I'm a child of the Bicentennial. Growing up in a part of Pennsylvania steeped in my nation's history, I received steady doses of Americana. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in our living room, a half-timbered cabin from the early 1700s around which a much larger house was gradually constructed. I felt the rough grain of the beams, toed the uneven stone of the large fireplace, peered out the cut in the wall where one of the cabin's original windows had turned into an alcove between our living-room and kitchen. While living this way was "normal" to me – a number of my friends lived in houses of similar age – the build-up to 1976 transformed my surroundings into a superb foundation for fantasy.I didn't mention it here, but I remember finding Ronald Reagan scary during his 1976 challenge to Gerald Ford for the Republican Presidential nomination. The genial aspect he often presented, whether by choice or compulsion, in the White House was largely missing on the campaign trail in that failed bid. He was trying to round up a conservative base, not appeal to a broad spectrum of American society. I think my strong opposition to his 1980 candidacy had a lot to do with remembering his angry demeanor of 1976.
It wasn't hard for me to imagine existence before the Revolution or the Civil War, because reminders of the distant past were everywhere. Thus, when we took school trips to see the place where George Washington crossed the Delaware or sat along 212 to witness the recreation of the Liberty Bell's retreat from Philadelphia, I never had the sense of being forced to absorb someone else's history. It was mine as surely as my own home was. One of the great surprises I had going to college in California was learning that even the brightest students from that state tended to regard Colonial history as irrelevant to their own lives, as much of an imposition as the demand that they show a hall pass in high school.
For me, by contrast, it was only the history of my own lifetime that felt like an imposition. My earliest memories of politics are hearing my mother and grandmother talk about "Tricky Dick" while I played with my Matchbox cars. I recall my mother watching George McGovern on television, though I didn't really understand who he was. My only distinct memory is surely a false one. McGovern is introduced to Hollywood premiere-style applause and slowly descends a curving staircase onto a stage. I'm intrigued by the spectacle, but also annoyed that his appearance is preempting my favorite television program Temperature's Rising. It wasn't until years later that I retroactively comprehended the relationship between Nixon and McGovern. It's probably better that way. The commercial with the crying Indian depressed me enough on its own. Had I connected its impact on me to the reality of American politics in 1972, I might have been traumatized for life.
Later, when my mother watched hour after hour of the Watergate hearings instead of her usual soap operas, I understood that something special was happening, but was never able to attach significance to the names that dominated my day: Dean, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Liddy. The same went for news of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, which was all over WOR, but no more comprehensible for being covered so thoroughly. The day Richard Nixon resigned, my parents told me to pay attention because it was an event of great historical significance. I did as instructed, but the memory of that day takes a back seat to the one from earlier in the year of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's home-run record. The following year, I began to watch the news on television regularly. Even so, I continued to have difficulty making sense of political events. Ask me what I recall of 1975 and I'll be hard-pressed to come up with more than, "Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Beirut." Indeed, it was not until the Presidential campaign of the Bicenntennial year that I felt confident enough to articulate a position of my own. Even then, however, I felt a lot more certain about the past than the present.
My sense of historical continuity stayed with me throughout my grade-school years. When I moved on to playing World War II, my fantasies of leading a rustic eighteenth-century American life were like undergarments beneath my current make-believe. The stories of military heroism I read and acted out were refracted through my sense of early American virtue. Rather than perceiving the link between tales about vanquishing the Nazis and Japs and the contemporary American policies that inspired so much confusion in me, I instead saw them through the red-white-and-blue lenses of Revolutionary War patriotism. Like most children who became aware of the world in the hangover from the 1960s, I experienced a profound disjunction between the glorious past when it was acceptable to root for the United States and the inglorious present when such partisanship seemed foolish at best.
When I reflect back on my experience of the 1970s today, I remember the decade first and foremost as a time of perpetual and inexplicable crisis, one major news event after another an exception to the way things were supposed to work. Coming in the midst of so much confusion, the Bicentennial kept my belief in simple truths alive. Without its influence, I might have become a grade-school cynic, much like those children from broken homes whose world-weary visages betray a permanent loss of innocence. Instead, I became a willful idealist.
By the time the 1980 Presidential campaign rolled around, I had developed a much firmer sense of my political views. For many people my age, the candidacy of Ronald Reagan held out the promise of a return to a simpler time, when it was easy for Americans to feel proud of their country. I didn't see it that way. Although I was only twelve, I had already seen and read enough to conclude that I would never be a Republican. I pinned my hopes on the people trying to prevent Reagan's election. But I was energized. Like my friend who was enamored of John Anderson's independent candidacy, I believed enough in the political process to insist that it mattered a great deal who became President. If I shuddered at the thought of a Reagan Administration, it was because I held the office in high regard. He was not worthy, I thought, of taking the place of Jefferson, Lincoln, or the Roosevelts. But I never doubted the worthiness of the place itself.