Think Modern-Day Politics Are a Revival of the Nixon Era? Check It Out
Newly released 1970s Congressional Records document familiar themes
The president feuds with the media. Congress investigates secret intelligence operations. And tensions simmer between the United States and Iran.
Welcome to the 1970s.
Storylines from the era of the bell-bottom — many of which seem eerily resonant today — are now easier to research thanks to the recent digital release of the decade’s Congressional Records from the Library of Congress and the U.S. Government Publishing Office.
“This is a really big deal,” said Laurie Hall, acting superintendent of documents at the GPO. “It’s a trusted, authentic source, and I think that’s really important in this day and age.”
The collection, at govinfo.gov, includes every congressional floor speech, presidential missive or legislative tweak in its original form.
It covers the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, a timespan that includes Watergate, the end of the Vietnam war, the Iran hostage crisis and the oil crisis of the 1970s, among other historical events.
Such material was previously available only in massive, buckram-bound volumes stored at research libraries, or through commercial providers online. Its digital release marks the first time it is publicly available — for free — to anyone with a smartphone or home computer.
The release comes amid renewed interest in some of the political motifs of the 1970s, brought about by comparisons between President Donald Trump and Richard Nixon.
Both presidents voiced profound distrust of the media. The congressional and American intelligence agency investigations of connections between Trump’s inner circle and the Kremlin have been likened to the Watergate-era Church Committee, a Senate panel that revealed wide-ranging abuses by American intelligence agencies. And Trump’s promises to get tough on Iran have highlighted the mutual animosity between that country and the United States that dates to the 1979 Iranian revolution.
But the sudden newsworthiness of the documents in the release is purely coincidental, Hall said.
The release is the third since the Government Publishing Office and the Library of Congress announced they would digitize the entire collection of the Congressional Record, the daily register of House and Senate business. That collection dates to 1873 but was only moved online in 1995.
Digital installments from the 1980s and the remainder of the 1990s were released in 2016. By the end of the project, a team of 10 to 15 employees will have scanned and catalogued 2.5 million pages, a spokesman said.
The agencies are also creating digital versions of historical copies of the the Federal Register, the official daily chronicle of executive branch documents.
Scholars of the 1970s said the era saw Congress grapple with multiple issues that are still relevant today.
“That decade represents ground zero for the transformation of the Congress into the institution it has now become,” said Bruce Schulman, a Boston University history professor who wrote a book about the ’70s.
The era witnessed milestones in the way Congress operated, including the demise of the committee system, the rise of hyper-partisan, scandal-driven politics and the regional and ideological realignment of both party caucuses, Schulman said. Those changes coincided with “major shifts,” in American culture and politics, he added.
David B. Robertson, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said present-day distrust in government started in the 1970s.
Voters were reacting to the revelations of the Watergate investigation, the end of the Vietnam war, and the realization that the federal government could not follow through on promises from previous decades that government interventions could drive perpetual improvements in society, he said.
“That loss of faith in government was such a powerful force that it pervaded all kinds of things,” he said.
Robertson edited a book about politics and policy in the 1970s.
Librarians familiar with the Congressional Records collection said the public release of such documents is invaluable to students, who have become much more familiar with primary sources as they’ve become more widely available.
“Professors can say, ‘I don’t want you to read an article about it, I want you to find the speech where someone talked on the floor of Congress about X, Y and Z,’” said Barbie Selby, the director of information services at the University of Virginia Library.
She added that the project made it much easier for students at community colleges or researchers who are not affiliated with wealthy universities to access the documents — which are supposed to be public.
“Does everyone go out and research what their congressperson said on the floor of Congress?” she said. “Of course not. But should they be able to for free? Absolutely.”
Likewise, scholars said congressional documents from the ’70s haven’t always received the attention they deserve. The importance of the era is often underestimated, partly because it doesn’t fit into easily-digestible narratives like the protests of the ’60s, or the selfishness of the ’80s, Robertson said.
There are, of course, other reasons the ’70s don’t get a lot of love.
“I blame polyester,” Robertson said.