1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 28
Andreas Killen, 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America
Philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that history trembles along “fault lines,” identifiable by sudden shifts like the Industrial Revolution or the Renaissance. Manhattan historian Andreas Killen finds one such line in 1973, the year America finally abandoned its romance with 1960s idealism and began a march toward grim practicality. Though the Vietnam War, which dominated the 1960s, finally ended that year, the promised age of national bodhidharma never materialized.
1973 saw many beginnings and ends. Operation Homecoming saw the mass repatriation of POWs, including two-time Presidential candidate John McCain, concluding the Vietnam conflict. Public broadcasting also launched An American Family, the first reality TV show, starring TV’s first openly gay protagonist. The Symbionese Liberation Army, which achieved infamy the next year, began in 1973. But none of these social forces happened alone; Killen’s 1973 reflects terrifying top-down entropy.
Though Killen addresses several topics—arts, sex, economics, Vietnam—Richard Nixon casts a long shadow. An intensely popular President, recently re-elected by an overwhelming majority, Nixon nevertheless spent 1973 undergoing a high-profile crack-up. He was reputedly addicted to amphetamines and sleeping pills, and once vanished from public view for eleven days, unmatched in the modern Presidency. Though Watergate began in 1972 and ended in 1974, Nixon’s biggest dramas happened in 1973.
For all his prominence, though, Nixon-hating has a certain dead horse ineluctability. Killen sees in Nixon a manifestation of postwar America’s deep death-wish. Drunk on Eisenhower-era prosperity, America gave rise to incompatible idealisms: hippie utopianism still captures popular imagination, but ultra-conservative counter-protesters always outnumbered change agents. The first Arab oil embargo punched holes in America’s fantasy of bottomless prosperity, proving both simple answers unsatisfactory.
The conflict between progress and continuity assumed new bitterness in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade decision. Where once issues appeared resolvable through sign-waving and other political theatre, a Supreme Court decision, with no hope for higher appeal, gave former social issues new moral moral inevitability. Though the conservative pushback would lack leadership until Jerry Falwell (q.v.), 1973 would mark the sides in today’s lingering, seemingly insoluble Culture War.
Killen spends an entire chapter detailing “Warholism,” a neologism that strangely elevates Andy Warhol and his assembly line artistry to a quasi-religion. And Killen’s description justifies that apotheosis. Although Warhol’s Factory debuted well before 1973, and lasted long after, even Warhol got battered by that year. Edie Sedgwick’s death publicized the seamier implications of fame merchantry. Many of Warhol’s prominent creations collapsed that year, often in tragic or catastrophic ways.
Among the stranger overlaps Killen emphasizes, 1973 saw Warhol’s New York Dolls’ debut, complete with muscular, androgynous press photos and sexually forward-thinking attitudes. It also saw George Lucas’ American Graffiti and Terrence Mallick’s Badlands, two very different paeans to rockabilly America, hit cinemas. This presents an American pop culture obsessed with its future and its past, but without a present—a sweeping emblem of post-sixties directionlessness.
This retreat from “now” would characterize much of the post-1973 generation: glamorizing some lost past, the Classic Rock Radio ethos, or aggressive rejection of anything past, characterized by burgeoning urban alternative and underground subcultures. The former option had better mass traction, because corporations could monetize it, and politicians play off its prejudices. Nixon’s grumpy anti-modernism submarined his administration, but achieved its apotheosis in the rabidly anti-1960s Reagan years.
Historians have their unique approaches, and Killen certainly brings his particular preoccupations to history. His pet phrase, “oedipal conflict,” recurs throughout the book, often in situations that have little apparent Freudian implications, as when discussing Reverend Moon, or financial struggles within Hollywood dream factories. Killen’s psychoanalytic approach yields surprising, frequently jarring interpretations of historic moments we’ve probably glossed over without really thinking about them.
Killen doesn’t pretend to offer history as inarguable fact. He spotlights important themes and maps tangled connections showing how seemingly unrelated events represent sweeping patterns. The connections between Andy Warhol’s Chairman Mao paintings and President Nixon putting Joe Namath on his “enemies list,” aren’t necessarily obvious. But the facts are less important than themes, and only an inquisitive historian like Killen can take what is implicit and make it obvious.
This book debuted in 2006, when President Bush was becoming wildly unpopular and a majority of Americans newly agreed Operation Iraqi Freedom had lasted too long. The parallels between Nixon and Bush are obvious. But as President Obama’s NSA woes weaken his administration and even classical liberals have grown discouraged with political solutions, the conclusion looms large: 1973 is still with us. And if we don’t meet that year’s challenges, we’ll face that year’s woes.