Opinion writer September 19, 2011

Aside from his multiple infidelities, prodigious drinking and having the personality of a mud wall, what finally caused Betty Draper to separate from Don Draper, her husband and the protagonist of the wildly popular series “Mad Men,” was a clutch of Heineken beer. As Don Draper knew she would, Betty purchased the beer for their home: He had infuriatingly pigeonholed her as the typical upwardly mobile housewife of the early 1960s. The American Dream, it turns out, is about 5 percent alcohol.

The Heineken affront was the last straw, a bizarre crisis even for the “Mad Men” series. In a trenchant essay in the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn explains the show’s appeal by saying it “represents fantasies, or memories, of significant potency.” For me, the memory — now, alas, a fantasy — is the assumption that Americans would get richer and richer, and that, if you were an ad man or a client, it made sense to market products to the affluent. Heineken, imported and thus hardly prole in origin, oddly represents an America that used to be and we may never see again.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

I direct you to a recent Wall Street Journal article about Procter & Gamble. This iconic American company — Ivory, Tide, Bounty, Gillette — has introduced a dish soap at a bargain price. It’s called Gain and it represents P&G’s attempt to attract less-affluent customers, not out of the goodness of its corporate heart but because the middle class is shrinking. It has been said that God must love the poor because he made so many of them, but in this secular age he is getting some help. The sorry American economy is doing its share.

For P&G, Gain represents a departure. The company became a behemoth because it washed, deodorized, sanitized and shampooed the burgeoning American middle class. The Betty Drapers of the new suburbs — a labyrinth of ersatz drives, lanes, paths and mews — were becoming richer and richer, and they would pay more for a premium product. These products were the supermarket version of the space program, which began around the same time. We could go beyond the moon and, with the new detergents, beyond white itself. There were simply no limits.

Now there are. The dream of Americans, as opposed to the mythical American Dream, was not to succeed by working hard but to get lucky or be born rich. As a nation, we were both. We were rich in timber and oil, fertile land and rivers that ran the right way. We took in immigrants by the millions, each one a human piggy bank filled in the Old World, emptied in the new. We got smug about it. We were the exception. We could spend. We didn’t have to conserve. We had a chaotic education system, 14,000 or so school boards run by people who had to pander to the voters.

Now, it seems, it has all come a cropper. The mayor of New York, Michael R. Bloomberg (I), broods on his radio programabout the unemployed rioting in the streets. The governor of Ohio, John Kasich (R), told a group of journalists, “I’m worried about this country. For the first time in my life, I’m worried about this country.” A kind of depression has set in, not — or not yet — an economic one but one of the spirit. You hear it everywhere. We’ve lost our mojo, our groove.

Ah, you want me to say it will soon be morning again in America. Maybe not. We are crippled by a political system and culture that resists excellence and falls back on bromides. Our problems are national, and yet a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination says he wants Washington to shrink in importance. Ditto say his fellow candidates. One of them is a congenital liar, one is an uncomplicated isolationist, and the others propose nothing more than lowering taxes and unshackling the vaunted small-business owner who has become, somehow, the functional equivalent of the yeoman farmer of yore. And at the top of this heap is a president who hasn’t a clue as to how to be president.

“Mad Men” — yet another Emmy the other night — is not about the nostalgic past and such lost pleasures as smoking. It’s about the unattainable future. Betty Draper is old now. She shops at Costco, buys the cheap beer and passes up Ivory for — what’s this? — Gain. A Mad Man would put it this way: Her Gain is our loss.

cohenr@washpost.com

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