American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations

By Lester D. Friedman | Go to book overview

1979
Movies and the End of an Era

PETER LEV

As the seventies came to an end the United States was still struggling to understand the crises that had rocked the country in the previous dozen years. The Vietnam War had ended, but American culture was still examining how and why we had lost this faraway conflict to the North Vietnamese. The Watergate scandal had ended with Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency, but Americans continued to debate how to make government ethical, responsive, and forward-looking. The price of crude oil, pushed ever upward by OPEC, had led to economic slowdown and double-digit inflation. The important social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s—civil rights, feminism, gay rights—had established themselves as part of the political landscape while also generating long-term conflicts with opposing forces. And the Cold War, a struggle for international dominance between the United States and the Soviet Union dating back to the end of World War II, was still going on.

Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, was now in his third year as president, having been elected after a campaign based on honesty and reform in government. He and his Georgia associates—Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, Bert Lance—ran a loose, undisciplined White House and had little enthusiasm for the give-and-take of congressional politics. Carter tried to reform the federal government by writing long, complex proposals within the White House, rather than reaching out to allies in the House and Senate. He also presented himself as a simple, humble man, despite his intelligence and his record of high achievement. This humility, no doubt based on his Southern Baptist faith, was attractive in a candidate but sometimes disastrous in a president. It led him to accept problems and impasses rather than finding ways to solve them. When things went wrong during his administration, the president was more likely to preach to Americans about their failings than to inspire them to do better.

On 15 July, Carter gave a televised speech about a “crisis of confidence” in American society. This was soon labeled the “malaise” speech, even though the word “malaise” was not spoken (it had been used by aide

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