My husband, Marc, recently discovered “Seinfeld.” Almost seventeen years after this long-running TV show ended production, ahead of him stretches a seemingly endless supply of unseen episodes to enjoy.
“The humor has held up. It doesn’t feel dated, like some other shows from the eighties and nineties that I used to like,” he reported at dinner the other night.
“You know what other show is timeless? ‘All in the Family’,” I replied. Despite being firmly rooted in the 1970s – “All in the Family” broke ground in its embrace of social and political issues during its 1971 to 1979 run – the humor, plus the quality of the script and performances, provide an entertaining show forty years later. Headlining the cast is Archie Bunker, a conservative, working class bigot living in Queens, New York who, despite his reactionary views, also is portrayed as a fundamentally decent man who loves his family.
“My father kind of liked Archie Bunker,” Marc said. Marc’s father, a lifelong moderate Democrat, didn’t finish high school and drove a laundry truck for a living.
The genius of the Archie Bunker character was that even as viewers laughed at his rantings and his constant mangling of the English language, many, like Marc’s father, on some level identified with him. Archie felt overwhelmed by the changing world around him and longed for the security of an imagined past where order prevailed and everyone knew their place.
“I always think of the theme song of ‘All in the Family’, ‘Those Were the Days’,” Marc continued. “I remember that lyric, ‘Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.’”
At the beginning of the show, Archie Bunker and his wife, Edith, sit at the piano and sing “Those Were the Days,” which includes the following lines:
And you knew who you were then
Girls were girls and men were men
Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again
“Wait a minute,” I said. “That line about Herbert Hoover doesn’t make sense.”
Herbert Hoover, U.S. president from 1929 until 1933, presided over the first, grim years of the Great Depression. He enjoys the dubious distinction of having failed to implement effective measures to alleviate widespread joblessness, hunger and homelessness. Not until Franklin D. Roosevelt came to office in 1933 did millions experience relief and regain optimism through government programs that collectively came to be known as the “New Deal.”
The family of Archie Bunker, a working class man born in the 1920s, would have been hard hit by the 1930s Depression. In fact, in a 1978 episode, a drunk Archie confesses to son-in-law Mike that during the Depression, his father lost his job and the family couldn’t afford shoes, resulting in Archie being taunted at school because he wore a shoe on one foot and a boot on another.
“Archie’s family would have been Roosevelt supporters,” I said. “They would have opposed Hoover.”
My father, who was born during the Depression in Akron, Ohio, remembers how his father Frank, an unemployed carpenter, would build birdhouses from odd bits of wood and sell them on street corners for a dime. During that era, men wandered the country in search of work that did not exist, while legions of the homeless settled in makeshift shantytowns derisively called Hoovervilles. When my grandfather Frank finally landed a steady construction job via the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of Roosevelt’s New Deal infrastructure programs, his Democratic loyalties were sealed.
“He gave us work,” Frank always said of Roosevelt.
I’ve got to believe that Archie, coming out of a working class background in New York City, growing up in the heart of the Depression, would have been, at least originally, a Roosevelt Democrat.
In coining the phrase, “Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again,” did the writers of the lyrics to “Those Were the Days” simply get their historical details wrong? Did they somehow miss the core of the 1930s working class experience?
Or were these lyrics intentionally ironic? Archie might have started out as a Roosevelt Democrat, but frightened by, and unable to understand, the changes occurring around him in the 1960s and 1970s, he takes refuge in a comforting, safe past that never happened. If so, our character Archie would not the first person to reinvent the past to meet his current needs, nor will he be the last.
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Listen to Archie and Edith sing the All in the Family theme song: Those Were the Days on YouTube.