was Dr. W. A. “Wally” Criswell.
* THE TERM “NEW RIGHT” WAS coined in 1974 by the writer and former Nixon Justice Department official Kevin Phillips. One of the figures he was describing, a man named Paul Weyrich, was once asked to explain what made the New Right new. He answered that they weren’t really conservatives. They were “radicals working to overturn the present power structure in this country.”
The New Right’s discontinuities from the old one would be exaggerated in the years to come—not least by its self-mythologizing leaders. But there were some important differences. For one thing, they believed Barry Goldwater, in whose presidential campaign many had cut their political teeth, was by then too much a member of the establishment to retain their respect. That made the outsider Orrin Hatch a natural recruit. “I’m a non-politician,” he liked to say. “I’ve spent most of my professional life fighting the growing, oppressive federal bureaucracy, mostly for working people.”
That notion—conservatism as an ideology for working people—was another New Right theme. Viguerie’s father had been a construction worker; his mother toiled in a paper mill and sold milk from the family cow. Another movement principal was the son of a furnace stoker. Kevin Phillips grew up in the Bronx, and excoriated “conservatives whose game it is to quote English poetry and utter neo-Madisonian benedictions over the interests and institutions of establishment liberalism.” He wished instead to build “a cultural siege-engine out of the populist steel of Idaho, Mississippi, and working-class Milwaukee, and then blast the Eastern liberal establishment to ideological-institutional smithereens.” Another New Right pioneer said he was fighting “a guerrilla battle at the grassroots of a generation of lower-middle-class people who feel betrayed and exploited.”
For the left, employers were the exploiters. The New Right replied that the true exploiters were federal bureaucrats grasping for tax dollars, and the media elites who shoved 1960s libertinism down Middle America’s throats. New Rightists were obsessed with what were known as the “social issues”—crime, government intrusion into family life, sexual mores, the right to own a gun. Reagan’s establishmentarian presidential campaign manager John Sears dismissed them as the “emotional issues.” But the New Right reveled in emotion—particularly, the emotion of resentment.
The prototypical New Right crusade was a movement in 1974 of fundamentalist Christians in the union stronghold Kanawha County, West Virginia, against the “educrats” who issued textbooks they considered ungodly. The protests escalated to the point of dynamiting the school board building. The Heritage Foundation, the New Right’s new think tank, sent a lawyer to represent the alleged bombers, and introduced the Kanawha organizers to fellow anti-textbook crusaders around the country. “We talk about issues that people care about,” Weyrich said unapologetically: a voter brought into the conservative tent via an “alliance on family issues is bound to begin to look at the morality of other issues”—like “the unjust power that has been legislated for union bosses.”
Jimmy Carter’s pollster Pat Caddell understood how dangerous all this could prove to the Democratic coalition: blue-collar voters were vulnerable to conservative appeals because they were “no longer solely motivated by economic concerns—which have traditionally made them Democrats.” Now that they feared “change in society” more than losing their place in the middle class, they were “one of the most vulnerable groups in the Democratic coalition.” The New Right social-issue strategy was rooted in just that—and not, at least at first, in the ideological convictions of its leaders. Those were more along the lines of the ones Barry Goldwater wrote about in Conscience of a Conservative in 1960: ending farm subsidies and the progressive income tax, facing down the Soviets even at the risk of nuclear war—the sort of notions that, when Goldwater ran for president, scared voters half to death. So the New Right searched for more tantalizing lures. As organizer Howard Phillips put it: “We organize discontent.” Organizing discontent meant foraging for whatever issues roused an otherwise apathetic citizenry to conservative political action. Presently, social issues were it.
* THE HEART OF THE NEW Right was a very small leadership cadre, whose political roots were in the lonely work of conservative organizing during the Kennedy years. Howard Phillips came from a Jewish New Deal family in working-class Boston. In the early 1960s, he helped found the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom—and proved himself a shrewd enough politician to win office as student body president at liberal Harvard. In 1971 he was appointed by President Nixon to head the Office of Economic Opportunity, which administered the federal war on poverty. Phillips loaded it up with so many young conservatives that veteran OEO bureaucrats started referring to Phillips’ “YAFia.” Then, however, in 1973, Phillips was let go after the press got wind of what Nixon had actually hired him to do at OEO: dismantle it. Phillips believed Nixon had given up without a fight. So he founded Conservatives for the Removal of the President to fight for his impeachment—not because of Watergate, but because, Phillips later explained, Nixon “was the most liberal president in American history, except Gerald Ford.”
Shortly afterward, Senator Jesse Helms gave a speech to the American Conservative Union noting that only 38 percent of eligible voters had turned out for the congressional elections following Nixon’s resignation. He argued that a plan targeting that nonvoting 62 percent—the “conservative majority,” he called it—could set the political world on its ear. Young Phillips boldly approached Helms with just such a plan: a stealth grassroots organization with cells in all 435 congressional districts, to surface only once its infrastructure was in place, with the goal of taking over one or both of the political parties. (“It doesn’t matter which party succeeds. Principles matter.”) Helms conferred his blessing—then Phillips approached a political friend to help put the plan into action. That friend was Richard Viguerie. And once Phillips secured his participation, they were well on their way.
Viguerie’s story would be told and retold many times in the decades to come, like right-wing holy writ. It began in 1961, when the twenty-eight-year-old was hired as a fundraiser by the right’s P. T. Barnum, Marvin Liebman, the middle-age man who ran Young Americans for Freedom. The first thing Liebman told him was that YAF actually had two thousand paid members, but that he should always claim there were twenty-five thousand. That was another secret to the New Right’s success: an eagerness to accept that their end—the survival of Western civilization—most decidedly justified nearly any means.
* Paul Weyrich knew how to organize. He always claimed his awakening came while sitting in on a meeting of liberal activists trying to pass a federal open housing bill—another of those legends that became right-wing holy writ. A think tank officer was commissioned to write a research report. A White House staffer was instructed to keep the president on task. Senate aides were dispatched to ride herd on Capitol Hill. Civil rights leaders agreed to flush protesters into the streets. This was how liberalism had stolen Americans’ conservative birthright, Weyrich reflected. “I saw how easily it could be done with planning and determination, and I decided to try it myself.”
* In Michigan, a University of Chicago economist and former advisor to Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign was neck deep in a campaign he believed was more important than electing Gerald Ford. “Proposition C” was an initiative modeled on a failed campaign Governor Reagan had sponsored in California in 1973 to cap taxes and limit state spending. On October 13, the professor was out electioneering for it when a long-distance phone call came from Stockholm announcing that he had won the Nobel Prize in Economics. His name was Milton Friedman.
Stockholm’s choice signified an intellectual earthquake. Friedman was perhaps the most right-wing economist working at a top American university. His popular 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom argued, with breathtaking confidence, radical notions like that government should not regulate pharmaceuticals (unsafe drugs would be weeded out via the marketplace) and corporations must not make charitable contributions (their only legitimate function was making profit for shareholders). The next year, Friedman coauthored his academic magnum opus, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960, which argued that government did not cure financial panics and depressions but caused them. Such ideas were so out of the mainstream that one economist compared him to a fencer attacking a battleship with a foil.
But “the bald little professor with the elfin face and the tart tongue,” as a journalist described him, was also a relentless popularizer of those radical ideas. He had been writing a biweekly column in Newsweek magazine since 1966. For even longer, he spoke before just about any student audience that invited him—except at mandatory chapel services; those, he said, violated his ideal of liberty. His latest book, There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, was neatly summarized by Ronald Reagan in a radio commentary congratulating Friedman for his prize: “Business does not and cannot pay taxes. Only people pay taxes… the money they forward to internal revenue comes from the corporations’ employees, customers, and stockholders. Politicians who advocate higher business taxes are really hiding the fact that they intend to raise the tax on all of us, as employees, consumers, and stockholders.”
In Chicago, Friedman’s wife and economist collaborator, Rose, told one inquiring reporter after another that since her husband considered Proposition C more important, he wouldn’t be returning home for a press conference. She spoke on his behalf: “Milton is a conservative economist and the Swedish are quite left.… Your political leanings are as important for the prize as your achievement. Giving Milton the prize now is finally saying, ‘He really isn’t as bad as we thought he was.’ ”
As it happened, “the Swedes” chose not one but two American conservatives for Nobel Prizes that year. The other was Saul Bellow, whose novels cut the clichés of bien-pensant liberalism to ribbons, frequently in the voice of characters much like their creator—brooding, hyper-intellectual Jews who saw civilization collapsing around them as the unintended consequence of liberals’ do-gooding schemes. He had also been a youthful Marxist. That made Bellow the pluperfect specimen of what had become known as “neoconservatism.” A neoconservative, as their ex-Trotskyist godfather the Wall Street Journal columnist Irving Kristol defined it, was a “liberal mugged by reality.” That perfectly described the protagonist of Bellow’s 1970 masterpiece Mr. Sammler’s Planet. “Mr. Sammler,” Bellow wrote, “was testy with White Protestant America for not keeping better order. Cowardly surrender. Not a strong ruling class. Eager in a secret humiliating way, to come down and mingle with all the minority mobs, and scream against themselves.”
* Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The merry Harvard policy intellectual had beaten three of New York’s most prominent liberals for the Democratic nomination for United States Senate. The former Johnson and Nixon administration official was best known as the author of a 1965 Labor Department report attributing most of black America’s woes not to racism but to its allegedly aberrant family structure. In Nixon’s White House he recommended “benign neglect” of the nation’s African Americans. Under Gerald Ford, as America’s representative to the United Nations, he became known for his hawkish exhortations against the Soviet Union and the upstart Third World. And now he would be seated as the Senate’s first neoconservative.
* For years Gerald Ford’s secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had argued that the arms agreements his rival Henry Kissinger had negotiated with the Soviet Union were not worth the paper on which they were printed: the Soviets simply built any weapons they pleased. Rumsfeld’s neoconservative deputy Paul Wolfowitz had convinced him that the CIA’s annual intelligence estimate of the Soviet’s capabilities was biased toward détente. So Rumsfeld lobbied the president to generate a competing assessment of the Soviet threat.
CIA director William Colby was not amused by the bureaucratic insult. But in the fall of 1975, Rumsfeld engineered a bureaucratic coup that removed him. The following spring, at the height of the primaries against Reagan, President Ford took Rumsfeld’s advice, authorizing a panel of sixteen “outside experts” to review the highly classified data by which the annual National Intelligence Estimate was produced, to write a counter-estimate of its own. The group became known as “Team B.” (Team A was the CIA itself.) Team B concluded just what Rumsfeld wished it to: first, that the Soviet Union could wipe out virtually America’s entire nuclear capability in a first strike if it wanted to; and second, that the USSR did want to.
Team B included Wolfowitz, a neoconservative Harvard professor of Russian history named Richard Pipes, and Paul Nitze, a hard-line defense intellectual who had served five presidents. Nitze had authored a similar report in 1957 whose leaked conclusions made their way into the 1960 presidential campaign when John F. Kennedy accused the Eisenhower administration of allowing a catastrophic “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. The report was based on inaccurate Air Force intelligence claiming the Soviet Union possessed as many as a thousand intercontinental ballistic missiles when in fact they only had four, a reality that proved that the Soviets were not in fact pursuing global dominations. The hard-liners remained unchastened by their mistake—as they would be again and again following many more bias-driven errors.
Team B focused on a class of evidence on Soviet intentions the CIA considered inherently unreliable: the writings of Soviet military leaders, like the officer who argued in a 1963 book that a nuclear war could be fought and won by the Soviet Union. They took this as open-and-shut evidence of official Kremlin policy, no matter that, during this period, Soviets had never even tried to build enough ICBMs to attempt it.
Team B also believed, based on speculative deductions, that the Soviets were increasing their commitment to civil defense. They thus concluded that the Soviets did not believe in the stabilizing doctrine upon which America’s nuclear system was built: “mutually assured destruction,” which held that because each understood that the other could obliterate them many times over, and that thus nobody could truly “win,” the best way to prevent war was to negotiate a parity of firepower. Instead, Team B argued, the Russians were preparing to ride out a nuclear holocaust they intended to start.
Their analysis was concluded in time for Jimmy Carter’s election. Then they leaked it to the press—in advance of the CIA’s official National Intelligence Estimate, which would now look conspicuously weak. Well-placed, well-timed leaks were the most powerful weapon in the neoconservatives’ arsenal. This one exploded with a political force in the megatons. In a season of supposed right-wing obsolescence, all Washington was atwitter with debates over whether détente hadn’t been a naive, disastrous mistake, and whether America’s weariness with its superpower status, which neoconservatives called “Vietnam Syndrome,” was spurring unilateral disarmament.
“Vietnam Syndrome” was the coinage of neoconservative foreign policy’s most prominent public face, Eugene Rostow, a law professor at Yale who had been an architect of the Vietnam War. In the fall of 1975, he had proposed forming a small bipartisan committee, with a membership so prominent it would be impossible to ignore, to warn the public that the Soviet peril was more dangerous than ever. Christened the Committee on the Present Danger, a tribute to a similar group formed in 1950 with that moniker, the committee was chartered in March of 1976; then, with the sedulousness of Dwight D. Eisenhower planning D-Day, Nitze took CPD underground, biding his time for a propitious moment to strike.
Nitze won a pre-inaugural meeting with the president-elect, lecturing him via a battery of charts and graphs about Team B’s conclusions. Carter was unmoved. So the plotters publicly announced their new committee at an impassioned press conference. Cochairman Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO, said, “Our country is in a period of danger, and the danger is increasing. Unless decisive steps are taken to alert the nation, and to change the course of its policy, our economic and military capability will become inadequate to assure security.” Others said the Soviet Union’s “unparalleled military buildup” was “reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s rearmament in the 1930s,” and that Russia, which “does not subscribe to American notions of nuclear sufficiency and mutually assured destruction,” was building forces “designed to enable the USSR to fight, survive, and win a nuclear war.” Such language soon dominated security discussions in Washington.
“Carter to Inherit Intense Dispute on Soviet Intentions,” the Washington Post front page trumpeted a little more than a fortnight before the inauguration, next to a picture of the incoming president looking meek in his plaid flannel shirt. A mainstream arms control expert protested that “there is a major effort underway to recreate the atmosphere of the ‘missile gap’ days of 1960.” A liberal Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee called it “at least 75 percent bull.” Senator Charles Percy, however, a bellwether centrist, said he was convinced: the Soviets were “seeking superiority.”
The neocons’ intention had been to establish a climate of opinion on the ground that would be very hard to reverse once a new president’s team was in place. It was working. Jimmy Carter wasn’t even inaugurated yet and his intention to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons had already been on the rocks.
* THE WEEK OF JIMMY CARTER’S inauguration, ABC aired an eight-part television miniseries version of Alex Haley’s best-selling slavery epic Roots. Executives had worried that sixteen hours of slavery would turn off viewers, so rather than waste a weekly prime-time spot for two months, they ran it on consecutive nights. It turned out their worries were misplaced. When the next week’s Nielsen ratings were published, the top eight slots were occupied by Roots.
More than half of the American population watched all or part of it. A black professional from Nashville told a reporter that as his family sat before the TV, “We couldn’t talk. We just cried.” A journalist wrote, “This may be the first time millions of whites ever really identified with blacks as human beings.”
There was, however, one public figure who disagreed. He would soon be the subject of front-page Los Angeles Times feature reporting that he had a “significant head start over anyone else in the drive for the Republican nomination.” “Very frankly,” Ronald Reagan said of Roots, “I thought the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive.” He also couldn’t imagine staying home eight nights in a row to watch it.
* For his part, Reagan got out and sold. A “New Year’s Resolutions for Republicans” column argued that the GOP had a marvelous chance to attract black voters by providing them the same thing “most white citizens want: a chance at a decent job, a home, a good education for their kids, and streets free of crime”—rather than an accursed fate as “lifetime recipients of a dole.” That was Reagan’s political message on nearly every topic: Republicans just needed to stop apologizing for what they knew to be true—which was conservatism. Five days before Carter’s inauguration, he gave his first speech of 1977 to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization formed in 1953 to evangelize conservatism to college students. The timing coincided with the annual Washington meeting of the Republican National Committee. His words were a flare sent out to party leaders about what a Reagan-led GOP would look like.
The text had been drafted by former Nixon speechwriter William Gavin, who called himself a “street corner conservative”—a conception deeply influenced by the Catholic social philosopher Michael Novak, a passionate defender of Eastern European “white ethnics” against what both Novak and Gavin saw as the assaults to their traditional values from the nation’s liberal elites. Gavin had explained how he intended to braid this perspective into Reagan’s rhetoric in a memo to Michael Deaver: the speech would argue “conservatism is a majority belief, not a cult”; that Republicans “have to act and talk like a majority or we will lose support on the left and the right; blue collar and ethnic issues are very important”; that Republican rhetoric too often “sounds like a tape of a Rotarian banquet”; and that “ ‘family’ is a key concept.” From the podium before the ISI, that came out sounding like this: “I refuse to believe the Good Lord divided this world into Republicans, who defend basic values, and Democrats, who win elections.… The new GOP should have room for the man and woman in the factories, for the cop on the beat, and the millions of Americans who have never thought of joining our party before.”
The argument closely resembled what George Wallace said on the presidential campaign trail in 1968 and ’72. And, also, the strategizing of Chuck Colson in Richard Nixon’s White House to craft a “new majority” by recruiting “hard hat” union members into the Republican Party. It recalled, too, the sentiments of Jesse Helms, in that 1975 speech arguing that the nonvoting 62 percent of the electorate who did not vote could become the foundation for a “conservative majority.” And also the argument of a book that same year by National Review publisher William Rusher called The Making of the New Majority Party. In Reagan’s words, the secret to reaching voters “usually associated with the blue-collar, ethnic, and religious groups, who are traditionally associated with the Democratic Party” was via “the so-called social issues—law and order, abortion, busing, quota systems.” A Republicanism that could comfortably wear a blue collar, such thinking went, could put paid to the Democrats for good. Though for it to work, Reagan insisted, the party would have to erase the “country club big business image that, for reasons both fair and unfair, it is burdened with today.” That he was able to convincingly argue that in the sumptuous ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, only days before one of his wife’s regular appearances in the Los Angeles Times society column (in one she wore “Adolfo’s gray lace dress with the romantic high collar”), was a testament to his rhetorical skill.
* IT DIDN’T EXACTLY HELP THAT the pro-ERA side resembled one of the lumbering regular armies that were flattened by T. E. Lawrence’s guerrillas during World War I: the opposition kept blindsiding them. In fact, it had taken two such blindsiding defeats, in ERA endorsement referenda on the 1975 general election ballots in liberal New York and New Jersey, before a formal organization coordinating the ratification fight was even pulled together.
It was called ERAmerica, and it was a hyper-bureaucratic blunderbuss, a top-down federation of Washington- and New York-based nonprofits for whom the ERA was far down their list of organizational priorities—a structure that bogged down its decision-making to a standstill. It had Republican and Democrats cochairs. Liz Carpenter was an executive at the establishment public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and a former LBJ White House aide. The other cochair was former Michigan Republican Party chairman and Ford presidential campaign official Elly Peterson, known as the “mother of the moderate Republicans.” They were, in other words, consummate Washington insiders—with few contacts in the state capitols where the fight was actually taking place. That couldn’t be more different from Schlafly’s everywhere-and-nowhere resistance. STOP ERA had been incorporated with the minimum bureaucracy required by law, with a single charismatic leader in control. Less than a year after it began, a consultant recommended ERAmerica be shut down as a “dismal failure.”
One reason for their failure was the difficulty of articulating what the ERA would do. On the one hand, many legal experts predicted that the answer was: not much—which made it hard to insist it was a pressing necessity. On the other, no one could actually say for certain; that, ultimately, would be up to the federal judges charged with interpreting it. This provided the opening for Schlafly’s side to deploy another classic tactic of guerrilla warfare: seeding uncertainty. National opinion polls showed the ERA to be very popular in the abstract—part of what lulled the establishment into such disastrous complacency. But then, in state after state, when ratification was called up for legislative consideration, Schlafly’s forces would swoop in, armed with horror stories about what its passage would entail. And these were harrowingly specific.
They said judges would order women drafted into combat. (Probably not, but early on advocates made the disastrous decision not to fight this canard, reasoning that feminists should embrace the duties of full citizenship as well as the benefits.) They said it would place housewives’ Social Security benefits at risk. (More likely the opposite: married women did not directly earn Social Security from the government, and if a woman left her husband, she received none of his benefits. The ERA could conceivably fix this.) Perhaps, according to the John Birch Society, the “Marxist pressures and abuses inherent in the ERA” would lead to “co-sexual penal institutions” and “the legalization of rape.” Or, an an Eagle Forum pamphlet distributed in the South suggested, “the sexes fully integrated like the races”—including ending separate men’s and women’s restrooms. That was almost certainly not so—but even just the suggestion of defilement of that most private of social spaces proved an exceptionally powerful weapon.
And, just maybe, ERA would even let men marry men and women marry women—a strange notion first raised in the 1972 Senate hearing by Senator Sam Ervin, who so despised the ERA that he lent Phyllis Schlafly his senatorial franking privileges. Schlafly amplified that concern with cheerful aplomb. “Why do homosexuals and lesbians support ERA?” one of her pamphlets asked, answering, “Because it will probably put their entire ‘gay rights’ agenda into the U.S. Constitution.” Anti-ERA debaters loved to repeat the true story about how a liberal-minded county clerk in Colorado issued a marriage license to two men. A cowboy approached the same clerk to demand she let him marry his horse. (Thinking fast, she thought of an excuse to deny the license: Dolly was eight years old, and thus underage.)
Gay marriage seemed a slippery slope that, once breached, threatened the bounds of God’s order itself. So did the ERA itself. It felt threatening to its opponents at the very core of their being. Ruth Murray Brown, the sociologist, asked Texas anti-ERA activists what their primary reason was for joining the movement. The most common answer, cited by 56 percent, was that the ERA was “against God’s plan for the family.” The second most common answer was that “it would encourage an un-biblical relationship between men and women.” And for evangelicals, to call something un-biblical, or against God’s plan, was no minor thing. It was not a matter of live and let live—you handle your family in your way, I’ll handle my family in mine. The central evangelical tenet—the reason they evangelized—was the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28: “Therefore go and make disciples of all the nations.” Fighting that which was “unbiblical” was more, even, than a matter of life and death. It was a matter of eternal life and death. Given that, it was hard for a Christian woman to complain about the burden of attending a couple of meetings a week, or making a few more phone calls, or baking a loaf of bread for a wavering state representative.
Brown made an even more crucial finding. This one came from North Carolina, where the ERA had just been cut down at the last minute in the state senate by a mere two votes: her survey of Schlafly’s activists there discovered that half had never before participated in politics in their lives. In politics, it is the rarest of gifts to be able to rouse an entire new population to throw themselves passionately into activism—especially so in a time of generalized political apathy.
Just like Howard Phillips—a crucial Schlafly ally—liked to say: We organize discontent. Tapping an existential discontent like this was the kind of development with the potential to birth revolutions. Florida’s legislature was due to schedule a crucial ERA vote sometime in April; Phillips vowed to post 150,000 pieces of direct mail to rally the troops. Ronald Reagan joined the fight with one of his radio commentaries, merging Schlafly’s favorite argument with his own: “It’s just vague enough that it will almost certainly end up in the courts. The judges will then become legislators, designing its impact by their ruling from the bench. Bureaucrats would do the rest. Isn’t it time we had a little less distortion of our federal system from the courts and the bureaucrats, rather than inviting more?”
* In the 1950s, the federal government devoted more resources to purging gay men and lesbians than it did Communists. The state government in Tallahassee was especially proactive: in 1964, a legislative committee formerly infamous for hounding civil rights activists released the report Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida, known as the “Purple Pamphlet” for its lurid violet cover featuring two men locked in passionate embrace, which concluded that “a great many homosexuals have an insatiable appetite for sexual activities and find special gratification in the recruitment to their ranks of youth.… If we don’t act soon we will wake up some morning and find they are too big to fight.” Handsome young men at Florida State University were thus paid $10 for the name of each homosexual who approached them, so that individual could be expeditiously expelled. Quite simply, before the 1970s, homosexuals had no rights which heterosexuals were bound to respect.
Having a sex life for gay men meant furtive encounters in restrooms or public parks, risking vigilante attack or arrest, or frequenting seedy bars run by the mafia that were often raided by police. Either way, arrest could mean losing your job or family—or commitment to a psychiatric ward, where you might find yourself strapped down and jolted with electricity as erotic images flashed on a screen. After a raid of a New York bar called the Snake Pit, a young man terrified of such exposure jumped from a window of the police station. He impaled himself on a fourteen-inch iron-spiked fence two stories below.
* A former fundamentalist minister named Troy Perry opened gay churches in nine states. But in January of 1973, in Los Angeles, his first dedicated building burned down. So, that June, did the gay bar where the New Orleans branch of his Metropolitan Community Church met, killing thirty-two. Ashamed families refused to claim the bodies; churches refused to hold memorial services. Syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers answered a letter-writer agonizing over her gay brother’s suicide by quoting a psychiatrist: “over and over again it is found that a homosexual male has had an intense relationship with the mother and a deficient relationship with the father.” The advice columnist concluded, “Perhaps just knowing these facts will help some parents to rear their children to be sexually normal.”
* IN MIAMI, A GAY COMMUNITY that included many respected businessmen organized themselves as a local political interest group: they mailed questionnaires to municipal candidates in the 1976 election, then provided the forty-nine whose answers they liked best with donations and volunteers. Forty-four won. One, a Dade County commissioner (who happened to be the wife of Anita Bryant’s agent), introduced a bill outlawing discrimination against gays in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Which was exactly how America’s pluralist democracy was supposed to work.
In December, the nine-member county commission voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing on gay rights for January 18—typically just a formality prior to a bill becoming law. But this hearing proved cantankerous. Local churches chartered buses full of congregants bearing signs reading things like “GOD SAYS NO, WHO ARE YOU TO SAY DIFFERENT?” and “PROTECT OUR CHILDREN, DON’T LEGISLATE IMMORALITY FOR DADE COUNTY.” Among their number was a surprise witness.
Anita Bryant had been Miss Oklahoma 1959, and a runner-up for Miss America. She recorded a string of hit pop songs and became a regular at USO shows and Bob Hope’s annual Christmas specials from Vietnam. In 1968 she belted out the National Anthem at the Republicans’ convention in Miami and her trademark rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the Democrats’ in Chicago. She also sang it at Lyndon Johnson’s funeral in 1973. (Bryant was one of his favorite singers.) In the Bicentennial year she was so in demand she earned $700,000, even though she never performed in venues where alcohol was served. She became most famous for the commercials she starred in for the Florida Citrus Commission. They began with a chirpy “Hi! I’m Anita Bryant!” and closed with the tagline, “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.” But “the best role I could possibly play,” she insisted in her 1972 bestseller Bless This House, “is Anita Green, Bob’s wife and our children’s mother… People keep asking me what I think of women’s lib. I tell them I was liberated when I received Christ as my personal Savior. That’s the only liberation I would ever seek.”
Now she testified to throaty cries of Amen!: “As an entertainer I have worked with homosexuals all my life, and my attitude has been live and let live. But now I believe it’s time to recognize the rights of the overwhelming number of Dade County constituents.” The bill passed 5–3 nonetheless. Miami was liberal. Miami was tolerant. Miami, the gay community pointed out, was also especially receptive to a message of human rights because it was a haven for Jewish retirees, a fifth of the Miami electorate, many of them refugees from Nazi Germany.
And now Miami was the first city in the South to enshrine gay rights in the books of law.
Bryant was quoted the next morning: “We are not going to take this sitting down. The ordinance condones immorality and discriminates against my children’s rights to grow up in a healthy, decent community.” But what could they do? The law was the law. To the ordinance’s proud supporters, Bryant’s argument sounded self-evidently absurd: how could granting homosexuals the right not to be fired or evicted or kicked off a seat at a lunch counter constitute “discrimination”?
A Catholic attorney named Robert Brake disagreed. He had decided, even before the ordinance had passed, that it would force his children’s parochial schools to hire homosexual teachers. County law, he learned, authorized the scheduling of elections to repeal ordinances if ten thousand petition signatures were collected. After the Dade County Metropolitan Commission meeting, he walked up to the singer and asked if she would lead that crusade. Bryant responded according to a Christian wife’s duty as she understood it: she asked her husband, Bob Green, and her pastor, William Chapman, for permission. This they immediately tendered. Chapman, for his part, had already avowed that he would burn his children’s schools to the ground before he let homosexuals teach there.
The founding meeting of Save Our Children, Inc., was held in Bob Green and Anita Bryant’s thirty-three-room oceanfront mansion, Villa Verde, complete with fountains, waterfall, a tropical garden, and a docking slip for the family yacht, the Sea Sharp—and a private altar. Attendees included leaders of Miami’s Catholic, Baptist, Spanish Presbyterian, Orthodox Jewish, and Greek Orthodox communities, and, as their strategist, an advertising executive named Mike Thompson, who had run for lieutenant governor in 1974 on an anti-busing platform and was now a Republican national committeeman and chairman of the Florida Conservative Union. They got to work on a statement announcing their petition drive. Thompson interrupted their faltering attempt and asked if he could take a crack at it alone. He withdrew, returned, then handed the text to Anita Bryant. The pitchwoman for Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Holiday Inn, Tupperware—and Florida orange juice—delivered it with such aplomb that Thompson threw his arms around her. She gave him a smack on the cheek in return. He replied, “You kiss real good for a girl!”
Bryant froze. Thompson winked. A merry laugh was enjoyed by all. They were ready for war…
Bryant appeared before the press on January 24 underneath a banner reading “SAVE OUR CHILDREN FROM HOMOSEXUALITY” and surrounded by clerics: “The homosexual recruiters of Dade County already have begun their campaign! Homosexual acts are not only illegal, they are immoral. And through the power of the ballot box, I believe the parents and the straight-thinking normal majority will soundly reject the attempt to legitimize homosexuals and their recruitment plans for our children. We shall not let the nation down.”
Less than four weeks later, her army had those 10,000 signatures, with 53,304 to spare.
Bryant received a telegram from a producer informing her a television pilot they were to work on was now canceled owing to “the extensive national publicity arising from the controversial political activities you have been engaged in Dade County.” Developments like this rendered her opponents confident they were gathering the momentum they needed to win. What they did not understand was that this announcement helped energize Bryant’s campaign by orders of magnitude. Evangelical culture is built upon narratives of martyrdom. Those Miamians organizing to preserve the ordinance called their organization the Coalition for the Humanistic Rights of Gays. That was naive, too. For years, evangelical leaders had been crusading against what they insisted was an actual, active conspiracy of “secular humanists,” abetted by the federal government, to dethrone God from American life. So by using the word humanistic in their name, Bryant’s adversaries placed themselves in the path of an evangelical buzz saw.
Bryant made a campaign trip to Virginia, raising $25,000 in donations via appearances on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club. On March 15, Dade County commissioners formally approved the ordinance. In doing so, they bucked Florida’s popular Democratic governor, Reuben Askew—“Reuben the Good,” as he was known, for opposing the use of tobacco and alcohol and embracing idealistic causes like the Equal Rights Amendment. At first, he had supported the ordinance. Then he changed his mind—because, he said, he would not want a “known homosexual teaching my children”—and also signed laws banning gay marriage, gay adoption, and men trying on women’s clothing in retail stores.
* Many more were recruited to the cause beginning in the spring of that year by an unlikely activist: a theologian from Germantown, Pennsylvania, named Francis Schaeffer.
Schaeffer now lived with his family in a chalet in Switzerland that he had purchased in 1954 and turned it into a retreat center called L’Abri—“the refuge.” Among those who found refuge there were rock musicians and hippies. Nearly uniquely among evangelical leaders, Schaeffer encouraged engagement with worldly art and culture. He was the evangelicals’ missionary to the intellectuals—who treated him as just one more hip 1960s spiritual seer. Rank-and-file evangelicals venerated Dr. Schaeffer for his role in sanding away their community’s anti-intellectual reputation. In 1972 the Christian filmmaker Billy Zeoli convinced him that with his reputation, eloquence—and dramatically long silver hair and puff of white beard—he would make a marvelous host for a Christian response to Sir Kenneth Clark’s hit thirteen-part BBC and PBS series Civilization. That series had told the story of Western culture as an ascent from the superstition-soaked Dark Ages to the Enlightenment and beyond—a triumph of man’s reason—a quintessentially “secular humanist” narrative: it sacrilegiously elevated humankind above God.
Schaeffer and Zeoli’s response, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, inverted that story. The first eight episodes unfolded a leisurely Christ-inflected tour of European art, from Michelangelo’s David (though they had to locate footage obscuring the genitals) to its degradation into abstract art and existentialist fiction that dethroned God, robbed humans of their dignity, and threatened liberty itself. “It was Christianity—the Reformation in Western Europe—which brought the forms of freedom that we have,” Schaeffer said, his loose-fitting open-necked shirt flapping welcomingly in the breeze. It was the grinding advance of secular humanism, exemplified by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, that portended the real dark age: not back in the Middle Ages, but now.
Then, episode nine took a striking turn.
It was the idea of Dr. Schaeffer’s son Frankie, the film’s director. Returning to Switzerland after a tour plying conservative billionaires like Bunker Hunt and Richard DeVos for donations, he argued that their series should depict legalization of abortion as the culmination of the diabolical forces they meant to explain. Schaeffer père was reluctant. He despised abortion, but considered it a Catholic issue—and a political issue. And preachers had no business in politics.
His son snapped back: “That’s what you always say about the Lutherans in Germany! You say they’re responsible for the Holocaust because they wouldn’t speak up, and now you’re doing the same thing.” He won the argument.
The episode began with a screech of tuneless contemporary classical music, a Van Gogh self-portrait, an Ingmar Bergman film poster, covers of books by Sartre and Camus. Dr. Schaeffer explained how by the 1960s people were barraged by these artifacts’ underlying message: “no fixed values whatsoever.” They were promised in their place twin salves of personal freedom and affluence—“horrible, absolutely horrible values.” Young people, searching for something deeper, tried drugs and political utopias, which failed: “They had tried to escape their parents’ poor values and went around in a circle and ended up one inch lower.” The screen filled with horrors—Woodstock, bombings, rioting in the streets, screaming hordes—as Shaeffer rushed via a headlong set of syllogisms to what he took to be the culminating horror: society’s “Christian consensus” was abandoned, until “the Constitution of the United States can be made to say anything on the basis of sociological, variable law.”
He had been delivering the lecture at a desk. The next shot found him pacing in front of the United States Supreme Court.
“I’d like to use an illustration.… Consider the human fetus—the unborn baby. In January of 1973, the United States Supreme Court passed the abortion law.”
Next came gorgeous diaphanous images of fetuses that looked ready to leap forth fully formed from the womb. Roe v. Wade was “arbitrary legally and mentally”—yet American elites accepted that because “it was considered sociologically helpful.… And nobody knows where it will end.”
He perched on a tree stump.
“The unborn child is considered not to be a person”—just like black slaves used to be. “The question has to be asked: in an age with no fixed values, why could not the aged, the incurably ill, the insane, and other classes of persons arbitrarily be declared to be non-persons on the basis of arbitrary law, if the court decided it was socially helpful?”
A final episode hammered home the conclusion: with legal abortion having institutionalized the heresy that “people are seen as no different from machines,” society would descend into totalitarianism. Unless viewers did something about it.
The series was advertised as a “documentary spectacular two and a half years in the making.” It debuted at Chicago’s five-thousand-seat Arie Crown Theater. The format was a daylong seminar, with each half-hour episode interspersed with discussion sessions featuring Dr. Schaeffer and his wife, Edith. It toured fourteen more cities by April, including to audiences of 3,500 in Seattle, 3,800 in Atlanta, and 6,000 in Dallas, where Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach emceed. Jerry Falwell made the book version required reading for all entering freshmen at his Liberty Baptist College.
* At the annual Gridiron dinner, Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, a Republican whom liberals respected, told homophobic jokes. The nation’s most prominent liberal historian, the former Kennedy administration aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr., once wrote in the New York Times, “ ‘Gay’ used to be one of the most agreeable words in the language. Its appropriation by a notably morose group is an act of piracy.” A liberal columnist in the Washington Post, William Raspberry, now wrote that he had sat down to pen an “easy” column about Anita Bryant’s “campaign of bigotry”—then he met her, found many of her arguments persuasive, and concluded that, since homosexuality was an “acquired taste,” parents were perfectly within their rights not to “want their children placed in circumstances in which they might acquire it.” Even the community’s friends were not particularly friendly. “Homosexuals make me feel creepy inside,” wrote another columnist in a piece otherwise excoriating Bryant. “The folly of publicly flaunting bedroom preferences disgusts me.”
* Ronald Reagan had been making similar arguments for years. “Look at the potential for cheating,” he thundered in 1975 when Democrats proposed a system allowing citizens to register by mail. A voter “can be John Doe in Berkeley, and J. F. Doe in the next county, all by saying he intends to live in both places.… Yes, it takes a little work to be a voter; it takes some planning to get to the polls or send an absentee ballot… that’s a small price to pay for freedom.” He took up the same cudgel shortly after Carter’s inauguration when California adopted easier procedures: “Why don’t we try reverse psychology and make it harder to vote?” Now, following Carter’s electoral reform message, Reagan wrote in his column that what this all was really about was boosting votes from “the bloc comprised of those who get a whole lot more from the federal government in various kinds of income distribution than they contribute to it.… Don’t be surprised if an army of election workers—much of it supplied by labor organizations which have managed to exempt themselves from election law restrictions—sweep through metropolitan areas scooping up otherwise apathetic voters and rushing them to the polls to keep the benefit-dispensers in power.”
* Save Our Children, Inc., began running a TV commercial that opened with footage of floats and apple-cheeked majorettes leading marching bands. The announcer: “The Orange Bowl parade. Miami’s gift to the nation. Wholesome entertainment.” Then, a cut to men in leather and chains snapping whips, topless women on motorcycles, and drag queens—“But in San Francisco, when they take to the streets, it’s a parade of homosexuals. Men hugging other men. Cavorting with little boys. Wearing dresses and makeup. The same people who turned San Francisco into a hotbed of homosexuality want to do the same thing in Florida.”
Their direct mail reproduced a recommendation from the Democrats’ gay rights caucus in 1972 calling for the abolition of age of consent laws. Their full-page newspaper ads boomed, “Many parents are confused, and don’t know the real dangers posed by homosexuals—and perceive them as all being gentle, non-aggressive types. The other side of the homosexual coin is a hair-raising pattern of recruitment and outright seduction and molestation, a growing pattern that predictably will intensify if society approves laws granting legitimacy to the sexually perverted.”
* In Washington on March 9, Muslim extremists took more than one hundred hostages at Washington, D.C.’s, B’nai Brith headquarters and a rival mosque, killing a radio reporter and bringing the capital to a three-day, terror-filled standstill. The police commissioner in New York announced that a series of mysterious shootings of women had been committed by the same person with the same .44-caliber pistol; the streets of Queens and Brooklyn were soon deserted at dusk. A PBS documentary called The Fire Next Door reported that arson, the nation’s fastest growing crime, was turning the New York neighborhood of the South Bronx, where there had been thirteen thousand fires in 1975 alone, into a pocked moonscape. A syndicated TV documentary predicting what America’s next energy crisis would look was entitled We Will Freeze in the Dark. Isaac Asimov published a piece in Time imagining America twenty years in the future: “Work, sleep, and eating are the great trinity of 1997, and only the first two are guaranteed.”
* REAGAN’S ENDLESS ROUNDS OF SPEECHES to massive hotel ballrooms filled with revelers enjoying professional conventions, Republican Party fundraisers, or annual galas for service organizations like the Rotary Club or the Elks—what he called the “mashed potato circuit”—were, along with his newspaper column and radio commentaries, now Ronald Reagan’s profession. Deaver and Hannaford received some three hundred invitations for these services a month. For those they accepted, they developed an intricately choreographed routine, its every detail set down in a bulging advance manual.
First came an exclusive reception with the host organization’s VIPs, or those willing to pay top dollar for the privilege. Then Reagan would make his entrance into the banquet hall—usually to the strains “California Here I Come”—harvesting the accompanying ovation, according to two columnists who had watched him do it dozens of times since his 1966 gubernatorial run described it, “with a look of pleased expectancy on his face, as if he could not imagine what delights lie ahead.”
Then (his hosts having been informed the Reagans drank only decaf, and preferred their steaks well done), he would settle down to breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Most politicians skipped the meal, arriving only in time for their speech. Richard Nixon certainly did; he believed it made for a more dramatic entrance. Not Reagan. The meal was when he read the mood of the room, the better to calibrate his performance—even though, for the most part, he said the same words every time.
“He listens to the introductions,” the columnists wrote, “or the Rotary Club business, with that same air of interest bordering on wonder. You would never know he has heard it all a thousand times in a thousand dining rooms.” Finally, upon his introduction, he would stride dramatically via “a safe, uncluttered passageway” (per the advance manual) to a podium (“sturdy and if too short blocked up with bricks or 2X4s,” free from “ashtrays, gavels, etc.”) set to his six-foot-one height. He would plant himself at a mark taped down to ensure advantageous camera angles. He would pop out his right contact lens so he could simultaneously read the text in front of him with one eye and read the reaction at the first row of tables—never more than eight feet away, so he would have faces to look directly into, to enhance the aura of sincerity—with the other. Lighting was carefully specified; once, but never again, Michael Deaver, who almost always traveled with him to such events, dimmed the houselights before he spoke. Reagan snapped at him: “Mike, don’t ever let them turn down the house lights again. It causes me to lose my eye contact.” On important occasions, his wife Nancy accompanied him—and “as she watches her husband give the speech she has heard countless times before,” a reporter marveled, “her look of rapt, wide-eyed adoration never falters.”
The same jokes, set down on the same stack of four-by-six index cards he’d been compiling since the 1960s, some of them yellowed with age. (A doctor had pronounced Reagan “sound as a dollar.” He fainted straightaway. The reason the Little Old Lady Lived in a Shoe was because property taxes were so high…
The same bromides about the government’s tragically “hostile, adversarial relationship” with business, about how “profit, property rights, and freedom are inseparable, and you can’t have the third without the other two”
The same horror stories. Did they know that “164 different federal agencies” regulated hospitals, adding $35 a day to the typical bill? That there were 151 taxes now in the price of a loaf of bread, more than half the cost of a loaf of bread” (though sometimes there were 131).
Then, finally, the same, glorious soaring perorations about America’s ineluctable rendezvous with destiny as God’s shining city on a hill, as the last best hope of man on earth—and then the same ecstatic, electric ovation, as if their Rotary club, Republican organization, or trade group had been touched by the hand of God.
There might be a question and answer period with the audience; attendees scribbled questions on index cards to be posed by the master of ceremony. (Once—again, only once—Deaver tried to show the boss the cards in advance. Reagan frowned and threw them in the garbage: “Mike, you can’t hit a home run on a softball.”) And, usually, beforehand or afterward, a fifteen-to-twenty minute “press availability”—for which the preparations were also rigorously prescribed: the room cooled to fifty-five degrees an hour prior to start time to counteract the TV lights’ heat; backdrop light blue or beige (“ideal for TV cameras”), free from “fancy decorations that distract from the speaker”; a “reliable volunteer” posted outside with orders to admit “bona fide press,” banning “well-wishers and friends” who might cause undue distraction.
It was Reagan’s press availability in Atlantic City that caused the trouble.
A reporter asked his opinion on a subject on every political observer’s mind: British talk show host David Frost’s televised interviews with Richard Nixon. The first one had aired three weeks earlier, on May 4; that afternoon, Reagan had told an audience at the Hoover Institution that he would be “glued to the TV” (and also that while Reagan believed Nixon “was certainly guilty of political impropriety,” he was not a crook, and “I don’t think we’ve had a full report on Watergate”). Then forty-five million people, a record for a political interview, watched, riveted, as Nixon squirmed, sweated—then finally offered something like his first ever apology for Watergate: “I let down my friends, I let down my country, I let down our system of government.” During the second interview, a week later, Frost elicited shocking jabs from Nixon at Henry Kissinger, whom the former president characterized as a pathologically jealous crybaby.
The third had been broadcast the previous night. Nixon complained that the antiwar movement created political divisions that hobbled his efforts to end the Vietnam War. Frost pointed out that Nixon had deliberately exacerbated those divisions for his own advantage, vilifying those in the antiwar movement as enemies of the United States. The former president, annoyed, replied that he had no choice: “Without having enough support at home, the enemy, in my opinion, would never have negotiated in Paris.”
Frost’s off-camera voice then introduced some context: that one of the ways Nixon sought to weaken the antiwar movement was by approving staffer Tom Charles Huston’s plan to spy on and sabotage it, using tactics that they knew to be illegal.
He addressed Nixon directly:
“So, what in a sense, you’re saying is that there are certain situations, and the Huston Plan or that part of it was one of them, where the president can decide that it’s in the best interests of the nation or something, and do something illegal?”
Nixon: “Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.”
In Atlantic City, Reagan was asked about that astonishing claim. He replied that he could “understand” it: “When he was made commander-in-chief he was responsible for the national security.” He then launched into an elaborate story, his go-to whenever he was called upon to defend the necessity of extraordinary measures in the interest of public safety. Radicals had threatened to kidnap his wife and send him her head if he would not release certain prisoners from jail. His criminal intelligence division had learned of the plot through underhanded means, and “the purpose of law and order, and civil rights and human rights, was served by someone being able to find that intelligence.” In precisely the same way, “When the commander in chief of a nation finds it necessary to order employees of the government or agencies from the government to do things that would technically break the law, he has to be able to declare it legal for them to do that.”
The comment rendered Reagan a laughingstock: “Has the governor taken leave of his senses?” one newspaper editorial cackled. “What if some administration were to declare Reagan illegal?” Reagan’s former criminal intelligence chief in Sacramento, reached for comment, indignantly said his officers never had nor would break laws.
Reagan had certainly placed himself out on a political limb where public opinion was concerned. Of those who watched the Frost interviews, 72 percent responded that Nixon was a criminal, for which there could be no place in public life. But Reagan was hardly alone. More and more conservatives, in fact, were making similar arguments themselves, with the same sort of unapologetic brazenness with which Richard Viguerie tested campaign finance laws.
A Nixon speechwriter who was now a widely syndicated columnist, Patrick J. Buchanan, took the occasion of the Frost interviews to argue that “Watergate was the climactic battle in a political civil war that raged in this country for ten years”—in which “the Left, defeated and humiliated in November of 1972,” cooked up a fake scandal for the simple reason that otherwise their mortal enemy “would enter the history books as a political genius who had read the nation better than they, who had ended honorably a war they had started, declared unwinnable, and from which they had deserted to places like Canada, Stockholm, Harvard, and the Ford Foundation.” A book slated for June publication by the conservative journalist Victor Lasky, It Didn’t Start with Watergate, claimed that Democrats going back to FDR were as lawless or even more so than Richard Nixon; another former Nixon speechwriter, William Safire, now a New York Times columnist, had argued that Watergate was “a secondary McCarthy Era, in which civil liberties were suspended in the name of civil liberty, and many of those who pointed the fingers of guilt were men with guilty hands.”
Viva Nixon. To some on the right, he was beginning to sound like a role model.
* THEN CAME GRIST FOR AN argument that in some respects Jimmy Carter was just as bad. Just as his second hundred days were beginning, the ten-thousand-word “Initial Working Paper on Political Strategy” that Pat Caddell had presented him the month before the inauguration was leaked to the press and made the Man from Plains seem as shifty as Tricky Dick himself.
“Essentially,” Caddell had written, “it is my thesis that governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.… Too many good people have been defeated because they tried to substitute substance for style.” He then suggested a barrage of symbolic gestures—fireside chats, radio call-in shows, town meetings—that had once seemed some refreshing tokens of Carter’s winsome genuineness, but were now revealed as cynical manipulations by hired guns. Carter was grilled mercilessly on the document in his press conference the next day. He lamely responded that, well, the idea of walking down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day had been his and his alone.
* The New York Times moved Reagan further toward the front page than at any time since the 1976 convention. The Chicago Tribune sent a correspondent, who published a long profile. (It was not entirely flattering: “Camera lights flash and he lifts the chin a little higher to minimize the sagging flesh.” He evaded questions about his presidential plans with a “dazzling, movie star smile.” When “a reporter demanded, ‘Governor, aren’t you really a has-been?’ Reagan looked stunned. His face dropped and he stared incredulously at the questioner. At last, he stammered, ‘I don’t feel like one.’ ”)
* That weekend, he spoke in Memphis before the Young Republicans convention—the same one that elected Roger Stone the group’s president, after an extraordinary campaign that vindicated every one of the Republican establishment’s fears. Stone’s campaign manager, a twenty-eight-year-old named Paul Manafort, had brought along an organization that more closely resembled those at national party conventions: custom-installed telephone lines; thick “whip books” with intelligence on each of the eight hundred delegates; a rented Mississippi River paddleboat upon which delegates were plied with free booze; backroom horse-trading for votes in exchange for patronage. That night, Walter Cronkite frowned and reported sourly, “Delegates to the Young Republicans convention in Memphis have chosen as chairman a conservative with a Watergate past.” They also, however, treated Ronald Reagan like a God. They welcomed him to the stage with an original song: “If Reagan Would Only Run.” Then they interrupted him for applause a dozen times.
* “HUMAN RIGHTS” WAS ALSO MUCH in the air in Miami. Geto and Foster noted a poll going into the home stretch before the June 6 vote indicating that 62 percent of Dade Countians favored the gay rights ordinance—but that only 15 percent of them were likely to turn out: “They are too removed from it.” So they replaced their language about “gay rights” with a rhetoric of “human rights,” campaigning heavily among Jews, with an argument that resembled the famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller reflecting on the Nazi concentration camps: “First, they came for the gays…”
But Mike Thompson again got there first. He recruited Miami’s most prominent orthodox rabbi and put him out front, in full regalia, to call the other side’s new rhetoric an anti-Semitic outrage: “Tell us about human rights? What right is there to corrupt our children?”
Arguments like the rabbi’s won over a popular Miami Herald columnist, who wrote, “Gay rights spokesmen have got a lot of gall comparing their efforts to the civil rights struggles of blacks, or the human rights pronouncements of Jimmy Carter or the equality movement for women. As one black friend of mine put it: ‘If I’m black, I can’t hide in the closet.’ ” Meanwhile the Herald itself refused to run a pro-ordinance advertisement pointing voters to the Nazis’ 1936 decree calling for extermination of “degenerates,” including homosexuals; and another that pictured a 1950s automobile with a Confederate flag and banner on it reading “SAVE OUR CHILDREN FROM THE BLACK PLAGUE.” They did not, however, object to one from the other side that invited readers to “SCAN THESE HEADLINES FROM THE NATION’S NEWSPAPERS—THEN DECIDE: ARE HOMOSEXUALS TRYING TO RECRUIT OUR CHILDREN?” Those headlines included “Teachers Accused of Sex Acts with Boy Students” and “Homosexuals Used Scout Troop.”
In Washington, on the day of Carter’s Notre Dame human rights speech, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued new regulations opening public housing to anyone in a “stable family relationship,” even if they were not blood relatives or legally married. The HUD official who wrote the rules was asked if that included homosexual couples. “Why exclude those persons?” she replied.
In Miami, a Save Our Children rally filled every nook and cranny of the Miami Convention Center, capacity ten thousand. Women wore dresses and men wore coats and ties. A retinue of “Cops for Christ” filed onstage to a standing ovation, to sing a hymn. Jerry Falwell was introduced to another standing ovation. He assured the congregation he was “not here for any political issue whatsoever”—“any time Sodom and Gomorrah is to be considered political is the time when we’ve lost our perspective.”
He said that if the ordinance survived “it will cause a domino effect that will cause city after city to fall.” He remembered “back when this kind of thing wasn’t even talked about by reasonable and sensible and decent people.” He observed, “The Sermon on the Mount is the basis on which our government found its roots… it’s worked for 200 years! We don’t need a group of perverts, moral perverts—I don’t call them gays. I love—I love homosexuals, because Christ died for sinners, and all men are sinners, whether homosexuals, or murderers, or liars and thieves, what have you, all of us like sheep have been led astray—I love homosexuals!” He reminded his listeners, holding up his Bible for emphasis, what happened to two other cities—one was called Sodom, the other Gomorrah—that, like Miami, surrendered to the “vile affection,” where a man had become “so low and so degraded that he would offer his two daughters to animals. Who no doubt would have raped them, and other unimaginable things. Probably killed them…”
(A group of children clustered near the front looked a little bit afraid.)
He said, “I asked Anita to come tonight” (it was the other way around). He summoned her onstage—“This little girl loves the Lord”—to praise her courage in leading the movement against what he termed “a vile and vicious and a vulgar gang. They’d kill you as quick as look at you. And if you don’t think that, you don’t know the enemy.” He directed her to sing “My Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” He concluded: “they” are “forcing our private and religious schools to accept them as teachers, forcing property owners and employers to open their doors to homosexuals no matter how blatant their perverted lives may be.”
…“ANITA BRYANT VERSUS THE HOMOSEXUALS,” read Newsweek’s cover eight days before the election. (Inside, she called gays “human garbage.”) The sheriff of San Francisco County, Richard Hongisto, arrived to campaign for the ordinance, explaining how gays had raised property values in San Francisco, refurbishing Victorian houses, opening new restaurants and retail establishments, and generally making San Francisco a more pleasant place to be. Mike Thompson countered that the City by the Bay had become a “cesspool of sexual perversion gone rampant.”
The Sunday before the balloting, the Miami Herald, which had previously commended the county board for “mustering the courage to hold fast to the principles of non-discrimination,” reserved itself, and endorsed Save Our Children. That same day, a gay political operative stopped at a red light. A car full of men pulled up beside him. One pointed a shotgun at his head and announced, “We’re gonna blow your fuckin’ brains out.” The marauders then sped away.
And on Tuesday 50 percent of Dade County’s eligible voters, a colossal showing for an odd-year municipal election, turned out to strike gay rights off the books by a margin of 69.3 percent to 30.7 percent.
In the Zodiac Room of the Collins Avenue Holiday Inn, Anita Bryant, resplendent in powder blue, pronounced, “Tonight the laws of God and the cultural values of man have been vindicated. I thank God for the strength He has given me and I thank my fellow citizens who joined me in what at first was a walk through the wilderness. The people of Dade County—the normal majority—have said, ‘Enough! Enough! Enough!’ ” She promised, “We will now carry our fight against similar laws throughout the nation that attempt to legitimize a lifestyle that is both perverted and dangerous to the sanctity of the family, dangerous to our children, dangerous to our freedom of religion and freedom of choice, dangerous to our survival as a nation.”
She performed a little jig. Her husband kissed her on the lips, then adopted a lisp: “This is what heterosexuals doooo, fellas!”
* DURING MUGGY WASHINGTON SUMMERS, OFFICIAL business slows, Congress goes into recess, and the thoughts of bored political reporters turn to “thumbsuckers”—think pieces on the state of the nation and its politics. This year the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, Norman C. Miller, heralded thumbsucker season in grand style with a piece atop the editorial page called “Ailing GOP May Not Recover.” “Even party professionals,” Miller wrote, “no longer regard the death of the GOP as an impossibility.”
He quoted a young conservative congressman from Michigan, David Stockman, who said, “Only a tidal movement in the electorate can allow us to recover.” The Ford presidential campaign’s John Deardourff said the party’s future would “come down to a choice between a slow, painful death and a mercy killing.” Reagan’s 1976 campaign manager John Sears offered a species of optimism: “The Republican Party is like a fungus—it may look dead, but you can never kill it.” The RNC’s former political director countered, “Anyone who says we are not potentially at the sunset of the Republican Party is kidding himself.”
In a letter to the editor, Representative Phil Crane of Illinois, a cerebral former college professor who chaired the American Conservative Union, offered a New Right–flavored response. He pointed to the upset victory in Washington State eight days earlier, and Carter’s slew of recent legislative setbacks—and that Gerald Ford had almost won—as evidence of “a tangible resurgence of conservative ideas.” He concluded, “What is in fact occurring is a rebirth. The core of the Republican Party—conservatism—is reasserting itself. This strong base, submerged during the unrealistic groundswell attempt to gather every American into the GOP fold, is now coming into its own.”
His was a lonely counsel. The media looked at the stats—less than a third of state legislators, control of both the statehouse and legislature in only four states, so few governors that “two Checker cabs could carry” them, party identification at under a fifth of the electorate—and piled on.
The Boston Globe’s David Nyhan said the “two party system is now down to one-and-a-half parties.” That was because “the party of Abraham Lincoln forgot its heritage and started neglecting minorities.” Nyhan’s colleague Robert Healy interviewed Senator Edward Brooke, who manfully ticked down a list of strong Republican leaders, from Howard Baker to Ronald Reagan to Senator Dole (“don’t forget he was the vice presidential candidate last time”)—then lost heart, conceding there was “no real possibility of a ‘whale’ for the 1980 presidential contest against President Carter.”
A particularly important straw in the wind, Nyhan noted, was that the “much-touted GOP opening in the South has been foreclosed by the Georgian.” The New York Times reported that the table talk at the annual meeting of Southern Republicans was how the “survival of the party as a significant force in the South is believed to be at stake.” The Washington Post, from the same meeting, reported that despite Ford’s 45 percent of the Dixie vote in 1976, only two Republican candidates below the level of governor had been elected to any Southern statewide offices since 1973. “Gone is the dream of ‘realignment,’ ” they concluded, the “unrealized expectation of mass defections of Democratic office-holders.”
The thumbsuckers had the backing of one of the country’s most distinguished experts on public opinion. Everett Carll Ladd’s article “The Unmaking of the Republican Party” ran in Fortune in August. He said the GOP’s intellectual narrowness made it more like a “church than a coalition,” a mere “institution for conservative believers.” The fiscal ordeals of the Nixon-Ford years had scotched the traditional notion that Republicans were better at managing the economy. “Signs of defection by big business are already evident,” the “alienation of informed opinion and the intellectual community” from the party was at hand; all in all, Ladd concluded, “the GOP today is in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War”—a mere “half-party.” The next month Fortune ran his findings on the Democrats—“the established governing party to a degree unequaled by any other alliance since the Jeffersonians,” ahead among every age, income, and educational group, even businessmen and executives, even self-identified conservatives, because of “the almost universal acceptance among Americans of the general policy approach of the New Deal.”
* American streets felt like harrowing places. A moral panic was afoot that spring concerning the drug PCP. The Washington Post said it could “turn a person into a rampaging semblance of a cornered wild animal,” and blamed it for a nonexistent local schizophrenia epidemic. Actually, the drug delivered only a slightly more intense high than marijuana. Studies proved it usually had no more lasting harm. The stories about peaceful youth become feral beasts at their first taste of the stuff were myths. Which did nothing to abate all the breathless TV news segments about “angel dust” users plucking out their own eyes and bashing in car windows.
Another moral panic concerned an alleged epidemic of children being seduced from Midwestern streets and turned into Times Square sex slaves. On May 27, sensational hearings on the subject opened before the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime. “The horror stories,” Father Bruce Ritter said of his experience ministering in Times Square, “were literally endless.” Dr. Judianne Densen-Gerber claimed 120,000 children in the New York metropolitan area were ensnared in the trade. One witness claimed a guidebook to procuring boys for sex called Where the Young Ones Are had sold 70,000 copies at $5 each. Another told the tale of an eight-year-old hustler who plied his trade by inviting men to take him to the bathroom with the come on, “It’s $10 and you have got ten minutes.”
* Ted Bundy was a young, charismatic former law student with a face from out of a cologne ad, a Republican campaign volunteer who’d attended the 1968 convention as a Nelson Rockefeller delegate. In 1971, he began abducting, murdering, and sexually mutilating pretty young women around universities in Seattle. He moved to Utah, became a Mormon, then slaughtered some more. He was captured and went to jail in Colorado in January 1977—then, six months later, during a preliminary hearing, he jumped out a courthouse window and eluded his captors for almost a week.
* THE NEWS WAS A BANQUET of terrors. A longing for innocence, for good guys putting paid to bad guys, was one result. It showed up at the box office before it registered at the ballot box.
In the 1960s, after a long decline brought on by the rise of television and the waning of the old studio system, Hollywood began abandoning formulaic stories and a predictable stable of stars in favor of adventurous fare from filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Arthur Penn, Dennis Hopper, and Robert Altman, who drew inspiration from the art cinema of Europe. Films began featuring moral ambiguity, dark moods, a suffusing skepticism toward establishments of every description—and the public flocked to them. Hits were movies like Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), a picture about a kinky random sexual encounter, a rape, and a murder, which made $96.3 million on a budget of $1.25 million. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 and 1974 Godfather films, which treated mainstream and mafia success in the United States as nearly interchangeable, earned in the hundreds of millions. Last Tango and The Godfather starred Marlon Brando at a time when he was fat and nearly fifty years old. Leading men who were not conventionally attractive—short, awkward Dustin Hoffman and shaggy Elliott Gould, both visibly Jewish; Jack Nicholson, carrying himself with a cruel air of menace—was another sign of what critics celebrated as the country’s newly maturing cinematic taste. At the Oscars in 1976 the deeply subversive anti-institutional parable One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Nicholson—another $100 million earner—took home all five of the major statues.
But at the ceremony on March 28, 1977, the Academy overlooked sophisticated New Hollywood fare like All the President’s Men, the Watergate thriller; Bound for Glory, a visually luscious biopic of Woody Guthrie featuring depictions of American poverty as searing as any ever committed to the screen; and Taxi Driver, a sepulchral masterpiece of urban alienation, about a Vietnam veteran named Travis Bickle, driven insane by the “open sewer” that New York City had become, who tries to assassinate a presidential candidate to impress a child prostitute played by a thirteen-year-old. Instead, they celebrated a conventionally inspiring and vaguely reactionary picture in which the audience’s every emotion was cued by a swelling musical score, a movie labeled “pure 1930s make-believe” by Vincent Canby of the New York Times Rocky was the story of an Italian-American boxer who went the distance against a mouthy black champion modeled on Muhammad Ali. Its Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director felt to disappointed critics like a political statement: New Hollywood, with all its vaguely left-wing pretensions, was down for the count.
The knockout blow came in the summer of 1977.
George Lucas was one of the young directors who got his chance with the New Hollywood wave. His first film, a freakish dystopian sci-fi nightmare called THX 1138, was a commercial disaster. His next, American Graffiti, about high school kids hanging out in hot rod–crazed early-sixties California, was nostalgic, ebullient, and a hit. “I discovered that making a positive film is exhilarating,” Lucas later reflected. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should make a film like this for even younger kids.… Kids today don’t have any fantasy life the way we had—they don’t have Westerns, they don’t have pirate movies.” He decided to aim his next movie at eight- or nine-year-olds. “Everybody’s forgetting to tell the kids, ‘Hey, this is right and this is wrong.’ ” The action consisted of one Old Hollywood pastiche after another. Star Wars was a Ronald Reagan sort of film.
STAR WARS WAS NOT A Jimmy Carter sort of film. The nation’s cardigan-wearing prophet of sacrifice drew little inspiration from morality tales. His favorite theologian was Reinhold Niebuhr, an anti-utopian who despised simple answers and cheap grace, let alone conservatives who believed that all the answers for living could be easily and painlessly extracted from the plain text of the Bible. Niebuhr believed that a too-simple division of the world into lightness and dark led to calamity. Carter’s favorite quote from him was “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world”—not exactly a Disney sort of message. The president’s taste for Niebuhrian moral complexity was one of the things that made him so ideologically ambiguous—not an easy thing to be in a culture clamoring more and more for easy solutions in confusing times.
You could see this in July after the Washington Post reported the existence of a secret strategy document, “Presidential Review Memorandum 10,” that some claimed outlined a new, harder line against the Soviet menace—but which others, including one of Evans and Novak’s anonymous neoconservative sources, argued was pushing greater accommodation with the Soviet Union. In fact, it did both, in different ways for different contexts. The world was a complex place—and that was not always an easy thing for a politician to explain.
* On Saturday, July 2, a community activist wrote a desperate appeal to the President of the United States about the rash of vandalism against businesses on San Francisco’s Castro Street, including his own camera store: “It is now open season on gay people.… Please. I will come to Washington to meet you. The nation needs leadership.” His name was Harvey Milk, and he was planning a new run for the city’s board of supervisors. An Irish-Catholic former San Francisco cop and fireman was preparing to run, too. He composed an election pamphlet promising, “I am not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups of radicals, social deviates, and incorrigibles.” His name was Dan White.
On the nation’s 201st birthday, a car full of teenagers picked up a hitchhiker. A girl put a gun to his head: “If you breathe, we’re gonna kill you, faggot.” They drove to a dark street, where two boys took turns raping him, crying, “Anita is right! Anita is right!” When the victim told an emergency room doctor at the University of California Medical Center what had happened, the doctor replied, “Well, you are homosexual, aren’t you?”
* New York had suffered a blackout in 1965. During its thirteen hours, the crime rate declined. Indeed, once New Yorkers became convinced that Russian missiles weren’t on the way, the wary anonymity of the city had transformed itself into a contagion of joy. They even made a movie about it, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, a frothy Doris Day romp that ended with a blessed event precisely nine months later. The posters advertised, “Oh, the liberties that were taken the night New York City flipped its fuse…”
In 1977, different sorts of liberties were taken: 1965-inverted, formerly alienated, atomized Gothamites once more united in carnivalesque communion, this time to strip the city bare.
Police arriving at one of the first Manhattan stores to be looted, at 99th and Broadway—not a slum—were met with a hail of bottles. In depressed neighborhoods like Bushwick in Brooklyn, marauders pried open stores’ steel shutters with crowbars, or jimmied hooks beneath them to pull them free with automobiles. People punched through display windows, their fists wrapped in towels to keep blood off the clothes they ripped from the mannequins. Sporting goods stores were relieved of guns and ammo. A Daily News reporter witnessed fifty Pontiacs driven off a new car lot in the Bronx “in a motorcade with horns blaring and pretty girls waving from the windows.”
Since New York’s near bankruptcy in 1975, 3,400 police and 1,000 firemen had been laid off. Those remaining had had their wages frozen. The year 1976 was the worst for crime in New York’s history. In the 83rd Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant, rookies were given three simple rules: “Don’t walk close to the buildings (someone might drop a brick on you). Don’t let neighborhood kids wear your hat (lice). Always check the earpiece on call boxes before using it (dog shit).” And that was under normal circumstances.
Every officer was ordered to report to duty immediately; 40 percent didn’t bother. Others arrived in street clothes, unarmed. (Helpfully, looters had left behind the baseball bats at a big sporting goods store in Brooklyn; and in any event, cops were under orders to keep their guns holstered.) So many support staff had been laid off that it took at least ten hours to process each arrest. City buses filled with men in chains stopped at jail after jail, searching for empty cells. A riot broke out at the Bronx House of Detention. Prisoners escaped from Rikers Island. The gay magazine Michael’s Thing reported an orgy on Weehawken Street in the West Village. (“Nudity was the rule; many guys were pushed against cars and performed upon with the full consent of everyone there.”) In Times Square, entrepreneurs with flashlights sold secure passage for $2. “Considering the dubious occupations of some of those characters,” the BBC’s Alistair Cooke ventured, “I think I would have chosen to stagger alone.”
* It was a former Nixon administration official who moved the matter into scandal territory. William Safire was a New York native who had dropped out of college to take a job as a legman for columnist Tex McCrary of the New York Herald-Tribune, a celebrity journalist who also hosted his own TV show with his wife. In violation of the most basic canons of journalistic ethics, McCrary was also a public relations agent—a denizen of the twilight realm immortalized in the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, where gossip columnists and publicists conspired to titillate the masses and aggrandize themselves. His young protégé watched and learned.
In 1959, Safire cleverly maneuvered the two most powerful men in the world into the “typical American home” set up at the American National Exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park by a McCrary PR client. There, Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev semi-spontaneously engaged in a legendary “kitchen debate” over the relative merits of the communism and capitalism. As Safire told the story in his 1963 book, The Relations Explosion, a manual on how to manipulate public perception, Khrushchev’s security forces attempted to block a New York Times reporter from the enclosure. Safire claimed the man was there to demonstrate the refrigerator—then that a Life magazine photographer was with the manufacturer of the washing machine. The media coup that resulted helped catapult Richard Nixon to the 1960 Republican presidential nomination.
Nixon hired Safire as a presidential speechwriter. Upon leaving the White House in 1973, he joined the New York Times as a Washington columnist, enjoying the fruit of one of Richard Nixon’s most successful PR coups: intimidating the Eastern establishment media into hiring conservatives. Sneaking the norms, standards, and techniques from the world of Sweet Smell of Success into the Newspaper of Record, he became one of Washington’s most effectual pundits. One thing every gossip columnist knew how to do was destroy a reputation. Indeed, his 1963 book offered a step-by-step how-to. In 1977, he set out to destroy Jimmy Carter’s.
He began sending up trial balloons. A January 24, 1977, column punned that Carter’s inaugural was “pedestrian.” But Safire was about the only one who thought so. So on February 3 he tried another angle of attack, tying a Carter State Department official, Warren Christopher, to “the infamous ‘Doar Plan’… the then-secret but now-notorious inter-division information unit of the LBJ Justice Department to war on dissenters.”
Not so infamous, apparently: no other journalist bit. Safire moved on.
On February 28 he insinuated that House Speaker Tip O’Neill was conspiring with the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, Benjamin Civiletti, to bury the Korean influence-peddling scandal. The column included a favorite Safire technique, listing objective-sounding, but actually insinuating, questions—raising an aura of guilt without the burden of facts: “Will Mr. Civiletti inform the Senate in writing every 30 days about the status of this chimerical investigation of House members?” “Will he agree to resign if given an arbitrary time limit?” In March he said Civiletti’s service as treasurer of a Democratic Senate campaign was an abuse of power “that would have made John Mitchell blush.” The only pickup these charges got, however, was a letter to the editor from Senator Joseph Tydings, who said that comparing Jimmy Carter’s Justice Department to Richard Nixon’s was like “equating Hustler magazine with the New York Times.” (As it happened, one Safire column praised a Hustler magazine article—unjustly neglected, he sniffed—which argued that Watergate was a Democratic coup.)
In April he teed off on Paul Warnke for “ideological bias” in his hiring practices; in May, he went after two State Department officials with a supposedly corrupt business connection to a TV station; in June, the target was Vice President Mondale, for supposedly installing a “gang of four” of pro-administration prosecutors in the Justice Department; none of these seeds took root with other investigators. Then, after the revelation of Pat Caddell’s ten-thousand-word political strategy memo, Safire lamented that the Carter administration believed “the way to stay in the corridors of power is to turn them into halls of mirrors.” Which, coming from the architect of the Kitchen Debate, was pretty rich.
* A night out with the wife? Try one of the proliferating Christian nightclubs. Problems in the bedroom? Turn to Pastor Tim and Mrs. Beverly LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love, which insisted, “Modern research has made it abundantly clear that all married women are capable of orgasmic ecstasy. No Christian woman should settle for less.” (Then, in one of the most curious biblical exegeses in the history of Christendom, the LaHayes revealed a Scriptural instruction for manual clitoral stimulation: “The wife lying on her back with her knees bent and feet pulled up to her hips and her husband lying on her right side”—just like the Song of Solomon said: “Let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me.”)
* ANTIFEMINISTS ALSO HAD POWERFUL SECULAR arguments. One was that the feminism, by stripping social sanctions against extramarital sex, turned women into disposable toys, freeing men to cast them economically adrift. Another involved social class. According to one study of the pro-choice movement, 94 percent of its activists worked, almost 40 percent had gone to graduate school, and one in four had an MD, a PhD, or a law degree. Feminist leaders tended to be lawyers, professors, and foundation executives. No wonder they viewed working outside the home as fulfilling. The same survey found that most antifeminist activists who worked were unmarried, had menial, deadening jobs, and 90 percent had no college degree. In the world as these women experienced it, marriage was what rescued you from work. Feminists wanted to force you back.
* A mimeographed anti-ERA plaint sent to legislatures observed, “These women lawyers, women legislators, and women executives promoting ERA have plenty of education and talent to get what they want in the business, political, and academic world.…We, the wives and working women, need you, dear Senators and Representatives, to protect us.”
The same rhetoric reverberated across the heartfelt letters they sent to representatives begging them to vote against the ERA: “I want to remain on a pedestal.” “I want to remain a homemaker.” “I want to remain a woman.” Just like Tammy Wynette sang in “Don’t Liberate Me (Love Me)”: “Today a group of women came to see me / To convince me women don’t have equal rights / And they left me when I told them I feel equal to an angel / When my man holds me at night.” One reason such arguments were so effective was that they caught feminists off-guard. Dr. Joyce Brothers, the celebrity psychotherapist, appeared on The Merv Griffin Show with Phyllis Schlafly. Dr. Brothers exclaimed, “The idea that a woman can go sit home and be supported by her husband, that has long ago died out!” Came back Schlafly, calm as ever: “Forty million women are being supported by their husbands today.” The retort stunned Dr. Brothers into a glum silence.
* Jews, themselves victims of religious quotas a generation earlier, also joined Bakke’s side—setting traditionally liberal Jewish organizations at odds with the civil rights groups they had proudly fought beside in the time of Martin Luther King Jr. Another left-leaning group supporting Bakke was the American Federation of Teachers, a union historically led by Jewish socialists, but which was still stinging from savage battles in the late 1960s in Brooklyn, when blacks and the liberal foundations that supported them demanded “local”—i.e., black—control of schools, whatever the consequences for union protections for mostly Jewish teachers.
* In 1950, America’s share of the world economy was 40 percent. Now  it was 11 percent. [In 2020, it was 15%.]
* Jimmy Carter certainly felt alienated from his party’s liberals: “I feel more at home with the conservative Democratic and Republican members of Congress,” he wrote in his diary the day of his State of the Union address. In a meeting with corporate executives, he pledged to decrease the percentage of GDP spent by the federal government from 23 percent to 21 percent. In his State of the Union address, he praised Hubert Humphrey as a tribune for “the weak and the hungry and the victims of discrimination and poverty”—then intoned: “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy.”
* But there was no natural constituency for “tax simplification.” There was, however, a very powerful constituency for tax complexity. They were already hard at work. For instance, the hotel and restaurant lobbies went to ground to fight Carter’s proposal to rein in abuses of the tax code’s allowance for “ordinary and necessary business expenses”—what the press dubbed his war against the “three-martini lunch.”
* He complained about a bill approaching passage giving him immediate power to appoint 150 new federal judges, a prospect “I certainly don’t want.… In this four-year term I will have appointed more than half the total federal judges in the United States.” The possibility of placing his stamp on the federal judiciary for generations to come would have made other presidents salivate. Carter considered it an ordeal.
* …closely enough for alert congressional staffers to easily brief their bosses that experts agreed: the problem with an economy heading further south every day was not the machinations of the far-off oil sheiks of OPEC, or the hangover from an underfunded Vietnam War, or underused industrial capacity, or the underfunding of public investment, or a lack of countervailing power to big business, or greedy corporations chasing higher profits—the liberals’ explanations for America’s economic woes. The problem was too much government.
Indeed, there was scant room in any of these paradigms for criticizing business at all. If companies were prospering, it was because they deserved to prosper—they were winners in the competitive marketplace. And if they were not prospering: that must be because regulation and high taxes had distorted the competitiveness of the marketplace. The devil, however, was still in the details. What should a tax bill that honored such premises look like? Milton Friedman was among those who insisted that any tax cut had to be accompanied by equivalent cuts in government spending. Paul Craig Roberts didn’t think you necessarily had to cut spending at all.
Whose argument would prevail? To whom would the spoils of intellectual victory belong? Not the professor who could array his Greek-letter equations most convincingly to other professors, it turned out. This was Washington, after all; the battle went to the swift. Which in practice meant those willing to take intellectual shortcuts. And there, Paul Craig Roberts’s school already had a considerable head start. Its name was supply-side economics.
* ITS ARCHITECTS WERE A MOTLEY crew. One was a thirty-year-old junior professor at the University of Chicago who joined Richard Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget as chief economist. He offered an estimate of the 1971 gross national projection far more optimistic than any other in circulation. Nixon gladly seized on it in speeches. Embarassment followed, after actual GNP fell dramatically short of the young economist’s predictions, which had relied on only four variables when most such forecasting models used hundreds. He left Washington a laughingstock. His name was Arthur Laffer.
Another was something of an eccentric: as a professor at Columbia University, he had written a series of classic scholarly papers in the early 1960s on currency exchange rate dilemmas facing his native Canada that helped define a subfield. During the 1970s, however, he largely stopped writing in economics journals and presenting at mainstream conferences, instead convening his own at a villa in the Italian countryside. He grew his hair long, and began referring to the typical work product of his mainstream economist colleagues—including Milton Friedman—as “sheer quackery.” His name was Robert A. Mundell.
A third figure was a journalist with no training in economics. At the age of thirty-three, in 1970, Robert Bartley took over the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and “made clear,” as a critic put it, “that the Journal would henceforth be neither cautious nor even-handed on economic issues. Instead, it would campaign aggressively for what Bartley believed in. And Bartley is a self-confident man, calmly sure that he is right even when nearly everyone around him thinks he has lost his head.”
Bartley’s favorite editorial writer, like most of the New Right leaders with whom he would become aligned, came from working-class roots: he was son of an itinerant butcher from the Appalachian foothills. His first job in journalism was at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which was where he claimed to have grasped the basics of economics—by pursuing his hobby of counting cards to beat the house at blackjack. His name was Jude Wanniski.
Together, these four men arguably became the most influential economic thinkers in the history of the United States, even though their theories turned out to be substantially wrong.
In 1973, Laffer tutored Bartley and Wanniski that what other economists believed about inflation—that its causes were complex and obscure—was incorrect. Bartley, convinced, invited Laffer to compose a series of articles in the Journal, in which he preached his heterodox theory like it had been handed down on stone tablets.
* Professors from across the ideological spectrum dismissed the supply-side enterprise as errant nonsense. Gardner Ackley, an architect of the Kennedy-Johnson tax, called Kemp-Roth “the most irresponsible policy proposal—seriously advanced by people who should know better—that I can recall during the nearly forty years I have been closely observing or participating in national economic policy making. I am ashamed of my profession for the fact that a handful of its members have suggested or endorsed this policy.” Milton Friedman said the raging inflation it would produce made it merely “a proposal to change the form of taxes.” Franco Modigliani said it would “do irreparable damage to the United States economy.” Alan Greenspan, Gerald Ford’s former chief economic advisor, said of Laffer, “I don’t know anyone who seriously believes his argument.” Another free-market economist, George Stigler, bound for a Nobel Prize four years later, labeled his former University of Chicago colleague “a propagandist.” The economics editor of Business Week called supply-side “more a source of amusement than a basis for public policy.” The conservative economist Herbert Stein called Laffer’s curve “extreme to the point of bizarre,” a “shoddy echo of silly self-serving businessmen’s nostrums going back to time immemorial.”
Stein then twisted the knife: “It may turn out that such a tax cut will raise revenue, just as it may turn out that there is human life on Mars. But I would not invest much in a McDonald’s franchise on that planet.”
Steiger’s capital gains cut amendment came in for drubbings almost as severe. Herb Stein concluded that even “using the most favorable assumptions” it would take three decades “to regain the revenue level that would have been achieved without the tax cut,” because investors would park much of their unearned windfall on luxuries like expensive art.
* Ministers may have sincerely believed that their only aim was to give glory to God. Allen naïvely insisted, “My personal view is that we shouldn’t even know whether one of our children is black or white.” The effect was frequently segregationist nonetheless. And besides, all Christian academies were segregation academies, of another sort: they militantly segregated young minds from any cosmopolitan influence…
Some used no textbooks. “The Bible is all we need,” explained the headmaster of a school, housed in a prefab steel building in Durham, that advertised “Quality Christian Education” even though its teachers had no accreditation. Robert Billings’s Guide to the Christian School promised readers everything they needed to know to establish their own in 139 pages. A decade after calling it the most exciting development in education, Christianity Today said that many “so-called Christian schools” were “shoddy, racist, superpatriotic pretenses unworthy either of the designation of Christian or of school.” And by the Bicentennial year, government officials charged with certifying that Christian academies followed the law began meeting fanatical resistance.
Evangelical media followed such stories obsessively. Also the long-simmering case of Bob Jones University, which was founded in the 1920s in Greenville, South Carolina, with a large bequest from the Ku Klux Klan, and was the alma mater of Christian right luminaries like Robert Billings and Tim LaHaye. BJU officials fought in court to save their IRS exemption after the federal government moved to withhold it for their refusal to admit blacks; and then, when they began admitting them, for banning blacks from dating whites. Another case involved little Hillsdale College, a conservative school in Michigan that the Crane brothers had attended. It was proudly racially integrated, with an equal number of male and female students, but like BJU it was refused federal funding—because, as Ronald Reagan raged in a column, “battalions of social engineers” at the Department Health, Education, and Welfare (who “spend all their working hours devising new ways to make schools conform to their view of what education should be”) demanded that, since some students accepted GI Bill funds and loans guaranteed by the federal government, administrators had to sign a statement affirming that the school did not discriminate against women. On principle, the school refused to sign.
* It was an example of how sophisticated the New Right was becoming at organizing discontent—and came out just as word began circulating in the evangelical world, in the middle of August, that a new set of IRS guidelines for private schools seeking tax exemptions was about to come down. Senator Hatch responded with a statement: “It does not take too much imagination” to envision the IRS demanding “homosexual teachers, the availability of abortion counselors, and the abolition of male and female choruses.” Adding to the paranoia, the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division had just ruled that a group founded to “foster an understanding and tolerance of homosexuals and their problems” would henceforth qualify for tax exemptions under 501(c)(3).
* As head of daytime programming for CBS, Silverman had turned the fill-in-the-blank quiz show Match Game into an afternoon festival of sexual innuendo. (Host Gene Rayburn: “A giant turtle tried to _____ a Volkswagen.” Panelist Betty White: “Not with the engine in the rear!”) As president of ABC, he presided over the invention of a new sort of programming his critics dubbed “Jigglevision”: On Charlie’s Angels, three sexy single ladies solved crimes for an offscreen boss. On Three’s Company, two sexy single ladies shared an apartment with a single man. The Love Boat chronicled a singles bar on the high seas; its executive producer once fired off a memo demanding “Do we have enough titillating, purely sexual stories?” and another complaining that there weren’t enough scripts providing love interests for the ship’s pretty cruise director Julie McCoy (“Let the poor girl get laid—please!”). The typical Silverman product married adult situations to stories so simpleminded they could be appreciated by children. Critics dubbed it “kiddie porn”; other networks rushed to copy it. In 1978, NBC snapped Silverman up. Doonesbury imagined his first day on the job: “To program for nine-year-olds, you have to think like nine-year-olds. If you want NBC to start clicking again, you’re going to have to stop acting like grown men! Understood?… Good. Now, let’s take a look at your cleavage situation.”
TV news was increasingly titillating, too.
* Until, on the thirteenth day, the three finally emerged, haggard, with a text in hand all could agree on, and presented themselves before the hundreds of news-starved journalists who had hunkered down in futility in a nearby VFW hall with no one to interview but each other for nearly two weeks.
As the three world leaders announced their miracle, thunderclouds were massing. It looked like the helicopters would not even be able to lift off to ferry the parties back to Washington. Then, they did—and the passengers bore witness to a stunning display of gratitude: homeowners in the flight path had turned on every light in their houses, and the lights in their yards, and the lights on their porches, and the eerie, awesome glow lit the helicopters’ way from the mountaintop to the executive mansion, where the arrival of the three men was illuminated by a massive assemblage of television klieg lights.
They sat down in the East Room to sign what history called the Camp David Accords. Seats reserved for the Egyptian delegation were empty: diplomats feared for their lives should their participation become known. This attested to Anwar Sadat’s awesome courage.
* Carter didn’t seem to recognize the danger in this to Democrats’ political fortunes. But Ronald Reagan did: “For Democratic politicians long used to harvesting votes by dispensing nearly unlimited amounts of middle-class dollars, the new reality is going to be hard to get used to,” he wrote in a column analyzing the congressional elections. “No wonder there were some sweaty Democrat brows the other night.” Representative Tom Foley, a Watergate baby from Washington State, grasped it, too: “Tight budgets strain all the natural fault lines of the Democratic Party. The pressure will intensify as we approach the presidential election year and each group starts pressing its claims.”
* “Jimmy Carter developed” an excruciating case of the hemorrhoids. Time helpfully explained treatments available to the Leader of the Free World. One involved “dilating, or widening, the anus with stretching devises.” Another, “cooling the affected area with liquid nitrogen,” was painless but “produces a foul-smelling discharge that requires wearing a sanitary pad for a few weeks.”
* A HISTORIAN ONCE CALLED HIS book about the 1970s It Seemed Like Nothing Happened. Certainly it seemed so compared to the 1960s, when new revolutions seemed to burst forth every month. But in fact enormous things were happening. They just weren’t always the sort of things that made for bold, clear headlines. Corporations withdrew their support for the liberal state and politicians embraced capital gains tax cuts; fundamentalist ministers inched their way into partisan politics and conservatives crept ever closer to control of the Republican Party; the Democrats fell into ideological confusion and the electorate became increasingly finicky—such things were, in a word, complicated: the sort of developments that rewired the invisible structures that order a society.
* Between 1944 and 1976, when the U.S. population grew 44 percent, credit card debt increased 1,300 percent. One in five holders never paid off their balances in full. And on December 18, 1978, came another of those quiet revolutions that helped rewire the invisible structures that govern the world: the United States Supreme Court, in Marquette v. First of Omaha, let banks charter themselves anywhere, rendering state laws capping credit card interest rates moot—meaning that not paying your credit card would cost more than ever before.
* THE MEN RISING TO CHALLENGE Jimmy Carter did not generally resemble superheroes. Most were painfully bland. No surprise, then, that the first to emerge from the pack was the most charismatic of the bunch—who practically had leadership tattooed his forehead.
He was often photographed on his ranch, astride a horse. He grew up poor in the hinterlands, became a big man on campus in college, took a Hollywood screen test at the height of the Depression, and a served as a governor in the booming Sun Belt. He appeared the exact match for what a dejected nation desired in their president—not least in the way he held himself aloof from Washington, which he called a “jungle.”
Editors sent journalists to capture him for their readers in profile after profile after profile, which all turned out almost exactly the same. They talked about his “carriage,” and how he was “always absolutely in control of himself.” How he bore an “actor’s control over his body,” and was “never out of character.” (“Even in an airplane or an automobile he sits so erect that he resembles one of those inflatable dummy passengers used in safety tests.”) Producers of television commercials particularly admired him. In his memoir of the 1976 campaign, Gerald Ford’s adman Mal MacDougall told of cutting a Ford commercial with this exemplary specimen under trying conditions at a state fair. The first take was virtually perfect—except that it ran four seconds long. MacDougall offered to cut a few words from the script.
“No,” the performer answered. “I’ll just shorten my drawl.”
The director called “Action!” The performer recited his lines precisely four seconds more expeditiously. MacDougall recorded his awe at how good he looked, “that tanned Texas face, the silver hair, the clean white shirt.”
The man was not Ronald Reagan. He was John Connally of Texas. Ronald Reagan was the front-runner among Republicans in every presidential poll. But pundits said this was misleading—that in the earliest innings of a presidential race, first place was a bad place to be.
* Irving Kristol’s face smiled out from the cover of the February 13 issue of Esquire. “This unknown intellectual,” it read, “is the godfather of the most powerful new political force in America—NEOCONSERVATISM.” Inside, the package of articles, charts, and lists began with an epigraph from Karl Marx—“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class”—and continued on for twenty lavishly illustrated pages. One essay described neoconservatives as “The Reasonable Right”—a radical reasonableness, however, because neoconservatives were the first conservative cadre in generations that fit comfortably within America’s true corridors of power, the places where the nation’s cultural common sense was formed: the university seminar room, the Manhattan dinner party, the nonprofit foundation boardroom.
* One reason for his [Jerry Falwell] success might have been a skill increasingly in demand in the South after Brown v. Board of Education: justifications for racism. He argued in one 1958 sermon, published in the first issue of a newspaper he began publishing in conjunction with his new TV broadcast, the “racial problem in this country is not one of hate—but one of Biblical principle.” Biblical principle was foursquare on the side of segregation, as one could see by studying Acts 17:26, in which the Lord sets the “bounds of their habitation” for the nations of the earth. God condemned Noah’s son Ham and his brethren for all time to be “servants of servants.” “Reading Genesis 10:6–20, and by searching your Bible dictionary and concordance you will find that Ham was the progenitor of the African, or Ethiopian, or colored race.… The mistake we have made is simply this: We have left God out of our decisions altogether. If Chief Warren and his associates had known God’s Word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. What could possibly have worked out in a scriptural and orderly way, now has become a touchy problem.” For the “true Negro… does not want integration. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race. Who then is propagating this terrible thing? First of all, we see the hand of Moscow in the background.… It boils down to whether we are going to take God’s word as final.”
* He was no longer a racial segregationist. His understanding of the Devil’s work on earth was different now: it was gays seeking civil rights. He also liked to quote “a man from whom I took great inspiration”: “Fellows, if you’re going to be successful, see a fight going all the time. You do pretty well at that.” Just like Howard Phillips said: organize discontent.
* “White males eighteen to thirty-four,” a Rolling Stone writer commented, “are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins, and therefore they’re the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security.”
* Lee Atwater explained the secret to an inquiring political scientist in 1981—though he asked not to be quoted. The trick was “how abstract you handle the race thing.… You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… And if it is getting that abstract and that coded, we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or another. You follow me? Because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut taxes, we want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’ So any way you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.”
* Reagan had won practically every debate he had participated in—going back at least to 1967, when he appeared on the same TV hookup with Robert F. Kennedy to discuss the Vietnam War, and twisted his opponent in such knots that Kennedy subsequently yelled “Who the fuck got me into this?” and ordered staffers never to pair him with “that son-of-a-bitch” ever again.
A former speaker in the California assembly had warned them about that. But Jimmy Carter was an arrogant man. His political staff had staged their own rounds of practice debates, with a young political science professor playing Reagan—who did a credible enough imitation that Carter was soundly defeated. His response to that was to cancel the scrimmages. He was president, after all. He dealt with these issues all the time. He could handle the actor. There was no one around him willing or able to penetrate the bubble to persuade him otherwise—of Reagan’s extraordinary skill, perfected over decades, at sounding neither extreme nor ill-informed (even when he actually was) but kindly and shrewd.