- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006


By Philip Jenkins

Oxford University Press, $28, 344 pages


Buried in this brisk and yet sweeping history of American from the late1960s to the day before yesterday is, apparently, a unique “Decade of Nightmares.” If the subtitle is to be believed, that 10-year swath of time would have to be the 1970s.

But subtitles can sometimes be deceiving. Witness Philip Jenkins’ historical periodization, which is at once more refined and more open-ended than that. According to Mr. Jenkins, the decade known as the sixties really began about 1965 and ended about 1975, while what we have come to call the seventies surfaced about 1975 and crashed about 1985.

Fair enough. For that matter, Mr. Jenkins is not the first historian to shove the sixties well into the Seventies. But a question remains: Which decade is the true “decade of nightmares?” I read the book, and I’m not entirely sure. Mr. Jenkins wrote the book, and he doesn’t seem to be all that certain either.

In any case, the author deserves some sort of a medal for wallowing in the slough that was the popular culture that dominated the heart of the actual 1970s. Not that he has ignored the low moments of the Nixon, Ford and Carter years either. In fact, what Mr. Jenkins has done is weave low culture and high (low?) politics into a single whole.

He then proceeds to take his story of the interplay between the two through the whole of the Eighties and well beyond. And all to make the case that the excesses of the Sixties produced an excessive reaction that continues to dominate our culture and our politics to this day.

The result is less a “decade of nightmares” than three or perhaps four decades of an ongoing nightmare. If so, then perhaps a simple “nightmare decades” could have captured the whole thing nicely.

It’s not that Mr. Jenkins pines for the return of the Sixties as they were or dreams of the Sixties that might have been. And it’s not that he is bent on crucifying conservative Republicans for cynically reaping the harvest of votes that have been theirs for the taking during what has become our long national nightmare.

If anything, he is of a mind to think that what we have come to call the Sixties died a much deserved death. And his indictment of post-Sixties (and post-Seventies) America cuts across party lines.

That indictment, it must also be said, is far less than thoroughgoing. Mr. Jenkins, it turns out, is much quicker to condemn some excesses than others. What it seems to boil down to is this: Fear-mongering at home needs to be exposed as the cynical fraud that it is, while fear-mongering abroad may or may not be entirely cynical or genuinely fraudulent. Some nightmares are apparently more real than others.

Mr. Jenkins tries to make it all clear in a few concluding paragraphs under the heading, “The Sprit of ‘76.” Just what element(s) of that spirit he claims to be evoking remains unclear.

What is (and has been) clear is the author’s distaste for those who would invoke the language of conspiracy in their domestic wars against evildoers, whether they be drug dealers, child molesters, pornography purveyors or church burners among the many alleged “nightmares” that politicians initially inflated in the name of garnering votes and advancing government — and which Mr. Jenkins recalls in the name of making what amounts to an essentially libertarian case against his nightmare, namely an intrusive government.

And what of foreign wars against evildoers? Here the author is more circumspect and less inclined to rush to judgment. Having been quick to expose the “nightmares” that weren’t, Mr. Jenkins is willing to concede that “in some circumstances the terminology of evil seems appropriate, even unavoidable.” And if that doesn’t go far enough, Mr. Jenkins seems willing to take one more step: “Perhaps evil empires really did, and do, exist.” And perhaps, just perhaps, the awareness of those empires, coupled with a willingness to do something about them, explains why Republicans have been somewhat more successful than Democrats during our recent nightmare decades.

While Mr. Jenkins is willing to give President Reagan his due for the fall of communism, he cannot help but wonder what might have happened during a second Carter or first Mondale administration. In fact, he dates the country’s “move to the right” to the second half of the lone Carter term. In Mr. Jenkins’ telling, Reagan was simply building on policy changes that Mr. Carter had initiated once the scales had fallen from his post-Soviet-invasion-of-Afghanistan eyes.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Democrats of the Carter-Mondale-Dukakis stripe deploying both the military might and the rhetoric necessary to bring about the collapse of communism. That stipulated, Reagan gets significantly lower marks from Mr. Jenkins for his handling of Middle East foreign policy. So, for that matter, do Mr. Carter, Bush I, and Mr. Clinton.

And Bush II? Here Mr. Jenkins is nothing if not judicious. For those who condemn George W. Bush for his religious, us-versus-them rhetoric, the author recalls Mr. Clinton’s religious-laden response to the Oklahoma City bombing.

And for those who support the current war in Iraq, Mr. Jenkins declares that al Qaeda is not the monolith the Bush administration thinks it is, doubts it is as significant a threat as Hezbollah, and specifically calls for “more precise and better-targeted strategies” without specifying what they might be.

Which perhaps brings us back to the “spirit of ‘76” and John Quincy Adams’ famous line with which Philip Jenkins ends this book. America, insisted Adams (at some point much later than 1776), “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” It seems fair to conclude that the author is not entirely in agreement with that sentiment.

Then again, why has he chosen this moment and this book to remind his readers of Adams’ oft-quoted McGovern-like “stay home, America” plea. It’s all very confusing.

Mr. Jenkins, however, cannot resist making one more stab at clearing everything up. “America’s problems today,” he concludes, “are plentiful enough without having to conjure up monsters at home.”

So John Quincy Adams really and truly should not be heeded? Who knows? Or is it that we really and truly do have domestic problems (as opposed to nightmares) that need to be solved before we tackle monsters abroad? Who knows? And if we do solve them, does that mean that Adams really and truly should be heeded after all? Who knows?

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg can be reached via www.historyonstage.com

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