Correction to This Article
A Feb. 22 Style TV preview of "Washington in the '70s" incorrectly reported that radio station WKYS first aired DJ Melvin Lindsey's nighttime show. It was WHUR.

Hank Stuever on WETA's 'Washington in the '70s'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

Through a combination of dingy film stock and the everyday gaucherie of the decade's pantsuits and office lobbies, nothing looks quite so drab in old photographs and newsreel footage as the 1970s do, yet the decade remains eternally alluring in flashback form.

It was the worst and best of times, but to look at it, it feels mostly like the beige-est and stagflationiest of times. And it's hard to think of an American city that lived that decade more blandly and emblematically than Washington.

The visuals can't quite be relied upon to convey the vim and style of Me Decade living, seen Monday night at 9 in WETA's "Washington in the '70s," a much-improved companion piece to the muddled "Washington in the '60s" program that aired last fall. Rather, it's the events themselves that reveal the vitality and a sense of the local that is difficult for us to imagine now, in the vastly more homogenized and more partisan condoscape of Washington 2010.

Now pushing 40, the D.C. seen here was electrified by comparing Watergate analyses after hours at Nathan's and the Moon Palace, dancing to Chuck Brown's "Bustin' Loose" at a Marion Barry campaign rally, watching the "The Exorcist" get filmed in Georgetown, and arguing -- via bumper sticker -- over whether Sonny Jurgensen or Billy Kilmer should be the Redskins' starting quarterback. It was DJ Cerphe Colwell playing whatever he wanted on WHFS, or Melvin Lindsey's deep voice turning you on every night on WHUR.

It's weird what time does to the decade's inhabitants. G. Gordon Liddy is interviewed, unburdened as ever by remorse, fondly remembering the moment he knew he'd go to jail. Pat Buchanan giddily recalls how he nearly mowed down hippie protesters blocking traffic on E Street during the 1971 May Day attempts at government shutdown. Interviewees talk fondly of the excitement of Chilean diplomat car bombs or hostage situations at the B'nai B'rith building. Barry himself gives the ain't-no-thang shrug of hindsight to the bullet that caught him in the chest during a terrorist siege on City Hall.

This was a Washington that moved along with a disco strut from one alarming occurrence to the next, instead of walling itself in according to color-coded threat levels. It was also a Washington that uncharacteristically united itself across racial and economic divides to oppose turning U Street and other urban corridors into freeways.

So much opened: the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap (1971), the Air and Space Museum ('76), the National Gallery's East Building ('78). I could watch an entire hour about the "cut and cover" digs that carved out the gloriously new Metro system through downtown. The first sliver of the Red Line opened just months ahead of the Bicentennial crowds who crammed it.

Speaking of crammed, everything I just mentioned -- and more, and then some more -- is contained in a single hour. We at The Post are no strangers to genuflecting before the glory and honor of the '70s, but I would suggest a sacrilege here: Since there's already been so much done on Watergate and Woodstein and a recent film about Marion Barry, could I have less of all that, and a little more go-go, a little more Metro and a lot more WHFS?

"Washington in the '70s" suffers from some of the same indigestion of the '60s documentary; I quibble with its Wikipedia-style intent to include it all. By trying to cover everything on the timeline, it doesn't cover enough of anything, or tell a full story. Just when viewers have had their interest piqued by a forgotten news clip, it's forgotten again, and narrator Bernard Shaw is on to the next stop.

Despite its frantic pace, this is a fascinating hour for newcomers and old-schoolers who care about the city. And if we're lucky, someone will find our present-day D.C. just as interesting, and treat us just as respectfully. Our clothes and hairdos? Nothing can be done. They'll look just as bad.

Washington in the '70s

(one hour) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on WETA.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company