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Late Nineteenth: Today’s News Ripped from Yesterday’s Headlines

In 2003, after Behind the Backlash was published, I needed a break from cutting-edge historiography. But I still yearned to read history. So when I encountered a copy of In the Days of McKinley, I bought it. Margaret Leech’s classic (it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960) was the book that had first started me thinking about graduate school more than fifteen years earlier. I rediscovered what had fascinated me in history before I had been trained: the importance of individuals, the strivings of groups, the exhilaration people experience as they are making history, the disappointment they feel after realizing that “history” has had its way with them, and the power of a story well told. I plunged into a personal curriculum of classic popular history.

When I first checked In the Days of McKinley out of the library, I had been a rock musician. Now, rather than performing for audiences I was working with computers, which made songwriting and multi-track recording much easier.

In 2004, the curriculum and the computers gave rise to Late Nineteenth, a historical concept album (I thought of it more as a play) that began with Alfred Thayer Mahan before a chalkboard at the Naval War College and ended with a handful of Ohioans gathered around a country store stove telling stories about the recently assassinated president.

Today the themes that seemed so refreshingly past in 2004 have become depressingly present. So if you are interested in today’s news ripped from yesterday’s headlines—things like political scandal, populist politics, tariffs and protection, an extraordinary split in one of the two major parties, and an attempted march on the Capitol—give Late Nineteenth a listen on the streaming service of your choice.

Get in Line, Its 1973 All Over Again

This afternoon I went out for a few groceries. Five minutes from home I encountered a sight that resurrected long buried memories from my youth. On one block there were a dozen cars clogging traffic lanes to line up at the local Sunoco station. Around another corner were at least a score of vehicles jockeying for position like gum balls in a chute, determined to land by the pumps at the local 7-Eleven Store. I had seen this before.

As America entered the 1970s the outlook for the domestic oil industry was bleak. The United States had once dominated the industry, but since 1955 the number of drilling rigs had been dropping steadily. Experts in the subject (who almost no one listened to) were already warning of an “energy crisis” by 1971.

Then, on October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched the fourth and most destructive of their serial wars against Israel. The sentiment in the United States was predictable; America would have to back up its long-time ally.  There was a problem though. Recently the United States had become addicted to foreign oil—imports had doubled from 1970 to 1973 alone. Much of that oil came from Middle Eastern countries allied with Egypt and Syria; most of it came from nations who were members of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). And OPEC was dominated by Saudi Arabia’s Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani.

The United States helped Israel as expected. OPEC retaliated with rolling cutbacks. The big oil companies anticipated trouble, but no one expected what happened on October 20, 1973, when Sheik Yamani cut off the United States entirely. The administration had not been sitting on its hands. In attempts to smooth out problems it created an allocation system. It was unfortunately rigid, keeping too much gas in some locations while leaving others high and dry. Prices rose nearly 50 percent, a strong market signal, but consumers ignored it. They went out to top off their tanks anyway, resulting in traffic jams, long lines, and “sorry no gasoline” signs.

The 1970s oil crisis marked a turning point. Up to that time, we Americans had generally believed that our abundant resources and our exceptional political system would ensure “the good life” for generations to come. Overnight that first tenet was shaken: the administration appointed an “Energy Czar” (which most Americans thought entirely appropriate) and average citizens began to wonder if it was realistic to believe in an endless supply of fossil fuel. In a sense, the fear and panic instilled in the gas lines provided a visceral sense of urgency lacking in the abstractions that swirled around Earth Day three years earlier.

In one of those truth is “stranger than fiction” moments, it was also on October 20, 1973 that Richard Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox for being too persistent in investigating Watergate. So on the same day that belief in unlimited abundance began to waver, our collective confidence in American governance began to crumble too.

The legacy of both events of October 20, 1973 remains with us, but only in traces. Handwringing about “limits” and Watergate culminated in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, but by the time of his dismal “malaise” speech (issued during a second oil shock in 1979), the majority of Americans were tired of pondering limits and responsible governance. In the 1980 election cycle Ronald Reagan smiled, assured everyone that things would be fine without any effort on their part, and won the presidency handily. Still, for over half a decade, mainstream Americans had been willing to think about more than comfort and convenience and were hesitant to place full faith in the benevolence of unbridled capitalism.

Once again motorists are lining up to top off the tank and gas station employees are getting their signs ready. But this crisis is regional, caused by problems involving a particular pipeline. And we have become accustomed to spectacular glitches created by our computerized economy: for drivers beyond the Southeast, the current gas station inconveniences are just a new version of the recent Game Stop imbroglio. It is too bad that the architect of the 1973 oil crisis missed this minor recapitulation of his greatest accomplishment. Sheik Yamani’s death two months ago was little noticed among all the Game Stop headlines. Remember him while you’re waiting in a gas line today, and for just a moment it will be 1973 all over again.

Contours of Corporate History: National Crises and the News Business

Forty years ago today, the once stately broadcast news business began moving faster. As with most fundamental change in American corporate history, there was a crisis behind it. Starting in the fall of 1979, the American Broadcasting Corporation began running “America Held Hostage,” a late-night news program that breathlessly counted down the days of captivity during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

It was soon evident that the hostages were in for the long haul and that late-night news could compete against NBC’s Tonight Show. So on March 24, 1980, ABC renamed the show Nightline. The program accustomed its viewers to both Ted Koppel and coverage of satellite-fed immediacy. The cycle sped up when Ted Turner launched his network three months later, but it took another crisis, the 1991 Gulf War, for CNN to truly hook viewers on 24-hour coverage. Fox News and MSNBC joined the maelstrom in 1996, but neither was sure to endure until September 11, 2001 provided yet another boost to instant news. That’s when Fox News began running the relentless ticker along the bottom of the screen. It has never stopped.

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