On the bright morning of August 9, 1974, I stood with my parents and older brother on hot metal bleachers at El Toro Marine base, in Orange County, California. We looked up and squinted to watch Air Force One appear as a tiny speck on the horizon, grow into a full-size 707, and land on the runway in front of us.
Technically, it was no longer Air Force One. Its chief passenger, Richard M. Nixon, had officially ceased being president at noon Eastern Time, just as the plane was flying over my home state of Missouri. The pilot apparently had to change its air traffic control identifier to SAM 27000. But the crowd surrounding us, mainly bouffant-haired ladies holding bouquets of flowers and manically waving flags, did not seem to have absorbed that reality just yet. When the plane taxied toward us and the mobile staircase was wheeled to the side door, the anticipation was palpable.
The night before, after a happily exhausting family outing to Disneyland, my sunburned, sideburned father had sat on the edge of a motel bed, watching Nixon cry on TV. I had leaned up from the corner of the room and asked, “Daddy, what does ‘resign’ mean?” After learning that the soon-to-be-former president would be landing right near where we were staying, my parents, who were hardly Nixon supporters, decided that we needed to scrap our planned return to Disneyland and go watch Nixon land instead. They rightly guessed that this would be a historic moment for us to witness.
Sometime before that sad old man from TV walked down the airplane stairs with his family, the nice ladies around us gave me an American flag to wave. It was gigantic—about five times the size of those popsicle-size flags you’d get free at a Fourth of July parade. I held on to this prize tightly, and gleefully sang “he’s going to San Clemen-teee” as we watched Nixon and his family get into a helicopter.
When we returned from our trip to California, a large stuffed animal in my bedroom silently assented to hold the wooden stick of my flag in its plush paws. This “Nixon flag” would remain in my room until after I left for college. Eventually it would become a family joke. “Nixon flag” encapsulated in two words the cynicism and irony with which my brother and I began to view the world in the post-Nixon era, and especially the way we viewed national political leaders: clumsy, bumbling Ford; “Jimm-ay” Carter, the grinning peanut farmer; and then Reagan, the Hollywood-scripted everyman with the Brylcreem pompadour. Mrs. Reagan’s “Just Say No” to drugs campaign coincided with the most rebellious period of my adolescence. As teenagers, we related to official politics through satirical cartoons like Bloom County and Zippy the Pinhead. As adults, we now get our news from the wisecracking mouths of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher.
For me and for many in my generation, this ironic cynicism is the legacy of Watergate. We were too young to understand the full meaning of President Nixon’s resignation when it happened, but the accompanying loss of public faith in politicians and in other authority figures, from scientists to religious leaders, became a dominant theme of our childhood and adolescent years. Older generations of Americans also suffered this loss. But it did not shape their early experiences the way it did for Generation X—the group born roughly between 1965 and 1975. Our parents and the baby boomers grew up believing they could change the world by making the system better or by replacing it with a new one, whereas many of us grew up believing that the system was irretrievably broken, people in power were too corrupt to fix it, and there was little we could do about it. Many of us still believe this.
Vietnam, the divorce revolution, de-industrialization, and the rise of neoliberalism also contributed to this generational disillusionment. And despite this cloud of negative events, many in my generation have displayed remarkable resilience and optimism, making substantial contributions to politics, to social activism, and to social and political connectedness (especially via the Internet). The prosperity of the 1990s and mid-2000s also helped blunt the generation’s youthful pessimism.
But cynical nihilism about politics and social change remains a daily mental temptation for me. As a professor who teaches students about government institutions—the child-welfare system, the social-welfare state, public health, and the health-care system in particular—I have to guard against passing my negative attitudes on to my students. My undergraduates and my younger graduate students were born into the culture of disillusioned sarcasm that Generation X helped to popularize. And yet, to my great surprise, in seven years of university teaching I have discovered that many younger people, saddled with more debt and more challenging economic prospects than we faced two decades ago, still possess an innocent belief in their ability to make a difference in the world. This discovery has infused in me a hope for the future that I lacked earlier.
So as I strive to fight the demons of my own negativity, I seek to nurture these ameliorative impulses in my students. I encourage them to channel their beliefs into practical action and research—whether it’s organizing a drive to collect diapers for local low-income parents, volunteering in low-resource schools, or trying to solve a big global health problem, like disparities in infant mortality. And they continue to amaze me with their persistence and success.
A couple of years ago, I framed my Nixon flag and hung it in my office. While I suspect that many of my office visitors see this flag as just another banal symbol of post-9/11 armchair patriotism, it means something entirely different to me. It reminds me not just of the country’s political nadir and the era of cynicism that followed, but of the fact that, even amidst the debacles of Vietnam, Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation, there were innocent children, like me on the morning of August 9, 1974, who still saw the world as a place of exciting possibilities. It reminds me that this innocence offers us an opportunity, with every generation, to repair and renew the world all over again. And it reminds me that it is my job, as a professor, to help the next generation do that.
Author Bio: Marian Moser Jones is an assistant professor in the family science department of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.