MINING OPTIMISM FROM MEMORIES (BITTERSWEET), MUSICAL GIANTS (DECEASED) & AN OLD SOAP SALESMAN
I remember December 9, 1980 as well as I remember November 22, 1963.
Far less plugged in during my twenties than most of us are today, I had not been watching TV or listening to the radio on the evening of December 8th. There were no Tweets or Facebook postings, no urgent texts on my cell phone. There were no cell phones. There were other drumbeats then, and we were plugged into each other in certain ways, but, mercifully, not by endless email, Facebook, or Instagram. People still spoke to one another. They met on the street, looked up, made eye contact.
Upon arising early on that cool December morning, my live-in girlfriend told me, in a voice just above a whisper, that John Lennon – at age 40 — had been murdered the night before. All the electricity drained from my body. I walked over to the kitchen sink, leaned over it, and starting weeping. She might as well have said, "Your brother just died." John was family.
There are fender benders, and there are bone-shattering impacts, steel against steel, rigid plastic against soft flesh. John Lennon’s assassination was more of the shattering kind. In December 1980, millions went quiet all over, internally struggling to survive this painful introduction to the 1980s.
For me, still in my late 20s, this murder was part of a quadrilateral play. I was still recuperating from the defeat of Jimmy Carter and the election of Ronald Reagan the month before. I was also starting a new career, one I knew little about, and had basically talked my way into. Add in additional sour mix; my relationship to this particular girlfriend was flagging, and I likely intuited that we were months from separating.
So I was a bit rocky as the Eighties made their fearsome, capital-accumulating debut. I sure as hell was after the earthquake election of a smiling Boraxo soap salesman turned Brylcreem-crowned conservative. John’s death might as well have been a severe uppercut after a succession of body blows. Like Ali nine years earlier, I wound up in an uncharacteristic place. On the canvas. On my ass.
Most Boomers sensed right off that the election of Ronald Reagan represented a sea change, with choppy waters up ahead. The course of America would be different in another four or eight years and, as with every election, that big change would be welcome by some, dreaded by others.
There would be other elections, every two years to be precise. John Lennon’s loss was forever. Sure, the incredible music would seep into our bones, help keep us a bit younger than our chronological years for a good stretch, and, finally, soothe us on future winter nights, when, after age 45 or 50, we could no longer feign youth. But not here is… not here.
John’s murder was an accelerant to our generational alarm. And the deeper truth is that my own dread was more than partisan, it was based on personal history. My parents had divorced when I was four, and my father more or less disappeared. An old-fashioned kind of rendering asunder, Dad went one way, Mom another. I went with Mom, and wound up seeing my father perhaps five or six times over the next dozen years. So I have, as professional analysts like to call it, "abandonment issues." John’s death felt like a big, gut-wrenching abandonment. It’s one thing to have your side lose an election, it’s another to lose an irreplaceable cultural hero – one whose brash wit, brilliance and social consciousness would have helped us get through the Reagan Revolution.
IT’S EASY to recall the swirl of feelings then, a kind of a pall, like the shades were being drawn, and the phrase dark times more than metaphor. Sure, it was late fall, and the cusp of a gray, damp Long Island winter. But the physical climate was only an accent. The real chill seeping into our still-young bones was socio-economic reality. The 1960s and early 1970s were now officially dead, buried everywhere but in sentiment and memory. Here came the cops, the suits, the deadly serious cleanup crew. Ronnie’s election and John’s murder did not kill the street protests, the communal urge, the Summer of Love, hitchhiking to the next fantasyland; we more or less abandoned them. But the election of a man who made Barry Goldwater seem slightly Libertarian, or even a hair liberal-minded, was more than the opposition winning the joust, it was a brick in the nose. (Perhaps it was even a boomerang — a return of the brick some of us had thrown through college windows or at draft centers. Karma, right?)
Of course, we know what happened throughout the 1980s. The economy got better, the markets rose, the Soviet Union started to decline, Reagan did not start WWIII. Most Boomers got jobs, mortgages, traded in old vans for new cars and farmer overalls for stock portfolios. It wasn’t the end of the world. Just the end of an overly long childhood.
Yes, yes, it was also the beginning of the end for American unions, large strands of the social safety net, and the widely established, post-War partnership between management and employees, the rich boss and the people on the factory floor.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency kicked off a 25-year economic expansion of historic proportion. It also began the cold-fingered unraveling of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s largely successful wager of the federal government serving as the working man’s friend, and the have-nots’ generous uncle. The unraveling continues to this day. And now, after just one year of Trump’s unexpected occupation of the Oval Office, it has proceeded with a zest not seen since General Sherman razed the South.
So, in an act of self-soothing, I began ruminating about the 1980s and the events we are dealing with now. Still reckoning with the election of a spiteful, callous, poorly informed real estate mogul to the office of president, I wanted a tested old life vest. Something to hold on to. I also wondered how the nation, especially American progressives, survived the 1980s, and, in turn, how we might find our way and endure these next few years. I wonder still…
But first, a nod to another cultural hero, a moment of appreciation, s’il vous plait, for the late, great Len — Leonard Cohen, lyrical poet. This intuitive composer of songs that tenderly celebrated spirit and flesh turned out to have a final and timely intuition: to leave our planet one day before Donald J. Trump was elected to the American presidency.
A man who knelt at the flame of Eros, a boudoir poet of charm and puckish tendencies, was not going to give a single moment’s audience to a pussy grabber and venal huckster.
We understand, Leonard. All the same, those of us who adored and appreciated you, and we are legion, wish you could have remained here if only for one more year to sing us raspy lullabies of reassurance, and irony. Oh, what a welcome distraction that would have been!
So Ron comes, John goes. Len goes, Don arrives. Either there are intermittent streaks of stupendously awful luck, or the good Lord has a wicked sense of humor.
IN ANOTHER REALM of entertainment, we have to wonder how Americans wind up pulling the political lever for TV pitchmen and reality TV headliners. Ronald Reagan was the host of General Electric Theater, a popular series of weekly dramas that ran from 1953 to 1962. As with Trump and The Apprentice, this long-running TV show upped Ronnie’s visibility in households from coast to coast. Some people thought a former B movie actor sounded serious. With The Apprentice, Americans came to believe that Donald Trump was a tremendously successful developer and deal maker, when in fact he had to borrow millions from rich Russians, and had at least four major bankruptcies in 17 years, including years he was playing a savvy, prosperous mogul on the show. Turns out, Donald Trump took this role in 2004 because he needed to repair his brand. He also needed the paycheck.
So here we are with a lie-a-minute occupant of the Oval Office. Every third day we shake our heads, or scream like David Byrne did three decades back, "How did I get here?" Here, with him. Trump here, Leonard Cohen (Bowie, Prince, Glen Frey, Tom Petty, et al.) gone?! Really?
Now we want Mueller Time, a ray of something that is sunny and clean and honest, not dim and sooty (like a Russian hack of our elections, or a Chernobyl-like poisoning of democracy’s free press, and the acceptance of some simple, established facts).
Okay, this: Turns out Ronnie was mostly a decent chap, with a genuine sunny disposition, a bona fide Western American optimist. He was also sane. Sure, a bit doddering at times (the opening slings of Alzheimer’s), but largely in charge of his faculties, pleasant as opposed to mean-spirited. Unquestionably, the man was a patriot. Reagan loved America. He made mistakes, who doesn’t, but he was acquainted with more than the plutocrats. He mostly knew who the good guys were, surely who our friends were, and that the Soviet Union was not among them.
For many of us, the 1980s actually turned out not too bad. It was a good time to start a business, something I know firsthand. It was a good time to buy a house. It was certainly a good time to be an Eastern European, with the smell of fresh bread and new liberty floating down the street.
Now if I sound a bit sunny myself about the Ronnie years, well, he and I disagreed on many aspects of what the government should or should not do, but the 1980s had a pretty good track record all in all, as did the 1990s. Some suffered, but under all economies and cultures some always do. People suffer in Denmark. Norway, too. Am I rewriting historical, progressive points of view because a bunch of us made money? Not really. I’m still glad I voted against Ronnie. I just wish we had better Democratic candidates in the 1980s. Anyway, we survived.
What will be our way out of the Trump years? The answer is… the big slingshot. We are being pulled back, and in some pretty jerky ways, only to be propelled forward, faster, in the months and years to come. How so?
There will be a bigger backlash to this president than there was to the first African American president (see voters in Virginia and Alabama). There will be a more sober DNC. One that is actually willing to pull out the long knives now and again. The fact-based, legacy press and most of the mainstream media will be battle-hardened, eagle-eyed, vigilant. Those who paid attention will be schooled on how a would-be autocrat can rise to power in the Land of the Free. Progressives will realize that most members of the current Republican Party will do anything to win – gerrymander up a storm, support a pedophile, talk trash about the FBI, deceive the people who vote them in (see Healthcare & Tax Policy), hawk fear and discord like the guy selling peanuts, beer and dogs at the ballpark. Anything. Democrats, finally, will be less huggy, more willing to slip on brass knuckles under their velvet gloves every once in a while. Actually. Fight. Back.
We survived the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the 46-year Cold War, the McCarthy Era, Vietnam, Watergate, Stagflation, and Bill Clinton’s bad taste in the women he cheated with. We survived 9/11, W’s awful Vice President, 14 awful years in Iraq, 16 years and counting in Afghanistan, the Great Recession.
Most of us made it through 1980 to 1988 well enough. Fast forward 30 years… Do I feel sunny now?
Not yet. But I can see the clouds starting to break.
Ken Taub is a copywriter, strategic marketing advisor, author, online journalist, and associate editor of RoelResources.com. He lives on the North Shore of Long Island with his wife and son.