Back to the '50s

FRANK A. DEfILIPPO

December 05, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

AMERICA is on a '50s binge. The theme of the '90s is to repudiate the '60s so the country can recapture the era of Beaver and the Cleavers and live happily ever after.

Those were the good old days of goofy nostalgia and post-pubescent innocence when God was in heaven and all was right with the world -- no AIDS, no entitlements, no legalized abortion, no homelessness, very few drugs, no flag burning and, certainly, no legal redress for harassment in the workplace.

Instead, the '50s offered up polio, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the Korean War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy's alcoholic bouts with communist ghosts, the Cold War and the Berlin airlift, Richard Nixon's Checkers speech and eight uninspired years under the benign indifference of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

President Reagan cautioned us that freedom in America is getting out of hand, that absolute values are absolute and that's that. Nowhere is his preachment more evident than in the courts he bequeathed us, in the Congress he helped to shape and in the White house he helped populate.

Yet in the voodoo presidency of George Bush, there's nothing more absolute than wetting his finger and testing the wind every morning to determine whether the breezes are blowing toward the '50s.

Students of human behavior will recognize that the tug was aided by television -- with shows about the decade like "Happy Days." (Funny, though, it's tough to remember ever seeing a black on those '50s shows. Nor, locally, were blacks allowed to dance on the Buddy Dean show. In those days, neighborhood and school boundaries were distinct and sacred.)

And now, fresh out of creative juices, TV is excerpting from such '50s shows as Ed Sullivan. These relics are a reminder that the decade is alive and well and waiting to be reclaimed.

In the '50s, life was simple, or so we think. People got their virtue from the original electronic preacher, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and their straight talk from Norman Vincent Peale and his power of positive thinking. It was free, in prime time, nothing as crass as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or Jimmy Swaggert asking for donations to their ministries (pockets). The coda to the '50s was Kate Smith socking out a chorus of "God Bless America" on a Sunday night.

Baltimore's Hilltop Diner was really a metaphor, a shell protecting its Forest Park wiseacres from the outside world. From inside, everything seemed Jewish and funny. In Catholic Baltimore, much of teen-age social life was organized around the CYO and parish centers where proper young ladies were counseled by nuns not to be too forthcoming. After all, if God sees every sparrow, surely he'd catch you making out.

By 1960 and the Kennedy presidency, however, the cool indifference and dimwitted dullness of the '50s was clearly over and America seemed to be heading out of control.

America took to the streets. The closeted clones of the '50s, repressed in their diners and CYOs for so long, were demanding liberation -- racial, sexual, social. The '50s were busting loose, fed up with knee-jerk self-contentment and starry-eyed wonderment. Finally, the children of the '50s rejected their own decade. The '60s rearranged America forever.

So here's to the bad old days of memory lanes and moments in the past and the hokey nostalgia of all of those who look backward for comfort because they're afraid to look ahead.

Happy days will never be here again.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other week on politics.

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