- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 29, 2010


The “Mad Men” are back, and it’s 1964 all over again. That would be AMC’s saga of the glam Madison Avenue ad-agency world of the early- to mid-1960s. Season 4, which premiered Tuesday, re-connects viewers with dashing leading man Don Draper and cohorts, a handful of troubled, impeccably dressed characters who booze, smoke, schmooze and sex all day and night. This season begins in November of 1964, the year of the Beatles, the Civil Rights Act and the pivotal 1964 presidential election. Looking back, we can see how far we’ve come, culturally and politically - and what we have lost along the way.

Glamour: The men all wear sharply tailored suits with skinny everything - lapels, ties, trousers - topped off with a close shave and smartly cropped, pomade-sculpted hair. The women wear brightly colored suits and frocks, stiffly tailored or crisp with starch and crinoline, tight girdles and formidable bouffant hairdos. Attire and presentation were a function of occasion and station. Maids and elevator operators wore smart uniforms that denoted a specific function or purpose. No one dared turn up at the office wearing flip-flops and denim. Style is part of the appeal of “Mad Men.” Looking back, it’s evident that what we have gained in egalitarian comfort we have lost in glamour, formality and occasion.

Optimism: The Ozzie-and-Harriet era was an optimistic time in America. By most accounts, people believed in economic opportunity and American exceptionalism. The postwar economy was booming, and America was the undisputed, benevolent, economic and political superpower. Certainly, this outlook is represented, for example, in the upbeat music of the era (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) and, in the show, through the rosy, go-go advertising mindset at the firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Race relations:Most clearly, in this respect, we are better off now, in that blacks do not face the legal barriers and stultifying cultural bias that impeded economic opportunity. The few black characters in “Mad Men” are maids, elevator operators and scandalous “mixed race” girlfriends, not account executives at Sterling Cooper. Not the president of the United States.

Women:In this respect, we’ve “come a long way,” too, in the sense that women have far greater career opportunities available to them. In “Mad Men,” the young go-getter Peggy breaks away from the prevailing zeitgeist to pursue her goal of conceptualizing and writing ad campaigns for the agency. Meanwhile, the very capable and formidable Joan seems not to aim beyond “head secretary” and “doctor’s wife.” In short, the role of women in 2010 may be less certain or scripted by society, maybe even less subjectively “happy” - but there undeniably is more freedom to set and pursue life goals and economic independence.

Homosexuals: As the show has demonstrated on several occasions, being a homosexual in mid-20th-century America could quickly incur social ostracism and job loss. Back then, homosexuals were closeted, not loudly clamoring for same-sex marriage. America is decidedly less socially orthodox today.

Politics:“Mad Men” is a show focused on the characters more than anything, so politics don’t loom large. Still, it will be interesting to see how the story, which begins in November 1964, references the Johnson administration and its full-tilt charge into the statism of the Great Society and the quagmire of Vietnam. In obvious ways, we are revisiting such failed statist policies with the Obama administration. Yet even in this respect, the modern right-of-center movement seems better armed, with more intellectual firepower, a better-stocked arsenal and more troops on the ground than the Goldwater conservatives of the “Mad Men” era.

A generation: One point of note about “Mad Men” is that it is a show featuring, primarily, the “Silent Generation” - people born too late to serve in World War II but too early to be baby boomers. This is a generation too established and traditional to squeal in teenage euphoria for the Beatles, traipse to Woodstock or protest the Vietnam draft. Most of this generation, in other words, were gainfully employed and saddled with family obligations by the early 1960s. And, yet, they still bore the burden of contending with the political aftermath of World War II and the looming cultural turmoil in America. After so much attention paid over the years to the World War II and baby-boom generations, “Mad Men” offers a welcome portrayal of the youthful days of the Silent Generation, now in their 60s and 70s. This surely counts as something we will be losing from that era, too.

Christine Hall is director of communications for the Competitive Enterprise Institute and past board member of the Art Deco Society of Washington.

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