America in the '80s Was a Kinder, Gentler Nation

updated 10/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The tough customer was always right, and almost no blow was too low if it worked

It's always calm in the eye of a storm. Maybe that's why people appreciated Reagan so much—to look at him you'd never guess that just outside the window the social fabric was snapping and fraying like a flag in a hurricane. Fraying? Take the season of freeway shootings that peppered Houston in 1985. All at once, the ordinary frustrations of driving—a bit of tailgating, let's say, or a slow car in the fast lane—became the occasion for good ol' boys to fetch a pistol from the glove compartment, roll down the window and blast away. Motorists went after each other like the charioteers in Ben Hur. "Running another automobile off the road is not constructive or legal," the Houston Chronicle felt compelled to remind its readers. "When all else fails, do not pull out a gun."

People have always cut each other off on the highway. It's just that they didn't use to do it with small-arms fire. But they did it in the '80s, because the '80s was the decade of brutishness unchained, 10 perilous years when the whole of public life took on the atmosphere of a slam dance being cheered by a hockey crowd. It was the decade that broke the bounds of restraint, the rules of decorum and Geraldo's nose. It was the Age of the Hogans: Paul and Hulk. One was the kind of guy who walks down the street in Crocodile Dundee wearing a necklace of croc teeth. The other was a pro wrestler with a cumulonimbus silhouette and a message for kids, including maybe your own. "If you don't eat your vegetables," he tells the littlest Hulk-a-maniacs, "I'll body-slam ya."

No wonder George Bush wants a kinder, gentler nation. By the time he reached the White House, American politics had become like one of those cartoon brawls—a pinwheel of flailing fists and legs, with perhaps a head sticking out that has a pair of hands gripping its throat. Beset by corporate raiders and financial carnivores, business had become largely a matter of fang baring among the higher primates. And public debate had crossed the fine line that separates pointing the finger and giving it. Flipping idly around the TV channels, you could get the impression that even the simplest human transactions culminated in a tongue lashing, a knee to the groin and a couple of flashes from the business end of a .38.

Why did it happen in the '80s? Maybe it was the pendulum, the historical one that's always swinging, this time away from the laid-back mood of the mid-and later '70s, the years between Watergate and the Ayatollah, when it seemed that the only thing that rustled our placid surfaces was the keening of a punk band on some 30-watt college radio station. Or it could have been the voodoo in the economy, where over the decade the stock market boomed, but purchasing power declined, and it took two paychecks to provision one household. The struggle to make ends meet can give a certain Darwinian sharpness to daily life.

Then again, perhaps it was all those diseases that made sex too perilous—first herpes, then chlamydia, then AIDS—until it began to seem that every assignation hoisted the Jolly Roger. Too frightened to make love, we made war. Goodbye sex, hello fire-power. Sex was the portable rocket launcher, the semiautomatic assault rifle, the delicious glint off the chrome slide on Don Johnson's 10-mm sidearm, a Dornaus & Dickson Bren Ten. At $600, an expensive date—but then, it had single or double action.

The belligerent tone was set in high places. The decade opened with Ronald Reagan's two-fisted foreign policy. There was a chest-puffing former general, Alexander Haig, in the job of Secretary of State, and a sudden, scary upsurge of nuclear saber rattling. Eventually the Marines went to Lebanon and Grenada, the Air Force bombers took off for Libya, the Navy churned the waters off Nicaragua and Iran. For years the background music of domestic affairs was the televised scream of fighter planes landing on a carrier deck.

Meanwhile, on the home front, evangelists flung scripture as invective and politicians sneered at old notions like compassion. Secretary of the Interior James Watt joked about having "a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple" on one of his advisory panels. The term "negative campaigning" was added to the political vocabulary, and Lee Atwater—the man who made convicted murderer Willie Horton the most prominent black face in the George Bush presidential campaign—was added to the Republican National Committee. By the end of the decade, Democrats and Republicans were acting like the Hatfields and the McCoys. But it was in the more unofficial precincts of life that the tone of the decade was truly set. In things like the vogue for detailed model dinosaurs in classrooms and toy stores. We liked things big and meaty in the '80s, and something about Tyrannosaurus rex just seemed to speak to the public imagination. (He did it without steroids!) In the movies, big stars were really big: biceps the size of pie plates, pecs so large you wanted to yodel from one to the next. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, even Joe Piscopo: the kind of guys who needed wide-screen projects just to accommodate their shoulders.

"I liked the idea of sitting in a massive vehicle that had destructive power," Arnold once mused. "Driving over trees and into walls and going right through everything." He was an '80s kind of guy, Arnold, somebody who could impale a villain on a tree and then quip, "Stick around." But he understood from the first that the '80s were not an Alan Alda kind of decade. "In Terminator," he reminded a reporter, "they laughed when I reached into a guy's chest and pulled his guts out." They did too.

But Arnold's brand of mayhem was relatively benign and clever. It was on the lower budget levels where the brutality got serious, where it was always Friday the 13th on Elm Street and where a helpless girl could have her illusions and her aorta punctured in the same scene. Teenagers learned the fundamentals of romance from rented copies of I Spit on Your Grave. With slasher movies came slasher music, as the more adventurous heavy-metal groups discovered the outer reaches of swinishness. "I'll either break her face or I'll take down her legs, get my ways at will," promised the enchanting Mötley Crüe.

The most telling sign that brutishness was the real vice of the '80s was the way it seeped into what used to be the more stately forms of public discourse. Twenty years after Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table at the UN—an act that made him an international laughingstock at the time—American TV stations were contending that The Morton Downey Jr. Show satisfied FCC requirements for public affairs programming.

The knuckle-sandwich school of broadcasting was actually invented in the '60s, when Joe Pyne used to spit venom on hippies and student protesters. But it reached a certain loutish low point when Downey debuted on Monday, Oct. 19, 1987. (Students of gloomy coincidence take note: The stock market crash happened earlier the same day.) In the spittle-spraying, fist-waving world of Downey's studio, where the audience was nicknamed "the Beast," illumination was for wimps, discussion was for quiche eaters, and there was nothing in the rules of order to prohibit the occasional stranglehold.

Yet Downey was a relative latecomer to roughhouse broadcasting. Back in the days when Mort was still just a blue-sequined lounge singer in Kansas, Howard Stern was already the top-rated DJ in New York, perfecting the delivery that would make him the ugliest thing to come out of a car radio since static. A typical Stern joke:

Q: What's the difference between a Jew and loaf of bread?

A: A loaf of bread doesn't scream when you put it in the oven.

That's a good one, Howard. Regrettably, there were plenty of Howards, aggravation floating in from every part of the airwaves. The Greaseman, a DJ in Washington, D.C., figured out loud that if we all get a day off to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., all someone has to do is kill "four more" of them and we can have a week off. When Rock Hudson died, a couple of Dallas radio jocks aired their own takeoff on John Cougar Mellencamp's "R-O-C-K in the U.S.A." Theirs went "R-O-C-K is an F-A-G." And so on. In music and comedy as well as on radio, outrageousness roamed further afield to find ways to shock. Eddie Murphy could riff on "fags and bitches," and Sam Kinison could talk about "our friends the lesbians"; the self-styled Minister of Information for the rap group Public Enemy could tell an interviewer that "the Jews are wicked."

Bigotry used to be for Neanderthals. Now some people thought it was the badge of above-it-all cool. More and more of the news from college campuses was about ethnic slurs and racist pranks. In fact, all around the country racial assaults, gay bashing and anti-Semitic vandalism increased sharply.

That was the '80s. As though to prove we had descended from the apes, we kept on descending. So it was strange—or on reflection, not so strange—that this was also the decade that saw a return to formality, to white shirts and suspenders, engraved invitations, debutante balls and fish forks. Big weddings came back, with brides dragging trains of lace longer than deep-sea tuna nets. Children were sent to etiquette camps where they learned to kiss hands. With human nature at a high boil, we strained very hard to keep a lid on the pot.

Thus it was that the Age of the Hogans was also the Age of Miss Manners, the good-behavior expert who even knew the right way to hold her tongue in cheek. In 1982, soon after her Washington Post column went into national syndication, she published Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. "The reader who obeys it," she promised, "will be able to proceed in an orderly fashion from birth to death without making a single false move." A few years later Letitia Baldridge could crow that "the flower generation tore tradition to shreds, but in the 1980s some magic sewing machine has stitched it all up again." Granted, there were still a few loose threads—the 1984 edition of Emily Post's Etiquette thought it wise to include an entire special section on pregnant brides—but there's no disputing that this was a time when millions of people thought it was important again to learn 44 ways to fold a napkin.

And in the waning days of the decade there were unmistakable signs of change. With Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin, there was a more congenial international atmosphere. The Russians were out of Afghanistan; the Cubans were out of Angola; Iran and Iraq disengaged, and the Ayatollah departed. Not incidentally, Rambo III simply did not do the kind of box office it was supposed to. At home, a lot of people had concluded that maybe it wasn't absolutely essential to keep an assault rifle under their pillows. The rocket that was Morton Downey was nosediving back to earth in a ratings flameout. In August he was canceled. And George Bush had made that famous plea for a kinder, gentler nation. It's hard to spot, but who knows? Maybe, off in the distance, a kinder, gentler nation is what's coming. As Arnold might say, "Stick around."

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