Discussed in this essay:
The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker
By Steven Greenhouse
Knopf, 384 pages, $26
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America [Buy Now]
By Rick Perlstein
Scribner, 896 pages, $37.50
The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America
By Thurston Clarke
Holt, 336 pages, $25
Some of my earliest memories are of unemployment lines and jagged queues of cars waiting to fuel up at the gas stations, way back when the entire world was young and innocent.
There were problems, but the people in charge were going to put them right.
It was as simple as that.
At least that's how the world looked to a little kid in Saginaw, Mich., caught up in the spirit of '76, reading Captain America's Bicentennial Battles, licking a red, white, and blue Popsicle and waiting on the fireworks.
It's strange the things that stand out in memory: Inflation, unemployment, energy woes, trouble in the Middle East — hey, if guys were rocking pork chop sideburns, then and now would look eerily similar.
Conventional wisdom holds that if you lose something important, it's prudent to retrace your steps. And there's a bumper crop of books on the shelves right now examining exactly that: What we lost, as a nation, somewhere between the latter half of the 20th century and today.
That's something that's on the minds of many as Decision 2008 draws near, the imbalance between productivity and wages lingers on, and every day, somewhere, more dreams fall into foreclosure.
My mother and her brothers worked in the factories of the great automotive manufacturing machine around which many of Michigan's cities had been built.
Among the first things I understood about the working world was the layoff.
Whenever my mother was laid off, she would seek out whatever work she could find to supplement her unemployment checks.
Her work was invariably part-time labor. Though she eventually earned a G.E.D., she had still been asked to quietly drop out of high school just before she turned 16. (I was the reason for that, by the way.)
My mother, trying to do the best she could, acted on a belief about the workplace formed in her own circa late 1950s childhood: If you gave your loyalty to a company, stood by it through good economic times and bad, it would stand by you as well.
Sad to say, the times they were a-changing.
In The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, journalist Steven Greenhouse digs deep into the question of exactly what has been happening in the last several decades, as the way of life we like to believe we have has been steadily chipped away.
It isn't that there hasn't been economic growth. It isn't that profits haven't been made. It's that corporations have been less and less inclined to share the fruits of their labor with their laborers.
Nothing new there. That was business as usual in the 19th century, but the first half of the 20th century was supposed to be about righting those wrongs and leveling the playing field.
If the American dream we like to wax so eloquent about every Fourth of July means anything, it should mean that no one who puts in an honest day's labor should be poor. So how did we end up here today with the widest divide between rich and poor since before the Great Depression?
Here's another bit of information that etched itself in my brain during the Bicentennial. It was on the day that my mother and aunt were debating whether to take my cousins and me down to the health department to be vaccinated against swine flu.
The news was abuzz with pundits worrying about whether the 1976 strain could cause a pandemic to rival the Spanish Flu of 1918, which was believed to have killed millions worldwide. These pundits were countered by others, who warned of ominous cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome arising from the vaccine.
So which was worse? And how do you decide what to believe?
Keep in mind that this was back when television only had about three or four channels you could receive clearly, maybe a fifth if you tweaked the rabbit ears just right. We had no concept of information overload.
As a kid, I was all in favor of doing without the shot. But what made the deepest impression on me was the cynicism and distrust of disseminated information that permeated the world of the adults around me.
In 1976, I was old enough to know that President Ford was in the White House, but I had been previously too preoccupied with teething on zwieback toast to notice how he arrived there.
Ford never won a national election, after all. He rode the 25th Amendment into office after the country first learned Vice President Spiro Agnew was not entirely trustworthy and then learned Richard Nixon wasn't either. The intense distrust of government stood in stark contrast to the ubiquitous red, white, and blue on practically every package in the grocery stores that year.
How we ended up in such a state is the subject of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein. It's a fascinating portrait of a divided nation. Riots and backlashes of the political playing field kept things so shaken that we were glad to greet any promise of stability.
While the book's focus is on the late '60s and early '70s, there is also a first blush of the future: We meet young men with names like Bush, Clinton, and Rove just beginning to set aside textbooks and step into the great wide open.
It just seems like we traveled in a great big circle, from energy crisis and economic woes in the '70s to energy crisis and economic woes today, ending up right where we were before. That can happen when you're lost. It's especially likely to happen if you are in denial about being lost.
One last thing:
Long before 9/11, there were other days etched hour by hour into the American consciousness. I grew up hearing stories from my mother, aunts, and uncles about exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot in 1963. And about how, only five years after, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were killed as well.
Adn with these deaths, the new wave of hope that the country had been riding on, described by Thurston Clarke in The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America, crashed.
Did we ever really recover from that loss?
I'm not sure.
Jason A. Zwiker is a journalist who blogs at zwiker.blogspot.com.