- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2000

The 1970s weren't just disco music, shaggy haircuts and funny clothes, says David Frum.

The decade that gave us the Village People and yellow smiley-face "Have a Nice Day" bumper stickers was also a time of profound changes in American society and politics, Mr. Frum argues in his new book, "How We Got Here: The '70s, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life For Better or Worse."

In claiming the '70s as a revolutionary era, Mr. Frum rejects the common view that the 1960s were the turning point in American history. The difference is one of perspective, he says.

"The kind of people who write books … were either involved in or sympathetic to the political movements of the '60s, so it's hard for them to believe those things were not hugely important," Mr. Frum, 39, a contributing editor for the Weekly Standard, said in an interview with The Washington Times.

Because the history of the 1960s is usually told from an elite perspective, he says, "the experience of Bill and Hillary Clinton became the experience of everybody." But Mr. Frum says "democratic societies demand democratic histories," which is how he has tried to chronicle the 1970s.

Baby-boomer writers who were radical students during the 1960s "generalize from their own experience" without realizing that most Americans did not take part in the anti-war protests and other movements of that era, Mr. Frum says. What happened in the '70s shows how most people reacted to the excesses of the previous decade.

"It's not true in the 1970s that the radical political movements of the '60s filtered down to everybody," Mr. Frum says. "On the contrary, the story is one of the politics of the country taking a populist rightward turn… . The [left-leaning] politics of Bobby Kennedy, the country turns against them."

In "How We Got Here," Mr. Frum chronicles how public confidence in government expertise, characteristic of mid-century liberalism, was shaken by such '70s events as the Watergate scandal and the oil embargo.

"One of the great themes of the first two-thirds of the 20th century is the attempt to put order into an unruly and frightening universe. The experts promised order," he says.

Among other things, liberal experts promised to "eliminate crime and poverty with targeted aid… . They'd eliminate racial bigotry by assigning children to schools."

"These are the promises," Mr. Frum says of mid-century liberalism. "Through the '30s, '40s and '50s, those promises seemed to be honored. The 1970s were the decade when the promises began to be broken. Americans perceived that the experts had lost command, couldn't deliver, and were often making bad situations worse."

Public reaction against government in the 1970s from anti-busing protests in Boston to the Proposition 13 anti-tax campaign in California sowed the seeds of Ronald Reagan's success in the 1980s, Mr. Frum says.

But if the political trends of the 1970s were conservative, the social trends were not. It was in the '70s that divorce, premarital sex and unwed pregnancy became widely tolerated by the middle class, Mr. Frum observes. Abortion rates soared.

Most historians cite the '60s as the zenith of the "sexual revolution," but Mr. Frum argues that it "is closer to the truth" to say that the change in sexual morality became "universal" in the '70s.

Disco music was emblematic of that decade's rejection of traditional sexual morality, he says.

"Disco is the outward sign of two important changes," Mr. Frum says. "First, disco is the theme music of the gay-liberation movement… . Second, disco is part of the hypersexualization more generally that happens in the 1970s.

"Ever since men and women started dancing in couples … dancing has always represented sex. And the nature of your dance music tells us something about your attitude toward sex. Music that doesn't have a beginning or an end disco is music about the sex act… . Disco offers the promise of consummation prolonged forever."

But while sex was the unmistakable theme of '70s music, reproduction was out of fashion.

"I detect, running through the '70s, a great hostility toward children," says Mr. Frum, whose book points out that many of the decade's movies "The Omen," "It's Alive" and "The Exorcist" portray infants as "quite literally satanic." And "protagonists of all the most successful situation comedies of the 1970s" including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Three's Company" were portrayed as childless, Mr. Frum writes.

The sexual revolution may have ended, but its effects are still with us, Mr. Frum says. "A revolution can't go on forever, but when the revolution is over, you can't go back to the old regime."

As he makes appearances to promote his book, Mr. Frum says he finds the public is interested in but not nostalgic for the 1970s, when the U.S. economy was staggered by unemployment and inflation and many families were shattered by divorce.

"People don't really feel nostalgic for the '70s," he says. "They were a bad time for a lot of people. But they do like being reminded of the things they did when they were young."

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