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I haven't thought about Disco Demolition Night in Chicago in conjunction with President Carter’s speech to the nation on a "crisis of the American spirit" since 1979, and something tells me I didn't even then.
But that's what historians are for, to make the connections that didn't occur to us at the time -- possibly because no connections actually existed but possibly because we missed them. As we live our lives we take things as they come, and time has to pass before we can make out the patterns.
Disco Demolition Night in Comiskey Park was July 12, 1979. Carter spoke three days later. Americans were in a bad mood. Stagflation gripped the economy, one lousy thing after another was happening inside our borders, and the public was deeming the president ineffectual and tuning him out.
Those lousy things, according to a New York Times review Wednesday of a new book on Carter's historic speech, included the Three Mile Island meltdown in March of '79 and the catastrophic DC-10 crash here in Chicago in May. And then there was Disco Demolition Night, when according to book reviewer Dwight Garner, "the country's blue-collar id was uncorked."
As Brian Costello wrote in the July 9 Reader, Disco Demolition Night is remembered as a "promotional disaster" that time has turned, at least locally, into a "cherished legend." Now I wonder -- did it send shudders down the nation's spine when it happened because it seemed to be just the latest in a series of Very Bad Things. In retrospect it was nothing of the sort, and nowhere should that have been clearer than here in Chicago. The DC-10 crash -- that was godawful. Disco Demolition Night was the sort of thing that people cluck at and stomp their feet about in an effort to reassert themselves in a universe that has just demonstrated its absolute indifference. What was lost that night? Only the game forfeited game by a White Sox team that was going nowhere and wound up the year 73 and 87.
Carter's speech is remembered disdainfully as his "malaise" speech, for a word that never appeared in it. Wednesday being the 30th anniversary of that speech, there are two pieces in the Times on it, Garner's review of 'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?': Jimmy Carter, America's 'Malaise,' and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country, by historian Kevin Mattson (who admires the speech), and a recollection by Gordon Stewart, one of the speechwriters. Stewart says that once the core of the speech was put into words -- "On the battlefield of energy we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny" -- the rest of the writing went rapidly. The first public reaction was positive, something I'd forgotten; but then Carter, to signal the rebirth of his administration, asked half his cabinet to resign, and thus he made himself look ridiculous.
Stewart writes, "Mr. Carter's sense of our own accountability, his warnings about the debilitating effects of self-centered divisiveness were the speech's true heresies. They are also the very elements that keep it relevant today."
Which to my mind is his way of saying, "But we wrote it beautifully..."