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.