Mad As Hell
The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right
Published by Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 2011)
Mad As Hell is a portrait of perhaps the gloomiest years in modern American history, from the fall of Richard Nixon in 1974 to the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981. The title comes from Howard Beale, the fictional anchorman in 1976’s hit film Network, whose demented rant — “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” — struck a chord with a generation of Americans.
In some ways this book is the sequel to my biography of Eugene McCarthy, whose career reached a peak in the turbulent presidential election of 1968. Mad As Hell is set a decade later, amid the fallout from Watergate, the humiliation of the fall of Saigon and the apparently endless catastrophes of the Carter presidency. I started researching it about seven years ago, wrote a first draft that was more than half a million words long, and then cut it down to its current svelte dimensions.
The book gives a panoramic portrait of mid-1970s America, from the music of Bruce Springsteen to the triumphs of the Dallas Cowboys, but woven through it is a theme that jumped out at me the more I read — the rise of a new kind of right-wing populism, setting the people against the establishment.
Of course this is a time-honoured theme in American history, going right back to Jefferson, Jackson and the Populists themselves, but it gathered enormous momentum in the late Seventies and has arguably defined American politics ever since. Jimmy Carter tapped the anti-establishment mood brilliantly in 1976, but the real master of the new populism was Ronald Reagan. And although my narrative stops dead in January 1981, many readers may spot parallels with today’s Tea Party movement — even though I wrote most of the book before Barack Obama had even been elected.
“Inspired by the famous scene in Network in which TV watchers howl their inchoate rage, Sandbrook offers a shrewd, sparkling politico-cultural history of post-Watergate America. Sandbrook locates the decade’s heart in the popular distrust and subsequent resentment of all institutions–governments, corporations, and unions. The individualism that results, Sandbrook argues, resonates with the roots of evangelicalism and develops into the beginnings of right-wing Christian populism … [He] offers insightful interpretations of 1970s watersheds, from Jimmy Carter’s canny “outsider” presidential campaign to property-tax revolts and battles over school busing and the ERA. Sandbrook sets his chronicle against a panorama of gasoline lines, stagflation, and epochal changes in race relations, women’s roles, and sexual mores, woven together with cultural touchstones from Bruce Springsteen to Charlie’s Angels … His subtle, well-written narrative of wrathful little guys confronting a faltering establishment illuminates a crucial aspect of a time much like our own.” Publishers Weekly
“Mad as Hell is frisky and intelligent; it’s among the most readable histories of the 1970s I’ve come across … What kept me reading Mad as Hell are Mr. Sandbrook’s deft, dryly funny observations … He brings a certain fresh perspective [and] a shrewd eye for detail.” Dwight Garner, New York Times
“Impressive and evenhanded … Sandbrook is a muscular writer with an eye for the telling detail … This is the best history I’ve yet read of the 70s.” Brian C. Anderson, Commentary
“Mad as Hell is a sweeping and compelling look at the rise of the populist right, offering serious reflection as to how we got to this point in history … Sandbrook is brilliant in how he ties these events together and offers candid portrayals of presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan … He illuminates pieces of our history, affording us a deeper understanding of their resonance in our own time.” Dennis Moore, San Diego Union-Tribune
“Throughout this incredible book there are insights, observations, and the intricate crafting of words and phrases that leave the reader breathless … Characters, including Henry Kissinger, Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell, and Spiro Agnew, float through its pages likes escapees from some mad gypsy circus. Somehow, Sandbrook has captured all of the history missteps and bumps in the road that made the 1970s one of the most intriguing decades ever. This is historical reporting by a gifted writer at the top of his game.” Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen
“Dominic Sandbrook starts out with a challenging task: He must make us care about a scorned and lampooned decade whose tragicomic history still echoes like the last notes of the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway”. To the surprise of at least one reader, he more than meets that challenge … Mad as Hell is an entertaining yet substantial book about a wince-inducing era. When it comes to the Seventies, Sandbrook knows the way we were, even if we wish we hadn’t been.” Chris Tucker, Dallas Morning News
“British historian Dominic Sandbrook brings the 1970s back to vivid life in Mad as Hell, his entertaining, opinionated take on the politics, economics, and cultural signifiers of a decade he views as the incubator of today’s right wing … Sandbrook casts a fresh and skeptical outsider’s eye on a grey decade of rampant inflation, heated political rhetoric, the slow death of the union movement, and tax revolts climaxing in Proposition 13 … Packed with anecdote and insight … his book is a terrific read.” Carlo Wolff, Christian Science Monitor
“Brisk and plenteous … a rich stew of popular culture (All in the Family, Bruce Springsteen, The Deer Hunter), politics (court-ordered desegregation in Boston, Proposition 13 in California, two presidential races), and social history (the rise of the Sunbelt, various self-actualization movements, the simultaneous growth of religious evangelicalism and sexual permissiveness). An Englishman, Sandbrook brings a fresh perspective to this material [and a] knack for blending social, cultural, and political history.” Mark Feeney, Boston Globe
“First-rate … He is able to view history panoramically, almost as a living, breathing organism, by collecting and effectively using vast numbers of on-the-ground anecdotes. In Mad as Hell, he weaves in everything from school busing and the riots it triggered to the rise of gay culture and disco music … When it comes time for a future Edward Gibbon to explore the decline and fall of the American Republic, it is quite possible that he or she will zero in on the cultural trends and economic upheavals of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. If that is the case, Mad as Hell will be there as a guiding light.” Sasha Abramsky, Columbia Journalism Review
“The story of the ’70s has been told many times in many books, but bears repeating now that its influence on the country’s politics and morale has become somewhat clearer. Mad As Hell is a useful contribution to this literature … Sandbrook knows the territory well and analyzes it with understanding and sympathy.” Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post
“‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,’ screamed antihero Howard Beale in the 1976 blockbuster motion picture Network. British historian Sandbrook … uses this iconic jeremiad to aptly portray the decade that featured a populist resurgence against big government … A compelling narrative, reminiscent of William Manchester and Theodore White, that will engross general readers and scholars.” Library Journal
“Sandbrook surveys a multitude of ’70s phenomena, including redneck chic, the booming of the Sunbelt, the revival of country music, the surprising nostalgia for the ’50s, Bobby Riggs v. Billy Jean King, Norman Mailer v. Germaine Greer, New York as Fear City and California Dreaming becoming the Golden State Nightmare. The author’s frequent allusions to the era’s films, TV shows, books and music lend color and context to an already penetrating and evenhanded political analysis.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Dominic Sandbrook’s swashbuckling, capacious account of 1970s populism – aptly titled Mad as Hell – captures the inchoate fury that seemed to permeate the nation … The book offers striking vignettes from the rise of a populist insurgency.” Kim Phillips-Fein, Bookforum
“Starting with Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, all the touchstones of the period are detailed: America’s humiliating defeat in Vietnam, an uptick in serious crime, economic malaise, rising fuel costs, environmental degradation, the Iranian hostage crisis, and an overall breakdown in respect for institutions, among others … Sandbrook lays out just how this discontent found its expression in the emergence of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Right by decade’s end … readers will be rewarded for their effort” Booklist
“Intensely readable … chock-full of insights about the moments those of us who survived the 70s remember all too clearly” Sacramento News & Review