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The Cooling Of America: Middle America Is Not Back Where It Started

6 minute read
Hugh Sidey

The peace rally last week in front of the White House gates was a thin shadow of those massive war marches that used to fill this city. A few hundred pathetic kids and their faded gurus broke some windows and shouted their slogans and then dissolved into the chill dusk. Fifty yards away, the secretaries of Henry Kissinger, the President’s National Security Assistant, watched the scraggly crowd for a few minutes, then turned back to their work on the progress reports and the briefing papers about the invasion of Laos. Down the hall, an unruffled Richard Nixon made preparations to fly south to the sun, where he intended to think about the kind of world he wants two years from now.

That night, a great full moon flooded the federal city, bringing with it a sense of calm and beauty that has hardly been noticed in a decade. In the gilded salons of Georgetown, in the musty hideaways of the Capitol, in the big, comfortable homes of suburban Chevy Chase, they talk about what is not happening in this land: the absence of campus upheaval and ghetto terror. There is agreement only about the national calm.

In the White House, they see the cooling as the result of two years of Richard Nixon’s special kind of managerial stewardship. The people who run this Administration are less frenetic, they say. So the people who are touched by it are calmer. It is the absence of a Washington spectacle like Lyndon Johnson, the refusal to make great promises that cannot be fulfilled. Hopes and desires have diminished and are now more in line with reality. There is in this era of quietude, the Nixon thinkers contend, a grudging growth of belief in the President’s pledges to end the war, to quietly integrate the Southern schools, at least to try to curb inflation and reduce unemployment. There is in the mood, the men at the White House believe, a turning at last to the celebration of small deeds, the summons that Nixon issued in his Inaugural Address.

They do not discount the fact that the blacks and the kids and the radical left had spent a lot of their energy. “We came in at a good time,” insists one Nixon aide. “It had crested, expended itself.” Public support dwindled. The participants in violence suddenly saw the dimensions of the horror they had created and, yes, they say in the White House, Vice President Spiro Agnew played a part. He branded outrages as outrages, he condemned the overindulgent. People turned to look at themselves, began to take hold of their own lives.

The critics of this Administration admit that there is a turning away from the Federal Government, that far off on the horizon is the beginning of something that might be called self-reliance, a new pride in self. But they do not believe that it was the result of any Nixon script, but of the failure of Nixon leadership. Although our part in Southeast Asia is diminishing, the killing goes on. Unemployment and inflation continue to hurt because the efforts to cure them, while sincere, are ineffectual. Many demands of minorities are ignored. Only in foreign policy does there seem to be a sense of direction. “The Administration,” insists Missouri’s Democratic Congressman James Symington, “seems almost irrelevant to what is happening.”

Somewhere between the sentiment from the White House and that from the Democratic Congress lies the truth. The land is cooler and Nixon has encouraged it. But his leadership has been crowded with contradiction, like vowing to “bring us together,” then defiling that ideal with the politics of division practiced by Agnew and himself in the 1970 election. Progress in school integration has been clouded by the absence of any sense of commitment to other black anguish. “Managerial” leadership does not communicate the sense of caring sought by the very young and the very old. It is as if the American people, reared in the age of mesmeric Presidents from Roosevelt to Johnson, expect to be entertained and excited.

Nor does the disenchantment stop with the White House. Those Congressmen who listen to what the people back home tell them find their own images in jeopardy. The endless harangues by the presidential contenders against the incumbent’s policy, the countless congressional hearings that fog and obfuscate as much as they enlighten, have bred disgust. The beautiful liberals who ran this Government for so long and have grown rich from their inside knowledge are now as much a symbol of entrenched and unyielding privilege as the industrialist used to be. If there is a man in Washington who provokes pure awe and respect here and beyond the Potomac, it is Ralph Nader, the curious champion of the consumer. He lives his religion, devoid of greed, filled with candor, beyond influence. He has a mission. He has done it himself.

Both sides in this debate agree that there is a new national humility, perhaps a new respect for plain hard work. In that sacred middle ground of American thought and sentiment there is a good deal of relief and even a touch of welcome-back-to-earth. Those special performers on both right and left who streaked across the political firmament and have now sputtered out never really understood that much of their success came from the abiding tolerance and patience of the people, the firm underfooting of this republic that is often more sensible than its leaders believe. And something else: Middle America is not back where it started. Long hair on a kid who studies somehow is not too bad. Black neighbors who want law-and-order and good schools and healthy bodies are not as sinister as those who parade on campuses with rifles. Middle America has been duped and scorned too many times not to be wary now. But its citizens have endured, and if nothing else, they face ahead with less fear than before and with a new curiosity about their small worlds.

Apparently, a lot of people across this land have decided that finding out what is happening in their cities and communities is a pretty good idea. From almost all the touring politicians come the nervous reports that they and their political colleagues who are running things back home are undergoing more and more scrutiny.

In my old home town of Greenfield, Iowa, they had a school board meeting a few nights ago to listen to the new salary demands of the teachers. For the first time in years, a solid phalanx of concerned taxpayers from town and farm showed up to listen and to judge. Another thing happened about the same time. They showed the premiere of a movie, Cold Turkey, which was filmed in that tiny village, so long deserted by its young people and criticized by its residents, who have felt passed over by modern society. One shot showed the sun rising on the clear and uncrowded prairie, a deep and comforting green. Those people in that little theater in Greenfield, for the first time in a long while, broke into applause for what they had and what they were.

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