Dreaming of a world in which
grownups are in charge again
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
REMEMBER when everything from politics to marketing to fashion to entertainment was aimed at grownups?
Take television: While we kids owned Saturday morning (“Mighty Mouse” and such), prime time was keyed to the buttoned-down square world of people who had come up during the Depression and reached maturity — a sort of maturity most of us would never know — during the last war that this nation could get it together enough to see all the way through.
“Popular music” was made by these old guys in suits with short, slick hair who looked like they could as easily have been bankers. Perry Como. Andy Williams. The height of hipdom was Dean Martin. He showed he was daring and edgy by walking around with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. Pretty sad. (A friend and I would compete as to who could more closely lampoon him: “Oooh, ah think ah’ll go over an’ sit on da cowch…”).
Every once in a while, they’d throw us a bone. Ed Sullivan, the squarest guy who ever lived, would on rare occasion devote five minutes of his hour presenting something “for you youngsters.” But when he said that, we never knew whether he would be bringing out the Rolling Stones or Topo Gigio, the talking mouse. These morsels were presented within an adult context, as curiosities from an alien culture that adults could smile down upon indulgently.
Once, these brothers called Smothers tried to have a show that was sort of different. But the grownups put a stop to that.
So much for popular culture.
Take politics. It was so quiet and low-key that for the longest time, I didn’t even know it existed. Ike had always been president. (I was born in 1953.) Then this shocking thing happened in 1960. Two guys stood before the nation asking us (asking the grownups) to pick between them to determine which one would replace Ike as president. It came down to a popularity contest. That brought the presidency down a bit in my estimation. Before that, if I had been familiar with the phrase, I would have assumed Ike was “president by the grace of God.”
I guess it never occurred to me that there was an alternative to Ike being president because back then, even political opponents accepted that that the president was the president, and were content to wait for the next election to have their say.
And when they had their say, they were so grown-up about it. No mindless pandering to voters’ selfish impulses. Go back and read excerpts from the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Forget how they looked. Their words were so lofty, so respectful, so intellectual, so well-informed. They debated like… grownups. It was weird.
Time passed, and I went off to college, just as things were starting to change a bit. (It’s a little-acknowledged fact that for most of us, the ’60s really didn’t happen until the ’70s. Go back and look at high school yearbooks; you’ll see what I mean.) Then I got married, went to work, had kids, and suddenly it was the ’80s.
MTV. I couldn’t believe it. It was like the very best few seconds that you might have squeezed out of a year of boring television in the early ’60s — only 24 hours a day, every day of the year. But I didn’t have much time for it. Work, mouths to feed. One maturing experience after another.
And then the millennium passed, and I looked around again, and the kids had taken over. In the grocery line, I was surrounded by headlines that would have insulted a 12-year-old’s intelligence in 1962. I flipped through the channels now available on television, and there was nothing on that any grown man would want to see. OK, there was “House.” But he was overwhelmed by programs that put such an ironic twist on the word “reality” that I guess it just goes over my head. Or under it.
(I did see one recently that my very grownup wife likes, but only because she likes anything with dancing. All you could hear throughout the show was the kind of screaming that you heard in small bits when The Beatles came on. Only this adolescent keening wasn’t for anything special or exciting; they screamed for everybody. They screamed when people said hello. Here’s the really weird part: What was this show about? People doing the fox trot. It was like Lawrence Welk with semi-nudity.)
Once, we played war with toy guns, and if we were really daring, we played marbles “for keeps.” Now, kids join gangs to play war with real guns. For keeps.
How did those who think and act on a childish level get to be in charge? I never got my turn.
That’s why I celebrated last weekend’s aggressive crackdown on underage drinking in an editorial headlined, “The grownups strike back in Five Points.” For once, maturity was asserting itself as dominant over the random raging of the ungoverned id. It gave me hope. I dared to dream.
In my dream, a swarm of determined grownups swoop down on the Democrats and Republicans, toss them all aside, and put up a couple of thinking adults for us to choose between for president.
They compete to see who can say the wisest and most mature things. They tell us we have to stop burning all that oil, and that we have to pay taxes to help come up with an alternative. They tell us that we have to accept the fact that we are the strongest country in the world, and that with that power comes responsibility. They tell us there’s no free lunch — on Social Security, Medicare or anything else. If we build in a flood plain or on a sandy beach, they tell us we should have known better, and maybe this will teach us something. They’ll say the FDA should regulate nicotine. They tell us to stop whining, sit up straight and eat our vegetables.
I’d vote happily for one of them. And if the other won, I’d respect that. I’d be a man about it.
Dreaming of a world in which