Rebirth of a nation
The American dream has moved from the boardrooms of Wall Street and back rooms of Washington to the poolsides and barbecues of the New West
Peter C. Newman
By the time you get to Phoenix the paradox of the changing American power structure takes on heightened reality. A very different country is being born here, and few of us who study the United States at safe distance (tied into the dreary demonology of picking over the actions and pronouncements of our involuntary conquerors) are aware of the delicate yet astonishing transformations in train to the south of us.
It is simple enough to sit about the bureaucratic lodges of Ottawa or the penthouses of Toronto cursing the saturating force of American civilization, gloating a little over the nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate, smugly mourning the long evening of the American dream. But even if the complex struggle among its countervailing constituencies during this Presidential, Bicentennial year has left the United States disturbed and divided, out of the confusion is emerging a novel configuration of people and forces, restructuring the republic. The placard carriers and card burners of the Sixties have vanished. Martin King, Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Phil Ochs are dead. Rap Brown is in prison. Tim Leary has turned informer. Tom Hayden is running for the Senate. Neil Armstrong, first man to walk the moon, is back in Cincinnati teaching school. Even though each of the current Presidential candidates marches to the beat of his own computer (changing ideological colorations as subtly as the shades in the breast of a pigeon), the campaign itself is bland, without issues. Vietnam is forgotten, Watergate absorbed. The only new political force winning significant converts is a riptide of hostility against Washington as the symbol of extravagance, corruption and good intentions gone sour.
But beyond the clamor of the campaign, there’s a fundamental metamorphosis under way, permanently altering the social, cultural and economic geography of the U.S.A. Not too long ago, Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Houston and New Orleans served as distant outposts of the New York-Bos-
ton-Chicago-Washington power axis, with the real wealth and influence flowing from the manicured estates of Newport, Grosse Point and Greenwich, Connecticut. Now the action that counts has moved below the 37th parallel, into Texas, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, California and Arizona — bigsky Baptist states that average 300 days of sunshine a year and place few limits on a man’s potential. The tight-lipped, Ivy League patricians of the East are being displaced by open-collared Westerners who don’t give a damn for family background or Harvard and prefer humming Johnny Cash to Stephen Sondheim. Their philosophy is a kind of Whig populism, returning to the roots through self-enrichment—a revival of the Protestant Work Ethic dressed up with flourishes of Mexican machismo.
The future of America somehow seems most visible in Phoenix, where the arid wind comes howling in from the parched moonscapes of Utah, raising the temperature 30 degrees in one hour. Life here combines the self-determination of the nation’s new conservative spirit with the open optimism of a last frontier and the bigbuck ostentations of men and women who no longer recognize their own beginnings. The good burghers of Phoenix regard their nation’s recent misadventures strictly as Washington phenomena, little connected with their own sense of propriety or guilt. They are a very different breed from that honorable and sometime benevolent meritocracy of Eastern Establishment liberals who have had the run of American affairs since the first inaugural of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—all those swift young men, light on both feet, ever graceful under pressure, at home among the elegant nuances of finding any issue’s exact centre of gravity, old hands at choosing among the lesser of any number of evils. (Their epitaph came from Gene McCarthy, once himself an honored prototype of the species, when he defined a liberal as one who helps a man drowning 40 feet from shore by throwing him a 30-foot rope while
shouting: “I’ve met you more than half way!”)
The new paladins of wealth who run Arizona—and are decisively tilting the U.S. power structure toward the south and the west—bear few of the burdens of liberal doubt or compassion. They are proud and rigid in their self-confidence and, like most WASPS with principles, tend to scowl at strangers. They all seem to have closely cropped hair which leaves their ears exposed and abnormally prominent, giving their faces a cast of perpetually tentative candor. (They love gimmicks. The latest gadget—for $29.95—hooks into the back of a car and flashes “You’re welcome” at the automatic “Thank You” signs on toll gates.) They no longer pretend to Stetson hats or pear snaps on their cuffs; only black string ties with turquoise clasps remain of the Western motif they once affected. Their conversation, strong as horseradish, is devoid of the IBM words and Kennedy cadence that still bedazzles them in the button-down East. No talk here of viable thrusts or incremental contingencies.
“Got good security at your place, A rnie?”
“You bet. Tighter’n bull’s ass in fly time. ”
During Arizona’s territorial days (it didn’t become a state until 1912) free enterprise was defined by the noisy end of a shotgun, and things haven’t changed a whole lot. This is Barry Goldwater country where people distrust questions that reach beyond life’s reckonables. A radical is someone who frequents bookstores. (Most folks are suspicious of anything that’s printed, except dollar bills.) Arizona’s government operates on a solid budgetary surplus;the state’s limit onoutstanding debentures is a paltry $350,000. Phoenix has a sprawling (^70 square miles) trading area of 1.3 million people (averaging in age a mature 26); large homes with twin swimming pools; 46 golf courses and a 1976 disposable income of $7.6 billion, which ranks its standard of living among the world’s highest. The streets of Phoenix are lined with palm trees, their frowzled heads slanting east as they bow to the same wind that still dances the odd tumbleweed
across the wide boulevards. The city has the confectionery feel of a Mel Brooks mirage. There is cactus . blooming, astonishingly beautiful, everywhere. Arizona’s jump in manufacturing employment is the United States’ fastest, with an increasing number of large corporations (Ramada Inns, Greyhound) making Phoenix their national headquarters.
Last May, when Rolls-Royce was looking for an appropriate spot to launch its new Camargue (retail price: $90,000) for the American market, it picked the Mountain Shadows resort in Scottsdale, one of Phoenix’s richest suburbs. Tom Barrett III, a Scottsdale antique-car dealer, stores in his bam Rudolf Valentino’s 1927 IsottaFraschini which he bought for $175,000. He also owns Joseph Goebels’ original Maybach-Zeppelin roadster. Scottsdale’s most important watering hole is the Paradise Valley Country Club, where the centurions of the Phoenix Establishment meet to fondle tumblers of Cutty Sark or bourbon on the rocks, compare golf scores, rail against “that gang” in Washington and point at a bungalow on the side of Camel Back Mountain where Jack Kennedy is supposed to have spent a weekend with Angie Dickinson. (They seldom boast about their own holdings; if you can figure out your exact worth in this territory, you’re not very rich.)
“Can’t help fee lin ’a bit poorly these days, Jason. ”
“What’s the matter, Otis? The mail slow getting your dividends out?”
During the long, languid evenings, with the smell of jasmine and the cooing of sweet doves flavoring the night air, Arizonans visit each other, driving their cinnamon, air-conditioned Sevilles or sky-blue Broughams with Episcopalian grace across the iridescent desert. On the far horizon, like giant fireflies, executive jets land at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International, the country’s busiest private airport. The moonlight glints off their silver wings and the sky is alive with their roaring. In the new Southwest spending money is a way of life; wealth equals status. On a freeway leading out of the concrete canyons of Houston, the city’s commuters get up-todate flashes from an electric billboard of fluctuations in the daily Dow-Jones Industrial Average. When Jack Randall, a millionaire oilman who lives in Liberal, Kansas, heard that 1976 was to be the last production year for Cadillac Eldorado convertibles, he ordered eight new models. (“I figure I got me enough ragtops to last a lifetime,” he explained, not bothering to mention that he is 72 years old.) There is another story, apocryphal perhaps, about a rancher who ordered two RollsRoyces with right and left-wheel drives, so he could get an even tan on both his elbows.
As the traditional metropolitan areas of the north continue to decay and New York heads toward bankruptcy, the Southwesterners are inheriting the country. During the past decade eight million Ameri-
cans have moved into the sun belt. Every night the 14-wheel furniture vans push south down the interstate freeways, then race back, high and empty, to load up again. According to Kirkpatrick Sale, who has studied the region, the gross national product of what he calls the 15 “Southern Rim” states is about $400 billion—larger than that of any country except the whole of the United States, and the USSR: “It has more cars (43 million), more telephones (38 million), more housing units (22 million), more TV sets (25 million) and more miles of paved highway (1.1 million) than any nation except the Soviet Union—in short, it is a superpower on a world scale.” The area contains most of the major
ARIZONANS SUSPECT ANYTHING IN PRINT-EXCEPT, OF COURSE, DOLLAR BILLS
growth industries and especially the country’s energy sources—Texas, Louisiana, California, Oklahoma and New Mexico account for 82% of the U.S. domestic oil and 88% of its national gas production. While 82% of the new manufacturing jobs in the United States since 1970 have been added in parts of the southwest, New York has lost 16 major head offices in the past 12 months. The United States’ largest financial institution is no longer on Wall Street. It is California’s Bank of America (with assets of over $65 billion), and the most profitable bank in the country is in North Carolina. The Southwesterners have even moved into New York to grab some of its surviving profit-centres: Bergdorf Goodman, the best department store on Fifth Avenue, has been bought by the Carter Hawley Hale organization of Los Angeles; Time Inc. is controlled by Temple Industries, a Texas investment company representing the family of lumber millionaire Arthur Temple; Hebrew National Kosher Foods Inc., Manhattan’s largest delicatessen supplier, has been taken over by the Riviana Corporation of Houston. Major league sports franchises have been moving south. Tourism is booming with 20 million people clicking through the gates of the Disney fantasy lands in Anaheim, California, and Orlando, Florida. Nashville, Dallas and Macon in Georgia are grabbing more of the entertainment industry.
But it’s still Los Angeles that typifies the exuberance of this new Southwest. L.A. explodes with nervous creativity. Every conversation has an encounter-group atmosphere with egos in primal combat for that “big break” which means everything. The airport cabdriver, one of Hollywood’s 10,000 unemployed actors, strikes up some probing small talk, giving his sincerity a morning workout, just in case his fare might have a vague connection with some
obscure branch of The Industry. “Maclean’s?” A blank look—then the big smile. “Oh, yeah. A great toothpaste.” There’s a story going the rounds about a pushy Hollywood writer who is receiving cobalt radiation for cancer. Asked by a competitor at a party about his treatment, the writer spreads his hands in a gesture of triumph, and says: “Treatment? Hell, we’re into script!”
It’s a vicarious existence lived inside a putty culture. Having left high-school sweethearts or husbands in the dental supply game far behind them, the self-styled starlets still frequent Schwab’s drugstore (where Lana Turner was discovered in 1935) and parade along Sunset Boulevard, their lip gloss, coy glances and spit curls at the ready, threatening to return at any moment to the Jaqueline Susann novel they’re reenacting. They follow Ernest Hemingway’s dictum that whatever makes you feel good is good, viewing the world with a kind of failed Oakie shrewdness, their eyes uncomprehending and unafraid. Eventually, they return home or become department store salesladies, smiling beauties who dare not frown in case they fracture their makeup. The prancing men of uncertain sexual persuasion who put the Hollywood deals together parade around in $50 mussed-look hair cuts, peasant body shirts and contact lenses that blend eye colors with their pre-faded Paris denims. They’re constantly on the move, like beagles in heat, the blood running through them, testing all the possibilities, rehearsing their Oscar acceptance ad libs in their tuxedos with the wine-red or royal-blue lining. When a deal gets hot, they rent a white Rolls ($65 a day plus 65 cents a mile).
Sex and religion are both big business. On Sundays, the Bible-bangers recruit choirs of freshly bathed boys and girls to croon the background as they claim the conversion of any showbiz personality they can conjure up, right down to Lawrence Welk’s drummer. Hollywood’s sex shops advertise “air-conditioned torture dungeons,” obscene phone calls from “a guaranteed nude girl” and faithful reproductions of sex organs that “plug into the cigar lighter of your car.”
People come here, as they do to British Columbia, to divorce their past. But they seldom become total Californians. Six thousand corpses are shipped out of the Los Angeles airport every year, listed on airline manifests as boxes of HR (Human Remains) for that final journey home. (This doesn’t mean that departing Californians don’t appreciate great scenery. Nearly all of the 555 people who’ve jumped off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge since it was opened in 1936, took the leap from its eastern span. The view is so much better.)
The western trek of the American psyche has been reflected in a withdrawal from the gunboat diplomacy that has marked U.S. foreign policy since 1869, when President Buenaventura Baéz of the
Dominican Republic sold his country to the Americans for $150,000 cash aboard a U.S. destroyer. For most of the new Southwesterners, America’s once holy mission of saving the world for democracy—with machine guns, if necessary—has become a much muted obsession. (This view of the United States’ self-appointed writ probably reached some kind of record for absurdity in the early 1940s, when Senator Kenneth Wherry told an election meeting in Nebraska: “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it’s just like Kansas City.”) The American Century, which Henry Luce decreed in 1942, lasted less than 30 years, drowning in the blood-soaked jungles of Vietnam, a tiny jungle patch of a country, industrially less developed than the United States at the time of George Washington, whose “peasants in black pyjamas” defeated the most powerful military machine ever assembled. The war permanently ended the residual image of American soldiers as wisecracking heroes handing out chewing gum to the kids of liberated countries and the notion that God was the great G.I. in the sky, passing the ammunition.
More significantly, Vietnam altered the way Americans think about their country. Instead of regarding themselves as guardians of world liberties, most thoughtful Americans have been searching to see how they could build better safeguards for their own liberties. While Canadians tend to view their nation in terms of geography-a contest against the elements, the cold, the wind, the stubborn rock-Americans identify with the great notions spelled out in their nation’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These are the documents that shattered feudal land laws, gave the individual the supremacy to pursue his individual happiness and set loose the forces that still prompt every American to expect an ever-increasing standard of living, not as a hope but as a right.
These ideals constitute very much more than idle epiphanies in the minds of political science majors or decorous ramblings of The Daughters of The American Revolution. It was the reaching for the goals of equality, opportunity and the notion that life is for the living and not a burnt sacrifice to mysterious forces that prompted 35 million of the world’s dispossessed to sail past the Statue of Liberty and seek a share of the new nation’s bounty. “We have it in our power to begin the world again,” proclaimed Thomas Paine, the Quaker philosopher“The cause of America is the most honorable that man ever engaged in.” Letters the emigrants sent back to the Old World were passed on from cottage to cottage, stoking a demand that those who stayed home should also have their America.
The newcomers, desperate to succeed if only because they could never go home again, fanned out into the harsh land, and even if the power of money and status
soon reasserted itself there was no entrenched aristocracy, no established church and little cant or regulation. A man could breathe the tonic air of self-respect. “It was logical that the American place should be considered good,” wrote Daniel Boorstin, the historian who now heads the Library of Congress. “Most of the immigrants came to it motivated by their rejection of the badness of life elsewhere. The frightened optimism of the immigrant was defensive; it had to be codified into a belief that in coming to the New World the immigrant had made a choice of supreme rightness.Life in America continues tobe a discovery, not a filling in of preconceived notions. Thomas Jefferson believed in the
THE 15 RIM STATES ARE IN EFFECT THE THIRD MOST POWERFUL NATION ON EARTH
sovereignty of each new generation to rediscover itself, that’s why the United States is in a state of perpetual revolution.”
Who will take charge of that revolution for the next four years will be decided on November 2. If Jimmy Carter wins, as seems probable,his secretaryof statewould most likely be Cyrus R. Vance. A Yale law graduate with a wall full of honors, he now heads the New York City Bar Association, is a director of IBM and the New York Times, and (along with Averell Harriman) was chief co-negotiator of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the Vietnam war. Balancing a set of half-moon. Bud Drury glasses in his left hand, Vance waves visitors into his office, his cheeks aglow with a thousand sun-filled afternoons, his accent exactly the right blend of mid-Atlantic honk and West Virginia twang. He looks like the kind of man who is automatically waved through airport security checks. “Despite the terrible shock of Watergate,” he says, “it showed that the basic system could and did work. What we have now is an interesting combination developing behind Carter, including a large element of the liberal establishment who were involved in government during the Kennedy days, plus this welling up of populist support in the south.”
Another Carter supporter and unofficial dean of the residual Eastern liberal Establishment is Ted Sorensen, once Jack Kennedy’s chief adviser and alter ego. A bloodless, curiously self-contained man who looks as taut as if he were about to enter a championship tennis match, he symbolizes the paradise lost of the New Frontier. His office is crammed with Kennedy memorabilia, including a Look cover painting of the Cuban missile crisis. “The small -1 liberal ideal is still viable,” he insists, “and Carter may well be the one who can make it work because Jimmy’ll come
in without obligations to any segments of the political or economic establishments.”
In 1968, Sorenson, who is now one of New York’s leading lawyers, faced down a confrontation with Robert Kennedy’s chief advisers by persuading the young Senator to include in the announcement of his Presidential candidacy the phrase: “At stake is not simply the leadership of our party, and even our own country, it is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.” His convictions haven’t changed: “Becausefortune has favored us,we’reina position to help others, to try and prevent totalitarianism from taking over the world.”
Vance and Sorensen abhor the events of Watergate, but most Americans have assimilated its dark lessons, rationalizing that Richard Nixon’s exile from power merely vindicated the existence of a free press and the incorruptibility of the judicial system. A similar attitude is visible among the audiences crowding into All The President’s Men, which have been giving the film standing ovations. As seen through Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Watergate is turned into a horse opera with a message. The Washington Post becomes the cavalry, a metaphor for the good guys chasing the wicked Indians, with the heroes portrayed as a couple of foot soldiers who had enough courage to stand up against the doubters in their own ranks, proving yet again that all it takes is conscience and perseverance to change the course of history.
It is noon in a nameless bar within sight of Washington’s Capital Hill. Overhead, an old-fashioned ceiling fan turns in the dead air, like a hovering helicopter. The bar is devoid of personality, except that its rest rooms have canine identification marks cut out of painted plywood: Pointers to the left, Setters to the right. A couple of congressional aides are talking up their Presidential hopefuls.
“That Jerry Brown beats all. You ask him the time ofday, and he tells you the history of water clocks. ”
“Hell, Carter’s got it all sewn up. Who’s gonna vote against Jimmy’s dentures and the Ten Commandments?”
The capital’s mood of doubt and dejection is contagious. Back in Phoenix, life still seems full of thrust and sky—a proving ground for the soul. But here in Washington, whether they are relishing the profane or intoning the sacred, the politicians exhale a mood of frustration and despair; traditional sources of power are drying up and no manageable consensus is taking their place. Historically, Americans have always opted for certainty and the kind of easygoing self-confidence that became their dazzling world trademark. Now, their future is as unpredictable as a hailstorm. The continuing disintegration of constitutional authority at the political centre and the massive power shift westward of people, money and ideas is creating a strange new land as our neighbor, fb