How Times Change

January 19, 1995|By JAMES McCARTNEY

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In the latest issue of American Heritage magazine, the history periodical, more than 50 historians, writers, public figures and journalists were asked what they considered the most important, or interesting, ways in which America has changed in the last 40 years, and why.

Not surprisingly, Bill Clinton didn't make the cut as a true or significant instrument of change. Neither did George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy or even Dwight D. Eisenhower. In assessing what has been important or interesting in this country over the last generation, the judges ranked Washington politicians somewhere between undertakers and garbage collectors.

What is clear, however, is that the politicians have been sitting atop a volcano of social change in these four decades, enough to make anyone wonder whether any one person could have had decisive impact.

The judges, if you want to call them that, identified not just one, but at least four major social revolutions in America since 1954.

Ranking high was the racial revolution. ''African-Americans can use the bathrooms in any standard establishment along all of America's major roads,'' wrote William S. McFeely, a history professor at the University of Georgia.

Others pointed out there also has been a sexual revolution with a new permissiveness in personal behavior; a technological revolution, involving computers, faxes and other forms of instant communications, and a women's revolution, which as Garry Wills of Northwestern University observed, ''has tapped the resources of half the human race.''

Perhaps the most striking element in many of the responses was an absence of optimism, a kind of bleak resignation that although much has changed, and some of it for the better, the American prospect in 1995 isn't all that encouraging.

Consider author Shana Alexander's blunt one-sentence assessment of the state of our national literacy: ''The Terbul Deklin of Liturcy.''

Or the outrage of Columbia University's Jacques Barzun: ''Why the extensive lying, cheating and stealing by the intelligent and well-to-do? Why the artist's rage to disgust and serve up the obscene? Why the passion for 'telling all' and for the conglomerate, not only in business, but also in everyday life, eating at all times and places, wearing any kinds of clothes anywhere, and using dirty words -- everything regardless of surrounding conditions?''

Or the wry observation of Harvard's John Kenneth Galbraith: The greatest change since 1954, he said, is ''the wonderfully greater sense of moral purpose with which the affluent and the comfortable defend their well-being and specifically their income against the claims of the unfortunate and the deprived.''

Or the despair of Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: ''We have become a nation of brooders. We may have lost our national soul and fiber in the

process. . . . We have become soft, sentimental, fat, complacent, too rich, monstrously selfish, cynical, disgustingly decadent, dedicatedly hypocritical -- and worst of all, perpetual whiners.''

Or the sad resignation of Richard Schickel, a writer, film critic and author: ''The trivialization of our public life, our inability to see beyond the images of the moment, has been, for me, the most astonishing development of the last four decades. And it's getting worse. For the omnivorous media now grant spokesman or expert status to any self-anointed leader no matter how lunatic or minuscule his following.''

Caspar Weinberger, who was secretary of defense for Ronald Reagan, put it this way: ''It seems to be that one of the most important ways in which America has changed since 1954 is that unfortunately we have lost some of the innocent and optimistic spirit that has guided and enhanced our country. We have also added in those years a most unwelcomed cynicism and distrust and disbelief in both our institutions and our leaders.''

In the American Heritage survey, it took Neil Simon, the playwright, to add a note of personal optimism:

''Although I'm 67 now, I will still be alive in 2034, only all the parts of my body will have been replaced with the exception of my right thumb for DNA purposes.''

Any way you look at it, the message for Newt Gingrich is plain: We live in a time of revolutionary change and suspicion. It's likely to take a lot more than passing a few bills in Congress to turn this society around.

James McCartney is a columnist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

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