Forty years ago this summer, Detroit was going mad with joy over “The Bird,” Mark Fidrych, the zany, kooky pitching phenomenon who dominated all baseball for a year.
There was a presidential election between incumbent President Gerald Ford, who had been a little-known Grand Rapids congressman three years before, and a peanut farmer and ex-Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter.
Naïve Americans thought it was a rough campaign. Actually, it was in a sense the last “normal” election. They argued about issues and experience. Nobody called the other guy a traitor or suggested he had a phony birth certificate.
Nobody suggested building a wall to keep immigrants out. Spewing hatred and fear were not seen as proper ways to run for national office. The nation was worn out from nastiness and division. The trauma of Watergate had ended barely two years before. The Vietnam War, in which we had wasted billions and 58,000 American lives for nothing, ended the year before. Our side lost.
On Election Day, Carter narrowly defeated Ford. The Democrats won nearly all the states in the South and East; Republicans took the West and Midwest.
Afterwards, the winners were happy and the losers sad, but the mood was closer to the way people feel after a big Michigan-Michigan State football game than it was to the aftermath of a genocidal war of universal destruction.
When Carter gave his inaugural address, he began by thanking Ford for all he had done “to heal our land.”
I’ve given you that little journey down Memory Lane for a reason. Granted, those times — celebrated back in the day as our bicentennial year — were anything but perfect. The idea of a black or female president was still the stuff of science fiction.
Nobody mainstream was even talking about granting gay people any form of rights to be themselves. Same-sex marriage was unimaginable. Inflation, something we’ve nearly forgotten about today, was a major and recurring problem.
Nuclear war was something that still seemed a real possibility, and much of our diplomacy was aimed at preventing it. However — there was a widely shared underlying assumption that this nation was basically good and that we wanted to work toward making a better life for all our people — and the world.
Corny, eh? Well, I was there, and just thought you might want to know. I don’t really miss the 1970s, but I will say they’d never have given us a President Donald Trump.
There was still the idea, now largely considered quaint, that it would be a good idea for the person in charge of the world’s biggest economy and most powerful military to have some experience at governing and actually working with people he couldn’t arbitrarily fire. There was also another widely shared idea, which was that risking wrecking the world’s economy in a fit of rage was not a good idea.
Trump evidently doesn’t share any of those ideas.
Neither, by the way, did the good people of Great Britain, who, in a Trump-like spasm of irrationality, decided to show how much they hated immigrants by voting June 23 to get out of the European Union, which was designed to turn all of Europe into one vibrant economy. Actually, the votes to leave came from England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland were smarter than that.
Immediately after the vote, economic shock waves began to be felt all across the globe.
Stock markets plunged, as did the value of the pound. British citizens living elsewhere in Europe began applying for citizenship in other countries. The prime minister quit, and both political parties were thrown into destructive turmoil.
Meanwhile, many not-very-well-read subjects of the Queen who had voted to leave duly started wondering what the hell they had done. Some were reported to be asking exactly what the European Union was, anyway.
Within two days, as the scope of the economic disaster became more apparent, a lot of Britons had buyer’s remorse.
More than a million of them signed a petition calling on Parliament to hold another referendum. That would seem fully justified, given the clear economic and political dangers that could easily be caused by a fragmenting Europe.
John Oliver, the half-comedian, half-social philosopher who many of us first saw when he worked as a “reporter” for Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, may have put it best.
Comparing the groundswell of support for Trump to the spasm of resentment that caused Britons to vote to seriously damage their own economy, Oliver was caustic and succinct:
“You might think, ‘well, that isn’t going to happen to us in America. We’re not going to listen to some ridiculously haired buffoon, peddling lies and nativism in the hopes of riding a protest vote into power.’ Well, let Britain tell you,” he said.
“It can happen, and when it does, there are no fucking do-overs,” he told British TV viewers last week.
Well, there’s a slim chance he might be wrong about Great Britain — as far as I can tell, Parliament really could hold another referendum — and given the gravity of the situation and the signs that people had little understanding what leaving the European Union would mean, they should.
However, if we elect Donald Trump, we are stuck with him. Nearly every day, it becomes more clear that however bad you thought Trump was, he’s really worse.
On June 21, there was a too-little noticed story in The New York Times that took my breath away. One of the most thoroughly evil men in modern American political life was Roy Cohn, who was the top aide to Sen. Joe McCarthy back in the early 1950s, when the two of them were ruining people’s lives and careers by accusing them of ties to Communism.
Cohn was the driving force behind the smear campaign, and accumulated more and more power as McCarthy gradually receded into a drunken fog. Secretly gay, Cohn, then a young lawyer, persecuted homosexuals and caused them to be banned from jobs as security risks. Eventually, McCarthy fell from power after Cohn pushed him to take on the whole U.S. Army.
Evidently there was a rich pretty boy who was drafted and who Cohn wanted made his “special assistant” instead. The move backfired, and the Senate at long last moved to take McCarthy’s power away. He soon collapsed into an alcoholic haze and drank himself to death.
But Cohn went off to Manhattan, to become one of New York’s most prominent and sleazy lawyers. His clients included top Mafia figures, George Steinbrenner — and Donald Trump.
“Decades later, Mr. Cohn’s influence on Mr. Trump is unmistakable,” the newspaper concluded. “… the gleeful smearing of his opponents, the embracing of bluster as brand, has been a Roy Cohn number on a grand scale.”
Cohn has been dead for 30 years; he died of AIDS, denying being gay until the end. Before that, however, suffice it to say that Trump had him negotiate a prenuptial agreement with his first wife, Ivana, which basically was designed to give her nothing, and didn’t stand up in court when they divorced, since her lawyer and Cohn were buddies.
In the end, just before he died, Cohn was disbarred for a long list of offenses that added up to “particularly reprehensible conduct.” He didn’t give a damn. But he did care about Trump.
Why, Cohn barely cheated him on his bill when he stayed in Trump properties. Trump, for his part, gave Cohn a pair of worthless cufflinks. There are, indeed, second acts in American life, but no fucking do-overs. This year, we better not forget.