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Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 2000 /17 Adar I, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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The '70s , not the '60s, were the real culprit -- THE 1960S have gotten a bum rap from conservatives for years. The decade -- and the dramatic social shifts that began during those years -- have been blamed for the collapse of our national morals and politics. But the '60s were never as bad as some social critics made them out to be. College kids may have protested the Vietnam War at Berkeley and Kent State, but most young Americans supported the war, according to polls taken at the time. Almost all young men of the era sported short hair, two-thirds didn't go to college but worked or served in the military, and few could boast of more than one or two sexual encounters before marriage.

So when did the social revolution that produced promiscuous sex, cheap drugs, women's lib, and the breakdown in the American family actually take place? The '70s were the real culprit, according to David Frum, the author of "How We Got Here," a new look at "The Decade That Brought You Modern Life -- For Better or Worse."

Perhaps the most sobering statistic Frum offers in a book chock-full of them is this: In 1965, there were only 480,000 divorces in the entire United States. By 1975, that number had more than doubled to over 1 million, where it has inched up more or less steadily for some 25 years.

In 1964, divorce was still so onerous a stigma that it could stifle a politician's ambition. Frum cites the case of then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, R-N.Y., who was a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination until he divorced his wife. Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, a fellow Republican and father of the future president George Bush, is reported to have thundered at the news, "Have we come to the point in our life as a nation where the governor of a great state -- one who perhaps aspires to the nomination for president of the United States -- can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her, then persuade a young mother of four youngsters to abandon her husband and their four children and marry the governor?"

A decade later, divorce had become ubiquitous, evoking more applause than opprobrium. As Ann Landers opined in one of her columns in the '70s: "It is clear that all-too-many married couples live together while having emotionally divorced each other long ago. These are cowards." California was the first state -- indeed the first jurisdiction in the Western world -- to enact no-fault divorce laws in 1969. Within 15 years, every state had some form of no-fault divorce. But the legal change would not have been possible if it had not been preceded by a sea-change in social attitudes.

Frum credits several factors in the '60s and '70s that led to these changes, a rebellion against duty to family and nation, a breakdown in trust in government, the changing status of women and the attempt to feminize men, the abandonment of reason in favor of emotion, and the obsession with rights, among others.

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But his is no simple-minded nostalgia for the simpler, nobler 1950s, which so often mars critiques of this type. "The middle decades of the 20th century were an entirely anomalous period in American history," he says, and one most people would not hope to recreate. As he points out, who would want to live in a country where the top federal income tax rate was 90 percent, where a trucker needed permission from a federal agency to ship a crate of lettuce across country, where it was a serious crime for a citizen to own a gold coin, or where the attorney general could tap the phone of almost anyone without a warrant -- all of which was true in the '50s?

Still, Frum does not chalk up the changes wrought in the '70s as the mere inevitability of progress. "While it may be true that grand historic forces beyond any man or woman's control made the 1970s possible," he says, "what made the 1970s happen was individual choice." Frum does a great job of chronicling the bad choices of an entire generation. Perhaps the better we understand those choices, the likelier we are not to repeat them.

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