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Times are tough as usual

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by David M. Shribman

Militants have formally declared a new Islamic state consisting of parts of Syria and Iraq. Russia, loaded with nuclear weapons and resentment, is looking menacingly at Ukraine. China is rich and restive. Israel is in upheaval over the deaths of three teens. There is no reason to believe Iran is refraining from pressing forward with nuclear-weapons research. North Korea is unpredictable and unreliable. Things are pretty bad.

Now let’s backpedal exactly 100 years. The archduke has been assassinated, Austria-Hungary is looking to Germany for support, a blank check is on offer, and before long Russia and France will have mobilized. Things are really bad.

How about only a half century? Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon B. Johnson had just signed the landmark civil rights bill, but before long there would be riots in Harlem, three civil rights workers would be found dead in Mississippi, the Democrats would confront a rebellion at their national convention, and in a month’s time two U.S. destroyers would be attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, or so the story would be told, precipitating increased American involvement in Vietnam. Things are bad and getting worse.

Before the year 1964 would be out, Americans would hear two competing views of their future, one from Lyndon Johnson, en route to a 44-state landslide in the November election, and the other from Ronald Reagan, an underemployed actor-turned-activist who would give a celebrated pre-election television speech for Barry Goldwater, who would win less than 39 percent of the vote.

“From Johnson in the East, (Americans) heard prophecies of a coming era that looked like God’s kingdom on Earth, arriving shortly,” Jonathan Darman writes in “Landslide,” a forthcoming retrospective on the year 1964. “From Reagan in the West, they’d heard of the potential for calamity and the extinguishing of freedom, coming soon. Both visions could not stand. Here was the beginning of a great drama.”

How do we measure the peril our nation has faced: in 1776, when it was young and idealistic; in 1812, when it was vulnerable; in 1861, when it was torn asunder; in 1917, when it waded into European affairs for the first time; in 1941, when war came to Pearl Harbor; in 1950 and 1961, when threats rumbled through Southeast Asia; in 1979, when American diplomats were held hostage by the Iranian Revolution; in 2001, when foreign terrorism crashed into our domestic life; and in 1827, 1857, 1877, 1893, 1907, 1920, 1929, 1937, 1973, 1981 and 2008 (and many more years), when economic distress endangered Americans’ well-being.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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