Opening at the Kennedy Center this week is a heralded musical. The words and music are supposed to be especially memorable, and the authors are a talented team of brothers named George and Ira Gershwin.
The most noteworthy event in the world last week, as measured by the cover of one of our two major national news magazines, was a flight by three Americans. They made it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. After landing in a barley field, they were mobbed by a waiting group of French citizens. Champagne corks popped and the heroes were taken to Paris for more celebration. The president of the United States immediately invited them to the White House, as their exploits were trumpeted around the world. They had failed to land at their destination. Le Bourget airport north of Paris, but no one minded, for no one had ever crossed the Atlantic that way before.
In sports, the focus has been on a marathon swimming attempt by an American woman. Shet set out from Havana. Destination: Key West. After battling the open seas for 41 hours, and swimming some 70 miles, she had to abandon her noble effort. And while she was attracting wide attention another woman also took to the seas. She almost made it all the way from Bimini to Fort Lauderdale.
The president's on vation. He's out west, where he'll be riding the rapids on a raft and climbing around in the Idaho wilderness. Just roughing it.
Closer to home, there are reports a sea monster has been sighted. The finding came near where the Potomac River empties into Chesapeake Bay. At least 15 people have reported seeing the monster, a 25-footer that undulates as it moves through the water. There's some suspicion it might be a sea serpent, since one woman says she has seen four or five huge serpents navigating the waters out there. They have small heads about the size of two fists, and necks that rise three feet above the waves. They're calling the monster Nessie Jr.
Now if all this makes you think we've stepped back half a century to the days when a Gershwin show as the toast of the town, Lindbergh was flying the Atlantic, Gertrude Ederle swimming the English Channel, Silent Cal Coolidge following Teddy Roosevelt's example and being photographed wearing Indian war-bonnets and cowboy hats while vacationing in the western wilds, and hoaxes sprouting regularly in the media - well, welcome to summer in the late '70s.
This has been the most "normal" summer in years. Last summer was the first in more than a decade when no great trauma such as Nixon-impeachment-Watergate-Vietnam-urban riots gripped the nation - but then came the Bert Lance affair to seize, slowly at first, the country's attention. So far, this summer has been nothing that resembles a national convulsion.
Not that problems don't abound.
The dollar has plummeted to all-time lows, forcing Americans to stay at home and threatening to alter further our standard of living.
Inflation rises, unemployment remains all too high, the chasm between rich and poor grows wider, the political climate continues to be marked by sullenness and selfishness, international tensions mount, terrorism strikes so often, and with such increasingly savage fashion - the murderous attack of the Israeli stewardesses in London come even as hundreds of men, women, and children are burned to death while innocently watching a motion picture in Iran - that no place, it seems, is safe for anyone anywhere.
Small wonder we withdraw and revel in the flight of the balloonists, vicariously share in the lonely struggle against the sea, become nostalgic over the sentimantal froth of a 1926 Gershwin revival, applaud the president for getting far, far from Washington on his vacation, seek to avoid consideration of any serious issue.
A desire for escape is perhaps the most important ingredient in today's political mood. We are, all of us, reacting against the problems of the present - and reacting still, against the special kinds of problems that tore at the country in the recent past.
The Tolstoy of our times, I'm convinced will have to focus on the events of one cataclysmic year in the American experience. As Meg Greenfield has said, 1968 was the anniversary of almost everything, and we continue to commemorate the doleful milestones of that year as the calendar unfolds - the foreshadowing of the national political rebellion in the New Hampshire primary signaling the end of Lyndon Johnson, the bloodshed of the Tet offensive and the rising of dissent against the war in Vietnam; the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the burning of the cities; the approach of the convulsive age of Nixon with the rancorous fall election campaign.
This week marks another of those anniversaries of a decade, in some ways the political culmination of all those events of '68. It was just 10 years ago that the Democrats convened in Chicago, dispirited, divided, and destined to lose.
To anyone who was in Chicago that stifling week in August, the memory remains indelible. Chicago was lacerating, repelling, absorbing, frightening, brutal and bloody. Yet with all its unhappy aspects and personal problems - the tear gas in the hotel lobby late at night, the aroma of stink bombs in the corridors, the breakdown in public services, the witnessing of vicious beatings outside the convention hall while inside an ignorant officiousness and self-destructiveness passed before the nation's eves - history was being made that week in Chicago.
Chicago represented much more for American politics than the loss of the presidency by the Democrats that year. What emerged from Chicago was not so much division over the war or doubts over which candidate to follow, but central questions about the political system itself. In Chicago, the Democrats were grappling with basic reforms. A revolution was in process; it has affected all our politics since.
Delegates were overriding party rules and stifling practices that had kept the system safe for politicians who hang out from the courthouse to the state capitols. They were demanding a free voice in the selection of delegates - and therefore, in time of presidents; a liberalization of the rules and procedures; a new unfettering of debate.
They were scraping the barnacles off the democratic process, and they changed the way our politics function from the White House to Congress and beyond.
Revolution inevitably brings reaction, and great events and high stress demand periods of repose.
I've just seen the president, courtesy of TV, out west. He was smiling, at ease, and saying: "I've issued a directive that there be no crises while I'm on vacation."
Right on. Jimmy. We're all with you. And I'm posting my own notice on the office door. "Johnson's Gone Jogging," it reads. Just like everyone else.