The cast of Father Knows Best in 1954.Photo: Bil Browning
In Pat Buchanan’s editorial, “The Great White Hope,” the ultra-conservative columnist and former communications director of President Reagan laments the demise of the white man, and specifically the middle-aged and working-class white man, whom he portrays as the victim of our changing times whose plight includes raising rates of suicide, death, and addiction, and stagnant wages.
Buchanan pines for those (very pre-Obama) halcyon days when:
“In the popular culture of the ’40s and ’50s, white men were role models. They were the detectives and cops who ran down gangsters and the heroes who won World War II on the battlefields of Europe and in the islands of the Pacific. They were doctors, journalists, lawyers, architects and clergy…our skilled workers and craftsmen….They were the Founding Fathers…and the statesmen….Lincoln and every president had been a white male. Middle-class white males were the great inventors…[and] the great capitalists….All the great captains of America’s wars were white males.”
I can imagine Buchanan seeing through his nostalgic mind’s eye the television shows from his youth: “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed show,” and “Leave it to Beaver,” all reflecting the mainstream popular image of the American family as white, middle class, with a nice home in the suburbs, and all the family members accepting their assigned raced and gendered scripts.
Take “Father Knows Best,” of which the program’s title is very telling. The Anderson family lived in the generic hometown of Springfield, though we never learn the state. The family profile ran something like this: Betty Anderson – affectionately called “Princess” by her doting parents – was the eldest child who was smart, pretty, fairly emotional, rarely if ever getting into trouble, always looking out for her younger brother and sister.
Bud (James Jr.) Anderson, possessed the “boy-next-door” good looks, was wisecracking, irresponsible, rarely emotional, independent, and frequently worked on his car while wearing a greasy t-shirt.
Cathy the youngest, whom her parents affectionately called “Kitten,” exhibited many emotions, and was a bit of a “tomboy” in an endearing sort of way. She was very dependent on her parents and older siblings for support.
Jim Anderson, the visible head of the family, was very wise, forthright, and moral. He was seen often reading the newspaper over his morning orange juice and eggs cooked by his wife before heading out to his professional career work.
Margaret Anderson, emotional but steady and nurturing, portrayed a housewife who was most often seen tidying up the living room and in the kitchen fixing meals for the family. In the late afternoons, she waited expectantly by the door to share her family’s joys and deflect their trials and sorrows as they returned home from work and school.
Television commercials at the time showed white women ruthlessly attacking scuff marks and disheartening wax buildup on kitchen floors, and ugly smelly toilet-bowl grime. And who can forget that terrifying “ring around the collar.”
White (and only white) men, on the other hand, were pictured in total control, viewed, for example, seated behind the wheel of their “luxurious Oldsmobiles,” with their adoring “better halves” by their side. Or they were “looking smart” and “being smart” after shaving with Gillette, with the obligatory sexy young white woman feeling their smooth strong faces. Or they were tackling one another and working up a real sweat in the (all white) manly sport of football, after which they cooled down with a cold refreshing Budweiser.
Coming back to the present, Pat Buchanan asked and answered his own question: “But what explains the social disaster of white Middle America?”