A book about the 1950’s sounds like a bland and vanilla story but it turns out David Halberstam had two stories to tell – and one wasn’t about the 50’s.
Back when Milton Berle and ‘I Love Lucy’ ruled the airwaves unemployment was nil, inflation was nil, incomes were rising and families were moving up.
William Levitt, a Navy veteran who served as a Seabee, came home and decided to use mass production techniques to build houses. Kemmons Wilson, another veteran who’d flown cargo planes over the Himalayas, did the same thing to build Holiday Inns. And when the two veterans were done almost every family could afford a new home in the suburbs and a vacation.
Consumerism erupted like a skyrocket. Betty Furness became a national heroine by appearing on TV in Westinghouse ads. Easy credit poured gas on the fires of consumerism. A new economy was born based on consumer spending, sounding the death knell for the old Capitalism and the even older Calvinist ethic of work and save.
Women had entered the workforce in waves during the Second World War. But in the 50’s did an about face, landing in the suburbs as housewives. But devilment never rests – and ghosts appeared in the machine. By mid-decade the battle-lines were drawn with Father Knows Best on one side and the Rebels – Brando, Dean, Elvis – on the other. Peyton Place, Halberstam reports, sold 20 million copies not because it was a soap opera but because it was a story about unhappy women asking themselves, Is that all there is?
Face to face with the rebels, establishment icon Ed Sullivan declared he’d never have Elvis on his show. Elvis was obscene. Then Elvis performed on Steve Allen’s show, for the first-time Allen topped Sullivan in the Neilson ratings, and Sullivan did an about face.
The night Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan show the Old Order fractured and gave way to the New Order.
A seamstress in a factory, who also worked part time as a domestic, climbed onto a bus tired and unhappy after working a long day and sat down in the section for African Americans beside three black men.
But there was a tricky fact about Montgomery buses. The line separating the black section and the white section was mobile. As the bus rolled from stop to stop, and the front of the bus filled up with white people, the line moved. One minute Rosa Parks was sitting in the black section and the next she was sitting in the white section. When the bus driver told her to move, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The Montgomery newspapers weren’t about to light the fuse that turned Rosa Park’s arrest into a social upheaval. But a new power – marching across the land hand in hand with consumerism – did.
In Little Rock, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the first day of school a lone black girl, a student, walked toward a white high school and, suddenly, she was surrounded by a mob of protestors, faces contorted with anger. TV captured it all. And TV’s message was simple: This is wrong. Twenty million people saw it.
TV changed General Motors too. Ed Cole, the engineer who’d invented GM’s new 8-cylinder engine, walked into a meeting one day, sat down and listened surprised as GM’s new CEO announced, What matters now is the stock price – before what had mattered was the quality of GM’s product. And the engineering. But to the new men in gray flannel suits what defined success wasn’t quality – it was salability. And the price of stock.
The Volkswagen Beetle was an engineer’s dream, the epitome of utilitarian engineering. But it was the opposite of salability while the Cadillacs in GMs’ TV ads, emblems of upward mobility, were a salesman’s dream.
In The Fifties David Halberstam’s telling one story about the New America being born, after millions of soldiers came home from war. Without TV there’s no Civil Rights Movement, without suburbs there’s no women’s movement, Brando, Dean, Elvis, and the birth control pill are all pieces of the same tapestry.
The other story is about the roots of the America we live in today.
Forget for now what Democrats will do in the Age of Trump. What will Republicans do?
They won their biggest election victories in many a year, thanks to a man who ran against their party establishment, ridiculed and routed their favored candidates, and has at best a tenuous commitment to their conservative orthodoxy.
He promises a big tax cut and huge cuts in regulations, which Republicans love. He also promises a trillion-dollar infrastructure spending program, which they love not so much. He hates trade deals; they love trade deals. And it’s not clear where Trump stands on the GOP establishment’s burning desire to attack Medicare, Social Security and Obamacare.
He embraces Taiwan and pokes China. He’s chummy with Putin. And he boasts that he’s far smarter than the nation’s intelligence establishment. Russian hacking of our election? “A problem,” GOP Senators McCain and Graham say. “Nothing to it,” Trump swears. Maybe he takes Putin’s word for it.
Maybe Democrats should just relax. Sit in front of the fire and enjoy some eggnog. Let all this play out and see where the pieces fall out.
Trump was great for Republicans this year. Now their fate is roped to his. Let’s see how great he is for them in 2018 and 2020.
In the spirit of the season, I pass on this quote sent by a TAPster, from H.L. Mencken in 1920:
“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright moron.”
At an ‘Open House’ years ago at our school I listened as Eric talked with a parent I barely knew – then as the parent walked away I said, He sounds like a reasonable man.
He mistreats his wife, Eric said.
I looked back at the parent and saw a different man.
Pat McCrory, of course, had no untoward behavior like that. Even remotely. But in the aftermath of his election I think he did have a problem with how people saw him changing.
When Pat took office the only place most people had seen him or heard him speak was in his campaign’s TV ads – and in those ads Pat was attractive and reasonable. The story his campaign ads told about Pat was reassuring.
But a few months later, when two of Pat’s campaign aides were appointed to jobs in the Department of Health & Human Services after he was elected, the press began asking questions. At first Pat chose not to answer – but when the reporters kept asking he explained the aides were fine young men who were smart and qualified and the salaries were fair. The two aides were making $85,000 and $87,500 each. And they were each 24 years old.
At that moment I think the ‘old’ perception people had of Pat began to unravel and, watching him, they started to think, He’s not the man we thought he was.
Masochist that I am, I’ve read a lot of second-guessing and score-settling about why the extraordinarily well-qualified Hillary Clinton lost to one of the most loathsome and unprincipled men ever in politics (and that covers a lot of scoundrels).
A fair, thoughtful and balanced analysis – one that is brutally honest, but also constructive rather than destructive – comes from my old friend Will Marshall (Hunt ’84 Senate campaign), president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist political think tank: “What Democrats Can Learn From Hillary Clinton’s Tragedy: The art of political persuasion matters more than the mechanics of mobilization.”
It’s worth reading in full. Highlights:
“As the populist tide rolls across the transatlantic world, it’s hard to feel anything but sympathy for Clinton. She’s an infinitely better person than Trump, who falsely and maliciously branded her a criminal. But she did not run a better campaign, and now progressives must come to grips with how she lost to the most unpopular nominee in modern times.
“There’s no point in whining about the Electoral College. Team Clinton knew the terrain on which the race would be decided. The question is why Trump was able to solve the Electoral College puzzle, and they weren’t.
“The answer lies in two strategic miscalculations. The first was the decision to devote more resources to making Trump anathema to voters than to articulating a compelling rationale for Clinton’s candidacy. She fell back on ‘experience,’ while he at least offered restive voters a theory of big change, however implausible the details. And while she succeeded in deepening public doubts about Trump, she failed to engage anxious white working class voters in a conversation about their economic and cultural discontents….
“Which brings us to Team Clinton’s second and related strategic failure: A message and electoral strategy tailored narrowly to the demands of identity politics. The Clinton campaign bet heavily on recreating Obama’s huge advantages with groups that are growing in the U.S. electorate: minorities, millennials, single women and secular voters. Obama’s success had convinced many Democrats they could count on this ‘Rising American majority’ to maintain their lock on the Electoral College.
“Such demographic determinism, however, proved unavailing as Clinton won smaller margins among these groups than Obama. That was not a problem in overwhelmingly Democratic states on the two coasts but it was devastating in the more thinly blue rustbelt states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And Clinton’s enthusiasm gap even extended to white voters, with whom she also underperformed Obama.”
“Despite these errors, Clinton won the popular vote comfortably. But while Trump won fewer votes, he won them in the right places. What lessons should progressives learn from such a tragic loss?
“One is that America’s changing demography doesn’t guarantee a progressive majority. Each nominee has to chart a unique course to the White House and build their own majority. This means that the art of political persuasion is still more important to winning presidential elections than the mechanics of mobilization. And if you want to play identity politics, it’s probably a bad idea to ignore whites, who still comprise nearly 70 percent of U.S. voters.”
Rob Christensen recently noted “a number of parallels” between Donald Trump and Jesse Helms. (“Trump, like Helms, rode populist streak as outsider”).
But another parallel deserves attention. Read on.
“Both Helms and Trump were plain-spoken populists who gained much of their support from blue-collar workers and from people living in rural areas.
“Both campaigned as outsiders….
“Both were accused by critics of exploiting racial divisions for political benefit.
“Both campaigned against the news media….”
“Both tapped into deep frustration with politics as usual,” (quoting Helms biographer William Link.)
Rob also quoted Carter: “(B)oth are sort of demagogues. The main difference is that Helms did have a pretty rigid set of conservative values. I don’t think Trump does, but we just won’t know until we see.”
One thing I grant Helms: he had principles. Trump just has impulses.
Rob said both “were political innovators” – Helms “pioneering in the use of TV advertising and direct-mail fundraising” while “Trump found a way to get out his campaign message without using paid commercials…in a way that was ‘revolutionary,’ according to Wrenn.” Namely Twitter.
There is one more important parallel, familiar to those of us who tried to defeat Helms: Both mastered the art of the political and personal destruction of their opponents.
Helms & Co. pioneered not just TV ads, but negative ads. Helms was never personally popular. He could only win by making his opponents more unpopular than he was. And he was good at it.
Likewise Trump in 2016. He won the Republican nomination by destroying his opponents, insulting them, demeaning them, mocking them – “Low Energy Jeb,” “Little Marco,” “Lying Ted.” Then he did the same to “Crooked Hillary.”
Both men zeroed in on ripe targets: Helms routinely attacked Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy and the “homosexual lobby.” For Trump, it’s Mexicans, Muslims, China, disabled people, women – you name it.
Trump, like Helms, is a bully. Like Helms, he’s good at it. It makes for good political strategy.
Whether it was – and is – good for America is another question altogether.
We Americans thrive on disagreeing and fighting among ourselves – it’s part of the fabric of our democracy. But, since the election, our natural crankiness seems to have deepened into paranoia.
Young people in colleges are demonstrating, afraid, after Donald Trump’s election, their freedom of speech is in peril. More than a few Internet websites are afraid Trump’s election means the return of the Klu Klux Klan. And gays fear that Trump – a New Yorker who favored gay marriage – is an ‘existential threat’ (don’t you loathe that phrase) to their way of life.
But wait a minute: No one’s rights were changed by the election. The laws are still the same. The Constitution is still in place. So why all this paranoia – is it more politics as usual? Or on Election Day did we, suddenly, lose faith in the strength of the Constitution and the traditions of our country?
Paranoia’s a bother. Politics is a nuisance. But lost faith, now, that would be a real threat.
Two Page One stories. Two men. Two very different Americans.
John Glenn was my hero when I was 12. He still is 55 years later.
Everything shut down at Martin Junior High School in Raleigh so we could watch Glenn’s flight, from launch to splashdown, including the anxiety about reentry.
All of us boys wanted to be John Glenn.
The other man in the news is Mike Adams, the UNCW professor who used his taxpayer-paid position and online platform to mock and deride a 19-year-old female student, who is Muslim, because she lacked “intellectual coherence.”
What intellectual courage he has!
His politics are immaterial. This is about character.
Bullying seems to be quite the thing in America now. After all, we have a President-elect who makes a regular thing of it.
America today needs more John Glenns and fewer Mike Adamses.
Posted in: General
On Election Day Republicans lost their majority on the State Supreme Court, but this morning the newspaper reported – when the General Assembly returns to town next week – Republicans may try to ‘pack’ the State Supreme Court by adding two new Republican Justices.
Since the election there’s been a story – more of a rumor than a story – floating around the backrooms in Raleigh about court packing. The story may not be true. And I hesitate to repeat it. But it’s a good story so here goes: About two weeks after the election Governor McCrory sent an aide over to the General Assembly who asked the powers that be, Are you thinking of packing the Supreme Court?
It’s on the table, was the non-committal reply.
The Governor wants you to know, the aide said, He won’t appoint the two new justices. He’ll leave the appointments for Roy Cooper to fill.
As I said, it’s just a rumor. It may be just one more political fiction. But on the other hand, if it did happen, Pat McCrory deserves credit.
Today’s paper reports that, if Republicans repeal Obamacare, some 30 million Americans will lose health insurance. Another 10 million will lose subsidies and have to pay more for insurance.
Give Donald Trump credit. He may do something President Obama never could do: get Americans to understand and appreciate Obamacare.
How’s that Make America Great Again thing working out for you?
Will next week’s legislative session be about hurricane and fire relief – or political relief?
Will the legislature help people who lost loved ones, homes and property – or help Republicans who lost elections?
And will Republicans give Roy Cooper a nuclear weapon to use against them in 2017, one that dwarfs HB2?
Senate Republicans are mad that the voters didn’t elect their candidate Bob Edmunds to the Supreme Court. So will they pack the court by adding two more justices? Show the voters who’s really in charge? Make the Court nothing more than a rubber stamp for the legislature?
The arrogance would be breathtaking.
Of course, the Republicans already tried twice to load the court dice.
First they made it a “retention” election, with only the incumbent on the ballot. Like Kim Jong Un. The courts ruled that unconstitutional.
Then they took party labels off the Supreme Court ballots. Oops! Given the Trump tide, Edmunds might have won if he’d been identified as a Republican.
He lost because a devastating TV ad pegged him as the Gerrymandering Judge.
Do vulnerable Republican legislators, who may be up again in 2017, want to see ads pegging them as power-mad politicians bent on reversing an election for their own political gain? When they’re supposed to be helping people who are hurting?
The last Republican politician to rubber-stamp a bad legislative idea was Pat McCrory. If he’d said no to HB2, he’d be writing his second Inaugural Address, not his job application to Donald Trump.
The Charlotte Observer says: “Carter Wrenn and Gary Pearce
don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. But they both love North Carolina
and know its politics inside and out.”
Carter is a Republican.
Gary is a Democrat.
They met in 1984, during the epic U.S. Senate battle
between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt. Carter worked for Helms and Gary,
Years later, they became friends. They even worked together on some nonpolitical clients.
They enjoy talking about politics. So they started this blog in 2005.
They’re still talking. And they invite you to join the conversation.
Order The Book
Purchase Carter's Book:
Spirits of the Air