The Spirit of '73

An absurd nostalgia sweeps the globe.


When George W. Bush selected mummified diplomat Henry Kissinger to head his investigation into pre-9/11 intelligence failures, he outraged everyone. The left blames Kissinger for extending the Vietnam War and instituting lethal realpolitik; the right blames him for losing the war and turning Nixon red. But there's a deeper message in seeing a bureaucrat three decades past his sell-by date get a new job—even one he resigned from almost immediately. All over the world, the keys of government are held by people for whom the world clock stopped sometime around 1973.

This collective nostalgia is widely dispersed. India thrives under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee, a Hindu Mussolini whose militantly anti-Muslim vision seems more suited to the 1971 Indo-Pak war than to the era of high-tech Bangalore. Across the Kashmiri divide, Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, boasts a more venerable legitimacy, having seized power in a military coup identical to the ones that installed Gens. Muhammad Ayub Khan in the '50s and Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in the '70s.

A continent away, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe plays such Super Sounds of the '70s as rigged elections, land seizures, and wholesale nationalization. A more restrained New World version of this rusty iron-man model can be seen in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez took a case of economic malaise and socialized it into full-blown economic metastasis. The jury's still out on Brazil's new leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but if he holds to the moth-eaten socialist nostrums that built his cult of personality, Brazilians can look forward to the kind of financial security not seen since Pelé signed up with the New York Cosmos. It's surprising that Kissinger didn't figure out a way during his brief tenure to assassinate all three leaders—though the Bush administration's tacit backing of an anti-Chavez coup attempt was an honest start.

The Middle East is a regular Brady Bunch reunion of '70s characters and policies. Syria and Jordan are both controlled by the idiot sons of Nixon-era dictators. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's application of Yom Kippur War tactics to the age of suicide bombers has helped send record numbers of both Israelis and Palestinians to heaven. By all appearances, Yasir Arafat hasn't changed his clothes in 30 years. Egypt, Libya, and Iraq are all run along socialist/nationalist models that last seemed viable when Skylab was flyin' high.

Across Western Europe, calcified labor unions and welfare systems form obstacles Evel Knievel himself would have had trouble clearing. Gerhard Schroeder leads Germany with a stagflationary combination of socialist economics and old-school America baiting. Jacques Chirac, perhaps the West's most lucid leader, gets nowhere against France's all-powerful bureaucracies. Tony Blair's New Labour Party has bogged down, with the United Kingdom engaging in vintage arguments about whether its health and security bureaucracies are prepared to fight terrorism. The only difference between now and the '70s is that Al Qaeda is providing the terror while the IRA catches its breath.

In such sterling company, President Bush is far from the most objectionable case, but he is certainly the saddest. With a crabbed combination of compulsive secrecy, protective tariffs, erosion of privacy, an expanded federal role in education, and the creation of a new cabinet-level agency, the Bush administration recalls the grimly alienating and ideology-free Nixon administration more than it does the sunny, confident Reagan legacy to which it lays claim.

None of this would matter if it were as easy to ignore government as it was a few years ago. While the free market was busy developing cellular telephony, the consumer Internet, a high-employment global economy, and 24-hour mattress delivery, it was possible to forget for a while that leaders of nations were still working on the political equivalent of the swine flu vaccine. But the ability to keep the government out of your life and plans is yet another casualty of 9/11. Is it a relief or a pity that Spiro Agnew isn't around to replace Dick Cheney on Bush's '04 ticket?