That's all there was in the '80s

Russell Baker

May 20, 1993|By Russell Baker

FROM last year's diary, a few ideas that meant to becom columns but didn't know how:

A book title: "Why Does 1940 Now Seem Like Only Yesterday While 1890 Seemed Like the Dark Ages in 1940?"

Or maybe, "Fifty Years Isn't What It Used to Be."

Of course, nothing's what it used to be. If everything were what it used to be, I'd still be in high school. On the other hand, gourmet ice cream would still be uninvented and the other kind would still taste as wonderful as fried chicken still would because factory-made chicken would still be uninvented too.

It would be terrible if things were still what they used to be, but it would be nice if a lot of things had stayed uninvented.

America the self-centered: Thought of this watching an Oliver Stone TV interview promoting his "JFK" movie. He said his "generation" (1960-ish) had been denied the great promise (!?) embodied in John F. Kennedy. Reactions like their suspicion that LBJ/military/capitalists et al. had deliberately murdered Kennedy were inevitable because his "generation" had been cheated, the assassination having prevented Kennedy from fulfilling the great promise.

This whole "generation" thing dates from the 1960s when people young at that time anointed themselves as special. Special vision, special sense of morality, special musical sensibility, etc., etc. The self-centered absorption with one's own group specialness is tolerable, maybe even desirable, in young people, but this kind of Oliver Stone nonsense would have us believe it's still pronounced in his "generation," though they are now in their 40s and 50s and ought to be grown up.

Maddened by Walsh: Conservatives' fury about Judge Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor investigating the Iran-contra affair, comes out of a view that their presidents have a right to cover up illegal actions in the Iran-contra operation, or at least that snoopers have no right to uncover them -- and maybe also residual bitterness about Nixon's Watergate crimes being used to unhorse him.

Beneath these passions lies a feeling that presidents ought to be above the law. Or at least above laws that restrain them from doing things of which conservatives approve.

Question: What is conservative about this kind of thinking?

Language fatigue: Tired of "game plans" and all other sports jargon applied to real-world affairs. "In your face" is particularly loathsome. Jocks apparently say "in your face" to each other all the time, or do they? Maybe they threaten to do something "in your face" to each other. I don't know, but it sounds vile, though ESPN has been using "in your face" in an ad campaign suggesting that ESPN is the home office of fun. What, when done in your face, can possibly be fun?

Incidentally, as long as it's a high holiday of the vulgar spirit, why doesn't anybody use "In your hat!" as a nose-thumbing expression anymore? Maybe because nobody knows what a hat is anymore. "Spokesperson" may be the worst of all feminist-lingo creations, though "spokesman" was pretty silly too. Why not ban the word "spokesperson" and substitute "mouthpiece," lovely old Depression slang for "lawyer," but in that sense it's as passe as the hat.

America the disappointing: Peter Kann's Wall Street Journal piece refers to "national melancholia" and "mysteriously melancholy and myopic mood" of the country. I think the word is "disappointed." But of course disappointment leads to melancholy glumness. Fiction is full of it: the emptiness of American life! The hollowness! Find it in "A Thousand Acres" and "Jernigan," two Pulitzer winners.

So many seem to feel betrayed. Some large promise was perhaps not fulfilled? Or the promise itself, having been fulfilled, proved not worth the fulfilling? A lot of this comes from people who have been rather successful -- too soon in life, perhaps? -- so that it has the jaded quality of Peggy Lee's song. "Is that all there is?"

I want it all, and I want it now: That was the sound of the 1980s. Many got it, all and now. That's all there was.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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