I haven’t yet read P.J. O’Rourke’s just-published book* about the American relationship to the automobile, but I’ve bought my copy and know that at one point he makes the following observation: “In 1970 the Pontiac GTO (may the brand name rest in peace) had horsepower to the number of 370. … Forty years ago the pimply kid down the block, using $3,500 in saved-up soda-jerking money, procured might and main beyond the wildest dreams of Genghis Khan.”
Forget for a moment the purely conceptual yield of that little blast.
I was there – I remember that car. It is true.
And, more to Our present point, it is true no longer.
I even recall telling myself to enjoy this brief, shining moment because before long – surely by 1980 if not before – the decades-old promises of “Popular Mechanics” and “Popular Science” magazines would be fulfilled and the cars would be flying. These old ground-huggers, for all their throaty tiger-paws, would be extinct.
Well. Yes but no.
The American car is just about extinct, but the moon-landing in ’69 was the end of the space and rocket-car stuff. The Seventies and their bumptious brood of lethal consequences brought very little in the way of lasting fulfillment – although there are wayyy too many ‘elites’ on Left and Right who can’t afford to be having Us realize it now.
Henry Ford saw the problem. His strategy – Fordism – was to sell so many cars that he could afford to pay his workers enough to keep buying them. It worked rather well for quite a while: workers got a good wage, and they bought the stuff that they and other American workers made.
But then Nixon had to take Us off the gold standard (who remembers Fort Knox, or why Goldfinger wanted to mount an assault on it?) after LBJ tried to buy voters with his ‘Great Society’ while refusing to back away from a loser’s game in Vietnam, all the while too bent upon doing great things as he imagined them to notice that the almost ridiculously easy American economic primacy of the postwar era was passing away as the world’s other nations recovered or developed.
And money – no longer required to drag its own weight in gold around with it – became light enough to travel easily, especially across borders. So while the American worker stayed home, the money went elsewhere.
And when it finally got around to doing something about that, the already besotted and indentured Beltway tried to make a virtue of its prior failures by telling Us that self-indulgence and debt were good things, and that nobody should be ‘oppressed’ by owning a Ford or Chevy when they could lease a Mercedes. Ah the greasy, buttery glow of Reagan’s Castle Chariot shimmering queasily in the Klieg lights!
Reagan, the B-level movie actor, outdid Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, Carl Laemmle, the Warner brothers, and all the rest of them. Where they simply made fantastic movies to entertain and enchant America and the world, Reagan made America into the greatest phantasmagorium of them all. He even grinned his way by Katherine Hepburn’s acid-tinged insight that Yes, you can have it all – just not all at the same time. Americans would have it all, and all at the same time: revolutions and democracy, wealth and self-discipline, war and peace, eternal youth and maturity. Consequently, America in Our time has come to incorporate the worst elements of both plastic and butter. And has learned to call it ‘good’. Oy.
Back to that conceptual wallop in PJO’R’s observation. It’s a symbol of what happened to Us as a hugely successful democratic capitalist enterprise: the things-of-this-world, available to Us in superabundance, so captivated Our attention that things not-so-obvious – maturity and genuine seriousness, say – were forgotten: the pimply kid on the block could command more horsepower than Genghis Khan could ever hold in a set or reins, which the kid promptly deployed to impress girls, go buy beers, or to wrap himself around a tree. Marvelous.
I recall a 1960 or 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone” where visiting aliens – ludicrously made up in latex and spandex – looked in on a typical American bar (whose owner, deliciously, “watered his drinks like they were geraniums”) and gave the shy nerd who was always getting beaten up the strength of 300 humans. The nerd was no kid – it was Burgess Meredith, playing to the hilt a mid-life nobody going nowhere but trying to be nice about it. But he wound up doing nothing with all that gift except performing feats of ‘strength’ trying to impress the other barflies, a local ‘girl’, and a disturbingly accurate cross-section of townsfolk doing their best impression of Emily Dickinson’s “admiring bog”.
I don’t know how many of Us – even if impressed by Serling’s vivid and acute imagination – realized how neatly he had skewered the shortcomings – the ‘growing edges’, if you prefer – of America’s use of the power it possessed.
In the last brief sequence, the aliens return, realize that ‘humans’ don’t make much of their gifts, and take their physical powers back; only to be interrupted by another visiting pair – from Venus, I think – who proceed to give Meredith’s less-than-Loman character 500 times more intelligence than the average human. Which he promptly uses to impress the barflies by predicting the horse-races to which they, bookies and bettors, are enthralled. The departing Martians – sadder but wiser – warn their extraterrestrial associates that their experiment will not end well, and CUT. Marvelous.
Come to think of it, you could see where maybe Serling predicted the Bubbles that have recently burst and crashed, each – like an atomic bomb – containing within its modest papery folds the destructive power of a hundred-million Hindenburgs.
So Wall Street was a cheap, fly-blown bar, filled with unripe no-lifes trying to make a buck however they could. But the bucks could never do much, because they were harnessed to small-souled, unripe visions of almost juvenile unseriousness.
So too the corporate biggies.
So too the Beltway.
So too the academic revolutionary elites.
My word. And all right there in a half-hour show – in black and white, even – from the benighted years of Eisenhower’s last year in office. Nor did Serling – a ‘man’ – spare his erstwhile co-conspirators in patriarchy. And did I mention that the show was only interrupted by 5 or 6 minutes of commercials?
And if memory serves, the 1960 Chrysler 300F delivered 375 horses, or 400 with the ‘ram induction’ option.
No ‘child’ today can look forward to that. And by ‘that’ I don’t mean the guzzly machinery; I mean a future that promised an improved material life that would leave the parents’ era in the dust. Nope. Not hardly.
But maybe that’s the good news. ‘The children’ now will have to learn to get serious, and sooner rather than later. Which will be an accomplishment their parents’ generations didn’t quite seem to manage. Or even realize what they had failed to achieve.
We weren't driving like crazy. We were driving like immature. And still are.
So, kids of all ages: To maturity … and beyond!
*Entitled “Driving Like Crazy”, Atlantic Monthly Press. And if you now find yourself in need of inexpensive but meaty yet un-depressing beach reading, I strongly recommend one of my perennial PJO’R favorites, “Holidays in Hell”.