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New book explores cultural forces at play in the 1970's, and how they influenced America


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Los Angeles in the early 1970s, a new book argues it was a moment when TV, movies, and music all shifted into a new gear, changing the cultural landscape.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our Canvas series.

Jeffrey Brown: In the early 1970s, smog blanketed the Los Angeles sky, but the city below, Ron Brownstein says, was in a creative churn that would reshape American society.

Ron Brownstein: On one level, it was just an incredible constellation of talent.

But at a deeper level, I think the pop culture that was created mostly in L.A. in the early 1970s was the bridge between ideas that had seemed insurrectionary during the 1960s and the mass American audience, ideas like greater suspicion of authority in business and government, more autonomy for women, changing relations between men and women, changing attitudes about families and sex, and more inclusion of marginalized groups.

Jeffrey Brown: Brownstein is a veteran political reporter and analyst at CNN and "The Atlantic."

In his new book, "Rock Me on the Water," his focus turns to a particular time and place and how cultural change interacts with politics.

Ron Brownstein: During the 1960s, the networks defiantly, almost, ignored everything that was happening around them. I say in the book that Walter Cronkite would spend half-an-hour every night documenting all of the fissures opening in American society, and then CBS and the other two networks would spend the next three-and-a-half-hours trying to erase that from viewers' minds.

I mean, we were getting "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres." "Gunsmoke" was still on the air. The closest we got to Vietnam was Gomer Pyle and "McHale's Navy."

But, really, beginning around 1970, and directly in response to losing younger audiences, CBS in particular reached the conclusion that it had to tear down the wall between the medium and the moment.

Jeffrey Brown: By 1974, the CBS Saturday night lineup included "All in the Family," with its generational clash around bigoted patriarch, Archie Bunker, the unheroic vision of war in "MASH," and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," centered on a 30-something single professional woman.

The same forces, Brownstein writes, were changing the world of film, with movies like "Chinatown" and "Nashville" that focused on the underbelly of American life, its cynicism, corruption, and violence.

Along the way, he offers compelling individual stories, like that of Linda Ronstadt.

Ron Brownstein: I think people underestimate how much Linda Ronstadt was spinning her wheels, how difficult it was for her in the late '60s and early '70s. She had a vision in her head of bring together rock and folk and country and even R&B in a new way, in a way that really didn't have an antecedent on the radio.

And all the way through, as she was trying to coalesce and collect and capture the sound, she had to convince men, white men at every step of the way. And there was an awful lot of, don't you worry your pretty little head about it.

Jeffrey Brown: It does need to be said that the period you're talking about is really -- this is a white world.

Ron Brownstein: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: You think about popular culture in America today, is far more diverse.

Ron Brownstein: There is no doubt, I think, that this early '70s period is when the door cracks open, and you begin to see first the presentation in the medium itself.

And so you get "Good Times," and you get "The Jeffersons," and you get assorted other shows that are putting African Americans front and center for the first time. But even as that door cracked open, and you were seeing more representation of those stories in front of the screen, the people who controlled those stories were still predominantly men, and white men, at that.

Jeffrey Brown: Underlying it all, the growing buying power of the baby boom generation, raising the question, were the economics more powerful than the ideals?

Ron Brownstein: It's an interesting question, right?

I mean, the broad social revolution that the left side of the baby boom, the people who fueled all those social movements of the '60s, wanted or anticipated, never happened.

But, you know, popular culture is kind of like a leak in your roof. It kind of seeps into the house. And even though there was a sense that some of these ideals were tamed, and there may be something to that, there's no question that the country, the way we lived our lives was different after these ideas kind of were cemented in popular culture.

Richard Nixon: Let us take whatever steps are necessary.

Jeffrey Brown: A key point throughout, the link to politics. As Brownstein points out, Richard Nixon won two elections amid the social upheaval of the late '60s and early '70s.

Donald Trump: One of their political weapons is cancel culture.

Jeffrey Brown: And this interplay continues in our own divided time. In some ways, he believes, generational cultural change toward inclusiveness is more telling about the country's future than any one election result.

Ron Brownstein: But any given moment, there may be an electoral majority, or at least a winning plurality, that can be mobilized to say, all right, we're going to stop all this.

What you can't do is actually stop it. I think this is the big lesson of the 1970s, is that when a new generation comes along with a different set of values, it is almost impossible to stop that cultural change. And I think the same is true today.

If you look at kind of the vision of inclusion, not only the acceptance, but the celebration of difference that animates so much of the popular culture aimed at young people today, I think that tells you more about what American society is going to look like in 10 years than analyzing the election returns in 2020.

Doesn't mean the left is always going to win elections, by any means. But it does mean, I think, that there will be a more inclusive and tolerant vision of kind of who belongs in American society in a decade than there is today.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the book is "Rock Me on the Water."

Ron Brownstein, thank you very much.

Ron Brownstein: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: Thank you, Jeff, and such a terrific journalist, Ron Brownstein.

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