Without the benefit of data-backed research, I feel comfortable in saying that “toxic” is the adjective most commonly used to describe our current political environment, to the point of cliche. But phrases transform themselves into cliches by being accurate most of the time. So while you will find many willing to describe the source of the poisons that infects us, you will have to search long and hard for someone who denies the poison’s presence. For an avowed optimist who sees America at its best as humanity’s greatest hope, its getting harder to breathe (thanks to Maroon 5).
Which brings me to July 4, 1976. If we are rocky today, in the year of our bicentennial we were positively storm tossed. Not seven years prior America had authored a technological triumph that will be remembered as long as humans exist. That moonwalk followed a quarter century in which American leadership rebuilt a world in ruins after World War II; helping raise our former adversaries to formidable economic powers who gave voice to their citizens. I am no Pollyanna and can cite a hundred missteps in American foreign policy, but in the 20th century we hit for average and power. Our refinement of the market economy transformed for the better the lives of millions in Asia and Western Europe..
The decade of the 1970s, however, called into serious question whether America could or should retain its preeminence. On August 9, 1974, an American president fled the White House because it had become obvious that the administration he led lacked anything resembling a moral compass. Nixon’s timing could not have been worse. The nation’s economy was reeling from the shock delivered by the “Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries” who had decided that the old rules no longer applied. The oil embargo drove up gas and energy prices, threatened the automobile industry and generally wreaked havoc with our confidence.
For a long time, economists believed that inflation and unemployment co-existed in a see-saw universe; as one went up, the other declined. The oil shock, however, left us with both rising unemployment and near runaway inflation. The combination of those two maladies became known as the “misery index.” If you were not an adult at the time, ask someone who was. The idea of a 15% mortgage with shrinking job security did not make the American population feel as if they were living in the richest nation on earth.
Our replacement president, whom none of us had voted for, was an honorable man who seemed well out of his depth. His solution was to initiate a public relations campaign based on the idea that changes in our personal spending habits could help us “Whip-Inflation-Now” and he urged us to wear our WIN buttons as a reminder. Alan Greenspan was then serving as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. His reaction when he heard the president’s plans was simple: “This is unbelievable stupidity.” Those then predicting that the economies of Germany and Japan would soon surpass us had plenty of reasons to be confident.
Then on April 30, 1975, we suffered another humiliation when Saigon fell. “Peace with Honor” had been Nixon’s description of the Paris peace accords. As the helicopters tried to ferry the last Americans and their desperate Vietnamese friends out of the embassy, the world could only see defeat. That defeat rendered the deaths and injuries suffered during the preceding decade all the more painful. The divisions our involvement in the war had caused only calcified. In the space of two years our faults had been exposed. One had to wonder if we lost proxy wars to the Communists, what the result of the Cold War would be. We were lost and it was getting harder to breathe.
A funny thing happened on the way to history’s dustbin. As we neared our 200th birthday as a nation, we found ourselves. In the finest tradition of American hucksterism, everyone tried to make a buck by pushing American-themed products. The important point about that marketing effort was that the demand was through the roof—despite stagflation, despite Watergate, despite Vietnam, despite civil rights problems. Despite all our challenges, we wanted to celebrate who we had been, who we were and who we would become. For all our faults, 1976 proved again that the will of the American people is our greatest asset.
Decades later, my favorite memory of that July 4th is the majestic tall boats adorning New York Harbor. That parade was a manifestation of “Operation Sail” a program initiated by President Kennedy. For an Operation Sail event the U.S. Congress must authorize it. The ships, from countries the world over, sail concurrently with an international naval review to celebrate a milestone event. The 1976 celebration was the second such event, following the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Since 1976 the fleet has sailed 4 more times: to celebrate the anniversaries of the Statute of Liberty, of Columbus’ expedition, the conclusion of the War of 1812 and to celebrate the turn of the millennium.
The ships were majestic and graceful; you just felt calmer as the breeze pushed them across the water. But most of all they were historic. Seeing the array of masts and full sails underway transported this 15 year-old to a time when similar ships flying the Union Jack were among George Washington’s biggest problems. That the same type ships returned to honor what Washington and his band of patriots had started seemed a perfect circle.
Washington’s army once had to beat an ignominious retreat from New York based largely on British naval power. As he fled, Washington must have wondered how that obstacle could ever be overcome. July 4, 1976 in New York Harbor was a reminder that we had done it before and an expression of confidence that we would do it again.
Tomorrow brings a Fourth of July surrounded by a different set of problems than George Washington faced or that Gerald Ford faced. A house divided-no matter how prosperous-cannot stand. But my spirit is 15 yeas-old. I close my eyes, see the tall ships and find it a little bit easier to breathe.