James P. Freeman: A just appraisal of the '80s




“We’ve got no future, we’ve got no past

Here today, built to last…”

            The Pet Shop Boys--“West End Girls”


A wit once said we live in an era of “re’s.” Today we regift, repurpose and reboot. But it is the wise who revisit. As did over 100  on a sweltering afternoon last summer on the campus green of Providence College for the 25th reunion of the Class of 1988.


While it was a celebration of silver tokens and conversation among graying scalps, it also afforded the opportunity to rediscover the Excellent Eighties and reflect upon contemporary culture.

 The '80s still command little respect, as evident from the recent Radio Shack commercial mocking the era—its icons and gear—as obsolescent old-school relics. Indeed, Gen Xers (from 1965-1979, 80 million) are still overshadowed by Baby Boomers (1946-1964, 76 million) and their incessant self-indulgent generational ownership or a kind of “cultural hegemony.”  The recent 50-year commemorations of the Beatles conquering America and the JFK assassination were given weighty television documentaries. By contrast, the seeming superficiality of the '80s are relegated to kitschy nostalgia programming on music channels.

 But Daniel J. Boorstein, writing for Life Books in 1989, believed that the 80s saw “accelerating contrary movements home and abroad.” It was a decade of dichotomy that could live with cultural contradictions and synthesize the schizophrenia of silly and serious. The Brat Pack and Warsaw Pact. Tom Cruise and cruise missiles. Cher and Chernobyl.

 Totally tubular!

 As children, its members were born into the Space Age and Information Age of the '60s, the warp-speed mobility of man and data. By 1988, ET could phone home in analog and digital.

 The formative years, however, were the 1970s, where disco and discontentment settled in amidst the thick stagnation. No wonder, then, that from this period emerged a pope, prime minister and president who would set the tone for the upcoming decade and prove to be towering 20th Century figures.  

 For students, Ronald Reagan was the central figure of the decade. The class of ’88 cast its first votes for president in 1984; it would mark the last time young Americans voted Republican in large numbers (with Reagan getting slightly under 60 percent of the vote.). The president’s stark good-vs.-evil persona paralleled the hot whites, midnight blacks and sharp edges of the Eighties. Gone were the browns, burnt oranges and soft shapes of the prior decade. It was a projection of power. Super powers and power suits.

 It was Reagan who anticipated and advanced the shift of power from Washington to Wall Street. Gordon Gekko would become the most quotable financial icon only months after the then-largest point drop in the Dow Jones in 1987. By graduation, Yuppie finance figured conspicuously in literature with The Art of The Deal and Bonfire of the Vanities on non-fiction and fiction bestseller lists.


But as Wall Street was being erected in lower Manhattan a wall was about to be dismantled in the streets of Berlin. Reagan, often ridiculed as a warmonger, famously urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in June 1987 and lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, without so much a shot being fired. It would mark the end of a decade exquisitely, if not ironically, begun with shots on goal between the USA and USSR during the 1980 Winter Olympics.

 The largest conflict proved to be between Iran and Iraq, a war that presaged future regional conflicts. In April of 1987, Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Nizar Hamdoon visited a political-science class at the college and warned of the greater effects of the war. One of the 20th Century’s longest conventional wars ended in August of 1988—the year the stealth bomber was unveiled -- with over 1.5 million dead.

 For one class member, war would be at the center of a career. Michael P. Sullivan, former director of rule of law for the U.S. State Department, was awarded a personal achievement award by the national alumni association. He had  visited many of the world’s hot spots: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan.

 Awesome dude!

 The '80s, however, were more than money and magniloquence. As the century waned, it weighed the contrasting philosophical musings of Jean Paul Sartre’s amoralism with John Paul II’s absolute morality. As the century’s longest serving pope, no other world figure would better articulate with a severe clarity the dignity and sanctity of life. Coupled with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Reagan’s leadership, the advancement of freedom globally was also moving fast.

As the only American college administered by the Dominican Friars, theology played a pivotal role in everyday life as did sports, particularly basketball in the spring of 1987--the Final Four. As juniors, they would seek pardon for the men they admired most: Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan and Ernie DiGregorio as the father, son and holy ghost.   

 Much is made of 80’s pop culture and Madonna’s Material World. Much had to do with the new technology allowing greater access in the distribution of content, particularly with music and movies--where forwarding the experience, in order to rewind it, became a newfound joy. This would be the first generation to embrace the individualism of Sony Walkman’s and rental VHS tapes, along with the communalism of Live Aid and Midnight Madness theatre showings, with equal enthusiasm.

MTV, the CD and synthesizer rescued a dying music industry. In 1982 there were no commercially released compact discs; by 1989 over 150 million were sold. By the end of the decade with VCRs blinking “12:00,” over “sixty percent of America fast-forward[ed],” according to Life Magazine. Dialogue and lyrics, as a consequence, would become more memorable.

 In film, youthful indiscretion and accidental discovery played by effervescent capers and exultant crusaders defined the era. Unlike the '70s, characters wanted to live in the decade, not escape from it. Enter Ferris, Joel, Duckie and Rambo.

  It was a time of Michaels… as in Jackson and Jordan.

 But Michael J. Fox’s characters best personified the decade. A trilogy of films The Secret of My Success, Bright Lights, Big City, Casualties of War,  saw dreamy optimism perish to jaded reality. Sequenced in 1987, 1988 and 1989, together they encapsulate the era from ambition (as a corporate buccaneer) to anxiety (as a writer) to asymmetry (as a warrior).

 Then, in  1992, came the election  of the first Baby Boomer president. And the '90s gave the world Clinton and Casual Fridays. Aspiration melted into angst. The world seemed safer, if not simpler, in a bi-polar globe, East and West.

 The Class of ’88, in spite of it all, is remarkably composed. There were no existential crises, the kind embalmed by The Big Chill—there those Boomers go again... If anything, members reimagined a world before wardrobe malfunctions, Facebook creeping, derivatives and mobile apps. And 9/11.  

A just appraisal of this period reveals that with the fun and frivolity there was substance and solicitude. Rubik’s Cubes and rubric conservatism. As Boorstein concludes, the “remembered record” for the' 80s will “also reassure us of the random vitality of Americans and of the human race.”

 Wicked cool!


James P. Freeman is a former columnist with The Cape Cod Time.