America is in a funk, Seventies-style

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 29/12/06):

America completes a gloomy year this weekend, mourning the loss of two rather different national icons who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. The former Godfather of Soul, James Brown, was eulogised in Harlem yesterday even as the obsequies for the former President, Gerald Ford, began in California.

On the surface there are not many obvious connections between the lives of the two men. You can hardly imagine the quietly decent Ford making much headway with something called Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and not, presumably even in his most intimate moments, would the 38th President have answered to the description, Like a Sex Machine.

But only a few degrees separate even the most improbably far-flung lives and these two were no exception. They shared a verbal style that consisted almost entirely of guttural, barely comprehensible utterances. They were both leaders and mentors in their profession who identified and encouraged talented followers — though we will have to await history’s judgment on whether Brown’s role in inspiring Booker T and the MGs and Michael Jackson will count for more than Ford’s in bequeathing us Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

True afficionados of the era will know that Brown had a minor hit with a song about a (Brand New) Funky President (People It’s Bad) that hit the charts just as Ford was taking office in the chaotic and demoralising circumstances of 1974. It is this last factor that makes their deaths this week particularly poignant at the end of an annus horribilis for America.

All week television pictures have recaptured those grim days of the 1970s when Brown squeezed into tight-fitting one-piece disco outfits and Ford donned a governing slogan of WIN! — Whip Inflation Now. You cannot help but notice that America’s funk today is about as powerful as it was when oil prices were surging, unemployment was soaring, Watergate and Vietnam were open wounds and the Soviet Union seemed unstoppably in the ascendant.

2006 was probably as bad a year for America as any since those dismal days. From high drama to low farce the country seemed on a fatally wrong track all year. It began with Dick Cheney shooting a man and ended with Donald Rumsfeld being forced from office as Defence Secretary. Wistful observers wondered whether it would have been better if the two events had been more directly connected.

Despite Mr Rumsfeld’s cheery insistence to the contrary, the Iraq sore continued to bleed more profusely than ever — last month America’s engagement there surpassed in length its involvement in the Second World War, with no obvious end in sight. The war in Afghanistan continued its alarming descent from stunning victory five years ago to cascading defeat. In Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad celebrated Iran’s rising power by graciously offering to talk to Mr Bush. In a lengthy letter he sought to engage the US President in a dialogue about the Jews, God and nuclear technology. Mr Bush wisely declined, but could not dispel the impression that it was the Iranian not the US President who was calling most of the shots in the Middle East.

At home there was no Katrina this year; indeed the North Atlantic defied the global warming doomsayers by having one of its quietest years in decades. Instead, the severest storms that hit the American mainland were home-grown and political. In a momentous election, the Republicans lost control of Congress for the first time in 12 years, having already lost sequentially their principles, their ethics and, in one or two more notable cases, their marbles. For the first time in years the Democrats look plausible and threatening.

Mr Bush lost influential friends, not only in Washington but around the world. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy succumbed to voters, Ariel Sharon in Israel succumbed to a stroke, Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian Authority succumbed to the populist appeal of anti-Israeli terrorism. Tony Blair’s long imminent departure finally became (almost) determinate.

Culturally, it was an odd and depressing year too. In a sign of the country’s discombobulation, the Oscars honoured films about gay sheepherders in Wyoming, violent criminals in Los Angeles and an utterly incomprehensible Middle East conspiracy theory.

There was misery for America in the most unlikely places too. If you think England’s sporting prowess has turned to ashes this winter, spare a thought for the US. The English may have got used to being beaten at their national game but this year the US even contrived to lose the first baseball world cup, an event of such imposing absurdity, it would be like Scotland losing to Sri Lanka at caber-tossing. No sooner was Lance Armstrong cleared of drug taking in his clutch of Tour de France victories than another American was promptly stripped of his win this year on the very same charge.

There were some bright moments. Although the dollar wilted, the US economy continued to grow, defying fears of a housing market crash. And despite the headlines about seasonal bonuses, you didn’t have to work for Goldman Sachs to benefit. New figures showed incomes rising — that alone, perhaps, a pleasant departure from the 1970s.

And if the lives of Ford and Brown tell us anything it is that in America redemption is always possible. The former president might once have been derided as an empty interlude between bad presidents. But history has been kinder than that, crediting him with healing the nation after Watergate. For Mr Brown, rehabilitation took a more literal form, through detox clinics and occasional jail terms. But he too got there in the end — even earning a presidential panegyric this week, though not, it should be said, an especially funky one.