Stuck in the '70s

Michael Barone

1/30/2006 12:05:00 AM - Michael Barone

Do you ever get the feeling, while listening to the political debate, that we're stuck in the '70s? The 1970s, that is, that slum of a decade which gave us the worst popular music, the ugliest hairstyles and clothes, and the most disastrous public policies of the 20th century.

 The decade in which a Republican president imposed wage and price controls, the decade when we managed to have inflation and recession -- stagflation -- at the same time. The decade when crime and welfare dependency zoomed upward. A decade when Americans saw our diplomats seized -- an act of war -- and no effective force used to free them. A decade when a president was forced to resign in disgrace and when America lost its first war.

 But for some people, it seems to be the '70s all the time. After The New York Times revealed on Dec. 16 that the National Security Agency was monitoring telephone calls from suspected terrorists abroad to people in the United States, a hue and cry went up from the mainstream media and some Democrats that the Bush administration was engaged in a massive and illegitimate program of domestic wiretapping. Never mind that few if any wires were tapped -- it's likely that most of these calls were on cell phones -- and that every one of the calls was by definition international.

 Yes, there are some serious people who argue that the program violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (that slum of a decade again) because warrants were not obtained. But no serious person doubts that the president can order surveillance of enemy communications in time of war. And it doesn't make much sense to listen in on enemy communications but to hang up when a call is made to someone in the United States.

 Admittedly, in the 1970s Americans were reacting to a genuine scandal, the wiretapping conducted on the orders of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover until his death in 1972. In the 1960s, Hoover's FBI even listened in on Martin Luther King Jr., with the approval of Attorney General Robert Kennedy. And in the 1970s, there was reaction against past authorizations of attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, which were numerous when Kennedy was attorney general and his brother president, and Richard Nixon's "plumbers" burglarizing Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.

In the 1970s, when Americans seemed to accept defeat in Vietnam and detente with China and the Soviet Union, many of us thought there was no greater threat to our rights than our own government. That was wrong then, and Sept. 11 convinced most Americans that it is wrong now. But many people in the mainstream media and many Democratic politicians seem stuck in the '70s.

 They're stuck in the '70s also on the matter of Supreme Court nominations. The early 1970s saw the first defeats of Supreme Court nominees since 1930, of Clement Haynsworth (some of whose opponents later admitted was a worthy nominee) and of Harrold Carswell (who was not). The pattern of aggressive and sometimes extravagant attacks by Democratic senators was set, to be taken up again by the opponents of Robert Bork in 1987.

 We were told that the nominees would return us to the days of segregated schools and, in Bork's case, coat-hanger abortions. (Almost no one imagined when Haynsworth and Carswell were defeated that the Supreme Court would overturn all abortion laws.) Now we have the absurd spectacle of Sen. John Kerry calling for a filibuster against Judge Samuel Alito from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

 Stuck in the '70s, and to no good political purpose. For the press and partisan attacks on NSA surveillance of suspected terrorists' calls to the United States has not convinced most Americans that their rights are in peril. To the contrary, they have raised a political issue that helps George W. Bush and the Republicans. And the fiery attacks on Alito have a tired, going-through-the-motions sound and have failed to convince something like three-quarters of voters that he should be rejected.

 We can learn from history, and each decade has something to teach us. But we can't repeat history, because so many things change. Not many Americans, if they could vote for a decade to go back to, would vote for the 1970s. But for many in the mainstream press and for many Democratic politicians, it's always sometime between 1970 and 1980, and they're forever young.

 The public isn't buying it. Enough with the bellbottom pants and the disco music, most Americans seem to be saying.