Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Feeling Good About America (PBS, aired 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Contenders PBS showed a truly weird documentary about the 1976 Presidential election called Feeling Good About America — which seemed odd because I don’t remember the late 1970’s as a particularly feel-good time and the filmmakers, whoever they are (neither the PBS Web site nor has a listing for this film), try to shoehorn it into one by saying that the number one singer in the U.S. in 1976 was John Denver (PBS seems to have an exaggerated view of Denver’s popularity; when they did one of their pledge-break specials about him and the announcer began with, “John Denver was the most popular singer-songwriter of the 1970’s,” I yelled back at the TV, “Huh? Does the name ‘Elton John’ mean anything to you?”) — this must have been before the double rise of disco and punk, which pretty much put an end to the ability of soft, sensitive singers like Denver and David Gates to rule the charts. Their argument was that the 1976 Presidential campaign was a necessary corrective to the Watergate scandals, and they assert that Ford’s controversial pardon of Richard Nixon was a good thing because the country was able to put Watergate behind it and not have to deal with the spectacle of a former President being tried and possibly jailed for depressingly ordinary crimes.

Their case was that both Ford and Carter were decent, honest people who were well qualified to be President, and they were both politically moderate (though I didn’t support either of them: I signed on to the insurgent campaign of Eugene McCarthy, partly because I thought Carter was too conservative and partly because a very close friend of mine asked me to), and this interregnum of peaceful and dully competent leadership was just what the country needed to heal its wounds. The film’s title comes from a banal campaign song cooked up by the Ford people — significantly it was backed by a brass band while Carter’s song was a plaintive country-folk piece done with just voice and guitar — and it also makes the point that the election was razor-close and it wasn’t apparent until hours before the polls close that Carter had won. Given what a disaster the Carter Presidency turned out to be — with renewed energy crises, the Iran hostage situation and Carter himself accused of declaring a state of “malaise” in the country (based on a speech in which he never actually used that word) — it’s easy to forget that at the time he announced he was considered a real breath of fresh air, an “outsider” (even though he’d served a term as governor of Georgia), a peanut farmer and not part of the Washington establishment. The film also makes the point that Carter brought evangelical Christians into politics for the first time, though it does not mention that as much as Carter proclaimed his devotion to traditional Biblical values on the stump, in office he governed as a typically Democratic social liberal, and the evangelicals (most of them, anyway) were so incensed that when he ran for re-election they threw their support to Ronald Reagan and have remained bulwarks of the Republican Right ever since. It’s not surprising that in the footage from 1976 shown here Reagan comes off as a more strongly defined and charismatic figure than either Carter or Ford, seeing crystal clarity in issues on which both Carter and Ford were nuanced.

The film also hails 1976 as the year in which Presidential debates resumed after a 16-year hiatus (they attribute that to the refusal of either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon to debate, but it had more to do with the “equal time” provision of federal communications law and the obligation it imposed to networks and broadcasters to put on all the candidates for a particular office, including the minor-party ones; it’s indicative of the way American politics has become structured deliberately to exclude all alternatives to the Republican and Democratic parties that this was actually considered a problem, set aside in 1976 when the FCC declared a one-time exception to the equal-time rule and subsequently through the establishment of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which I’ve described as “the Commission on Making Sure Voters Don’t Hear from Anyone Other than Republicans and Democrats in Presidential Debates”) and Ford made his famous and bizarre gaffe that “there is no Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, and there never will be in a Ford Administration.” My understanding was that Ford had misunderstood something his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had tried to explain to him — that the Soviets claimed a right to intervene in Eastern European affairs because it was part of their “sphere of influence,” and the U.S. didn’t accept that claim (ironic since as early as the Monroe Doctrine the U.S. had made a similar claim of a “sphere of influence” in Latin America that supposedly gave us the right to intervene in their affairs any time we wanted to) — though that doesn’t explain the doggedness with which Ford clung to his position, not only during the debate itself (he got a follow-up question that would have given him an opportunity to walk back from it, and he didn’t take it) but for a week afterwards. The most interesting point this film makes about the 1976 election was that not only was it close, but it was the last election in U.S. history that wasn’t polarized: the women’s vote broke 50 percent for Carter to 48 percent for Ford, just as the men’s vote did, and Carter got the votes of 30 percent of self-proclaimed “conservatives” just as Ford got 26 percent of the votes of self-proclaimed “liberals.” Of course the polarization since then that we’ve all grown to hate — as well as the “gender gap” that allows Democrats like Barack Obama to win on the women’s vote even while they decisively lose among men — were the products of Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, and the way he governed!