Friday, May 13, 2011

Old Weird America's Last Stand, part 2

Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist RightMad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right by Dominic Sandbrook

I've read a number of books that are well researched. But finding a book that translates good research into an interesting narrative is much harder to find. Dominic Sandbrook's Mad As Hell is a one of those rare gems.

Sandbrook's narrative is not simply a chronology of political and cultural events from the mid to late 1970s, it is also a look into the ideological evolution of the Everyman of this period. The narrative begins with this Everyman, who was born and raised in the prosperity of the 50s and 60s, who is a high school graduate, who may have even attended college, now finding himself in the wake of his country's losing the War in Vietnam and the disgrace of the Watergate Scandal. With the economy in dire straights, everything from an energy crisis to high unemployment to low-wages and inflation, this Everyman is confronting bleak economic prospects for as far as the eye can see--something that his president Jimmy Carter is calling a "crisis of confidence."  Furthermore he has seen political and corporate corruption become so engrained in the government system that there is basically no ethical way for him to improve his station in life. He has witnessed the breakdown of the nuclear family and other traditional institutions. He watches his TV, reads his newspaper and magazines and listens to his radio in search of a way out, but a gloomy, numbing pessimistic apathy dominates the national consciousness and is reflected in the movies he watches, the music he hears, and the desperation for escape found in the era's recreational activities and fads.

Sandrock advances this narrative best when he weaves both cultural and political episodes in an engaging manner. Here is one example (page 19-20) that details events from the day that Gerald Ford gave Richard Nixon a full presidential pardon:

"On Sunday, September 8, the nation's attention was focused on the small town of Twin Falls, Idaho, where the daredevil motorcyclist Evel Knievel, the bourbon-swilling, cane-twirling darling of the southern and western white working classes, was preparing to leap across the Snake River Canyon on his death-defying, patriotically painted Skycycle X-2. In the event, the Skycycle failed to even make it off the ramp properly, and as the chastened Knievel was whisked away in a limousine, the crowd turned ugly, smashing the television crew's equipment, gutting the concession stands, and setting cars on fire. With his flared white jumpsuit and patriotic trimmings, Knievel had been biled as an American hero. Now he stood exposed as one more failure, one more icon who had let down his admirers.
          But the next day's headlines would belong not to Knievel but to another fallen star, another all-American hero who had turned out to have feet of clay. Even as the daredevil was preparing for his abortive jump, Gerald Ford was putting the finishing touches to an extraordinary decision..."

Sandrock displays superb craftsmanship painting scenes and describing characters in meaningful details that goes to bring history to life.  At times a book this detailed can become mired in the minutia of stale historical facts and dates and opinions, but for the most part Sandrock gives the reader an engaging story of the American Everyman in the late 1970s which leads us to a better understanding of how, in the end, that Everyman emerges from this doom and gloom to create Ronald Reagan's populist right.

For these reasons and more I give Mad As Hell 4 out of 5 WagemannHeads.


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