Surviving the '80s
Was it a decade to be savored or endured? Let’s rewind the Betamax tape and find out
QUICK: THINK ’80S! WHAT DO YOU SEE? A blur of regrettable haircuts? That synth-pop song you hate yourself for humming? A supercut of shoulder pads, boxy hatchbacks and trickle-down economics? It’s hard to know how to feel about this change-filled decade. Sometimes is seems long ago—a distant world dominated by three TV channels and something called the Soviet Union. Then you see Donald Trump or Hulk Hogan on the news and it feels like the ’80s are with us still. So asked some survivors to reflect on the high and low-lights of an oft-maligned era.
Miracle on Ice
“THE HOSTAGES HAD BEEN TAKEN in Iran. We had gas lines, inflation. Americans needed something to feel good about. I don’t know how many times people told me, ‘I remember where I was when we won.’ That game touched our whole country. People saw it as a way to show the world what we still could do.”
— Mike Eruzione led the U.S. hockey team that defeated the Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics. He’s now director of special outreach at Boston University.
Magic is Here
“WE GOT TO the airport and I saw the faces of everybody. I knew that Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] wasn’t going to play. I said, ‘We’re still going to win.’ They looked at me: ‘Man, rookie, sit down.’ When we got on the plane, I sat in Kareem’s seat. I said, ‘Never fear, Magic is here.’ By the time we landed, they started believing.”
— Earvin “Magic” Johnson became the first rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP award.
“I WAS AT FIRE Island Pines [on Long Island], and there were two friends of mine, one very tall, the other very short. The tall one, Enno, was carrying the small one, Nick, in his arms, going along the beach, saying, ‘Do you have any idea what’s wrong with Nick?’ No doctor had been able to diagnose him.
These guys were some of the first. Then the cases began to accumulate. It was so sudden, and they were so young."
— Activist and author Larry Kramer cofounded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982.
The Princess Bride
By Myrna Blyth
IN DECEMBER 1981, I was the new editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, trying to find a way to improve newsstand sales at the respected but then flagging women’s magazine. I decided to take a chance and put a young, blond ex–nursery school teacher named Diana on the cover of the February issue.
Earlier that year I and many other women in America had watched, at 3 in the morning, the royal wedding on TV. But did American women really care that much about 20-year-old Princess Di? They certainly did! The issue sold extremely well. By October 1982, when Diana was on the cover again, her photo guaranteed at least 1 million copies in sales at the newsstand for my magazine and for many others.
That next June, I went to a ball at Broadlands, an estate in the English countryside. The royal couple were the guests of honor. Diana wore a white and silver one-shoulder gown and was very slender and very beautiful. We shook hands, and I told her how much American women loved her. I turned our five-minute conversation into an “exclusive” and another best-selling cover.
Diana was extremely photogenic, and all through the ’80s we wrote stories about her style and charm, about her as a doting mother and as a betrayed, unhappy wife. The public couldn’t get enough of the fairy tale that ended more than a decade later as a tragedy.
— Myrna Blyth is the editorial director of AARP Media
“I WAS A 20-year-old rookie pitching against the Yankees in Game 3 of the 1981 World Series. We were back in Dodger Stadium after dropping the first two games; I had lost the first one. It was the end of a long season. When I took the mound, I knew I didn’t have my best pitches. But I hung in there and pitched the whole game. We won, 5-4, and went on to win the Series.”
— Fernando Valenzuela won Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award in the same year. He’s now a commentator
MTV is Born
“I READ AN ARTICLE in Billboard saying that a 24-hour music channel was looking for hosts. I wasn’t sure it was going to last six months. A ‘VJ’ was a whole new animal. Initially, MTV wasn’t broadcast in New York, where we filmed, so we weren’t aware of how popular we were becoming. At one of my earliest personal appearances, at a record store in San Antonio, there was a line around the block. I figured there was a rock star in town doing autographs and I asked my driver, ‘Who’s here?’ He said, ‘You.’ ”
— Nina Blackwood was one of MTV’s five original VJs. Today she is a DJ on SiriusXM Radio.
The Dawn of Late Night
By Merrill Markoe
WHEN LATE NIGHT With David Letterman was in its cocoon stage, the NBC brass arranged a meeting with me to explain the data gathered from audience focus groups for the David Letterman Show, the short-lived morning show David did in 1980. “This chart shows a drastic drop-off when a music act comes on,” said the executive. “Notice how the televisions all turn off when a band performs? The good news is the focus groups liked Stupid Pet Tricks. But they all agreed they’d rather see it done with trained animals.”
“You mean like a horse that can count, or a circus elephant?” I said, incredulous.
“Exactly,” the executive answered, nodding.
So I reported back to the show and we decided to ignore everything he said.
— Merrill Markoe was head writer for Late Night With David Letterman. Her most recent book is Cool, Calm & Contentious: Essays.
Dr. Ruth Gets Frank
“MY PRODUCER told me at the beginning, ‘You’re going to be the talk of the town.’ I didn’t even know what that meant. I remember the first time somebody called and said he was a premature ejaculator. I had to stop and catch my breath. This was probably the first time that anybody had spoken so openly on the radio about sexuality.”
— Sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s sexual-advice program Sexually Speaking premiered on radio in 1980 and television in 1982. Her latest book is The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre.
“I WAS WORKING on my first TV special at Bill Melendez’s studio in Hollywood. One day, I was having trouble getting Garfield to dance on his back feet. Fortunately, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was in the next room. I told him I was struggling. He said, ‘That’s because you’re drawing Garfield with little cat feet.’ He took my pencil and showed me how Snoopy had little feet when he was on all fours but big feet when he stood up. From that moment, Garfield was usually on two feet.”
— Jim Davis’ Garfield now appears in more than 2,000 newspapers.
The Day After
“MY FIRST REACTION when I read the script is, ‘You’re never gonna get this on the air.’ I decided the only way to do the movie was to make it like a public service announcement: If you have a nuclear war, this is what it’s going to look like. Originally, it was supposed to run over two nights. I told the network, ‘Do you really think anyone’s going to tune in for another night of Armageddon?’ Ronald Reagan came into office believing in the concept of the winnable nuclear war. The movie had a shattering effect on him. It’s crude. It’s not great cinema. But it will still scare the living crap out of you.”
— Nicholas Meyer directed The Day After, the most-watched TV film in history.
Miss America Makes History
“I WAS THRUST into the world at 20 years old, making brave political statements and experiencing events no other Miss America had known because of being a young black woman. People would want to shake my hand, and you’d see tears in their eyes, and they’d say, ‘I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.’ But when you’ve got sharpshooters on buildings because there have been credible threats on your life, or when strangers tell you they’re going to throw acid on your face because of who you are — it was terrifying. You think you can control things when you’re 20, and I certainly could not.”
— Vanessa Williams was forced to resign her title in July 1984, following the unauthorized publication of photos by Penthouse magazine. Now a singer and actor, she was a Miss America pageant judge in 2015. In 2016, she launched a clothing line, V. by Vanessa Williams.
Enter the Yuppie
By Jay McInerney
I WASN'T EXPECTING much, having worked in publishing and having watched many first novels disappear without a trace. But mine, miraculously, caught fire. I was cast in the unlikely role of spokesman for my generation, and as a kind of representative figure of the era. Nothing in my life had prepared me for these roles; I was more prepared to talk about sentence structure and narrative modalities than to make statements about the zeitgeist and the newly identified demographic group called yuppies. I’m not sure I did such a great job as a spokesman.
— Jay McInerney’s latest novel is, Bright, Precious Days.
By Diane Feinstein
I WAS THE FIRST mayor to raise the subject of AIDS at the Conference of Mayors in 1984. No one wanted to talk about it. There was no treatment; fear was widespread. San Francisco was the first city to devote major funds to research. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was one of the most formative, difficult experiences of my career in public service. We took strong actions, some of which were controversial. But the epidemic was a key moment in the effort to achieve equality for LGBT Americans. The gay community came together to fight for their dignity — and their lives.
— Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was the mayor of San Francisco from 1978 to 1988.
The Fridge Runs
“THE FRIDGE was a great athlete. He couldn’t run 40 yards worth a damn, but he could run five yards really good. We first put him on offense as a fullback. I realized there was no way that with a guy the size of Fridge blocking upfront that they were going to stop us. And they didn’t. Then the thinking was, well, if he can block, maybe he can run. So we gave him the ball and he scored. If he can block and run, maybe he can catch. He did that, too! What’s next, except maybe he can throw? That he couldn’t do.”
— Mike Ditka coached the 1985 Chicago Bears. William “Refrigerator” Perry scored the Bears’ final touchdown in the team’s 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
The Power of Pee-Wee
"AFTER THE PREMIRE of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, CBS approached me about doing a kids show. I immediately said yes. I always knew that if I was going to have a kids show, it would be important to have a really great kids show. I never took that lightly. That all came out of my own childhood, of just loving the shows I grew up on. Even when I was a kid watching them, I always felt, Thank goodness for this. I’m really proud of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I meet young people almost every day who say, ‘I’m an artist because of your show.’ ”
— Paul Reubens created Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which aired from 1986 to 1990. In 2016, he starred in the Netflix feature Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
Run DMC Walks That Way
“[PRODUCER RICK [RUBIN] gives us this yellow notebook pad. He tells us, ‘Go down to D’s basement, put the needle on the record.’ We go down to my basement and put on the record, and then you hear ‘Backstroke lover always hidin’ ’neath the covers,’ and immediately me and Joe get on the phone and say: ‘Hell no, this ain’t going to happen. This is hillbilly gibberish.’ ”
— Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels and Joseph “Run” Simmons recorded — reluctantly — their cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” in 1986. The single would go on to sell more than 1 million copies, paving the way for other rap artists’ commercial success.
Oliver North Testifies in Iran-Contra Affair
“REGAN WAS a polarizing figure for the media. This particular event crystallized a lot of that angst. You had pundits and politicians on one side, and the American people on the other. If they picked me to go and try to indict Ronald Reagan, they picked the wrong guy. I understood what the words ‘semper fidelis’ really meant, and I was not ashamed to say so.”
—Oliver North helped engineer the scheme to sell arms to Iran and direct the profits to Contra rebels in Nicaragua; the ensuing Iran-Contra scandal resulted in indictments for several figures in the Reagan administration, including North. He now hosts War Stories With Oliver North on Fox News.
Hulk Hogan Slams André the Giant
“[WORLD WRESTLING Federation owner] Vince McMahon came to my hotel room the night before the match and asked me what I saw. I said, ‘I think this is classic David vs. Goliath.’ Fight, fight, fight. He’s beating me down until I get one up on him and make this crazy Hulkamania comeback. André was so kind and so generous. Believe me, if he didn’t want to get slammed, he wouldn’t have gotten slammed. He was 600 pounds.”
— Hulk Hogan (born Terry Bollea) defeated André the Giant in WrestleMania III.
Inventing Murphy Brown
“CBS ASKED if I could change her from a recovering alcoholic to somebody who was coming back to work after being at a spa, because she was very stressed out. They also asked if, instead of turning 40, she could be turning 30. Then the big 1988 writers strike hit, so I couldn’t touch that script. If they wanted to shoot that pilot, they had to shoot that first draft. And that’s what they did. We let this woman carry the comedy, rather than be the person who reacts to funny things men are doing. You didn’t see much of that in the ’80s.”
— TV and film producer Diane English won three Emmy awardsfor the CBS show Murphy Brown.
“We thought if we let the international community know what is happening to China, America would rescue us.”
—Chai Ling was a student leader in the Tian’anmen Square protests of 1989.
The Berlin Wall Falls
By P.J. O'Rourke
GOT THERE AS SOON as I could. I hadn’t missed the party.
Party is the wrong word. Berlin wasn’t littered with beer cans—it was littered with fruit peels. The greatest joys of freedom are basic. East Berliners were suddenly free to buy fresh fruit for the first time in their lives. And West Berliners were free to attack the eyesore dividing the city, the nation, the world.
It wasn’t a victory celebration. No one was vanquished. Sledgehammers smashed the Wall until a crack opened. Through that crack came the hand of an East German border guard who, three days before, would have shot the hammerers. He was wiggling his fingers. He was waving hello.
The Cold War had been a fact of life in my world ever since I came into it in 1947. I’d thought I didn’t let it bother me. Duck-and-cover drills were a break from multiplication tables. But those wiggling fingers snatched away a worry I didn’t know I had, lifted a weight I didn’t know I carried. And all of Berlin was floating carefree. Yes, there’d be new troubles soon. Evil can’t be simply walled in or out. But when joy comes, enjoy it.
— Humorist and essayist P.J. O’Rourke covered foreign affairs at Rolling Stone during the 1980s. His most recent book is Thrown Under the Omnibus.
David Dudley, Meg Grant, Christina Ianzito, Brennen Jensen, Kim Keister, Patrick Kiger, Amanda Robb and Jon Saraceno contributed to this report.