'Charlie's Angels' is back, but no oil crisis rerun

It was spring 1974, the Dow stood at 872, Richard Nixon's presidency was hanging by a thread, and Thomas Hogarty was about to do something very risky: drive his family to Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Gas supplies were so precarious because of an Arab oil embargo that when Hogarty the braveheart arrived, he found motels discounting rooms and giving away food in hopes of luring tourists onto the roads. Disney World attendance was half its normal number.

Today, as spring 2000 approaches, Americans again have gasoline, oil, and Middle East sheikhs on their minds.

Yet even as rising gasoline and heating oil prices begin rippling across the political landscape, analysts say today's national energy angst is but a mere mouse compared to the lion that roared three decades ago.

And while rising prices may have threads that run back to that era, energy today is a more singular issue, and one that most experts predict will be relatively short-lived, with only a fraction of the political punch of its 1970s predecessor.

The return of energy as an issue is evident at various levels. Many states are talking about a cut in gas taxes; some members of Congress want to divert more oil from Alaska or the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to American use; and President Clinton announced new energy initiatives this weekend, including the establishment of a home heating oil reserve. Rising gas prices may become an issue in this year's presidential campaign.

By contrast, though, the 1970s energy crisis had tentacles that reached deep into the American psyche. It was potent enough to help run two presidents from office and plunge the nation into a period of deep soul-searching.

"It played into a public concern that was very broad and had to do with our ability to control our own destiny in the world," says Jody Powell, former press secretary for President Jimmy Carter, who was one political casualty of that era.

Today, says Mr. Powell, the public's attitude toward rising energy prices, though restive, "is in marked contrast to" the prevailing mood then.

Mr. Hogarty, an energy economist at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, characterizes today's energy problems as "minuscule" compared with those of the 1970s.

That's partly because the oil market functions so differently today. In the '70s, oil companies tended to have long-term contracts with countries rich in petroleum reserves. Interruptions in supply were not quickly replenished. There were no large spot or futures markets, which today allow much greater access to oil supplies.

Even though prices have surged in recent months, Department of Energy analyst Doug MacIntyre says today's oil market is so much more open that "it's almost certain there won't be gas lines."

But the contrasts between today and the 1970s are greatest because of the context in which the price increases occurred.

When oil prices tripled from 1973 to 1974, the United States had been humiliated in Vietnam and was reeling from an Arab oil embargo in retaliation for US support of Israel in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war. All this created a feeling of profound global impotence, says Hogarty, which was exacerbated by the ongoing rivalry with the Soviet Union and the emerging power of communist China.

On the home front, President Nixon was battling 16 percent inflation, rising unemployment, and a declining economy. So heightened was the public awareness of energy issues that the president stated at a 1974 press conference that he'd done his part to conserve energy by traveling without a backup jet for Air Force One.

In the following years, after Mr. Nixon was driven from office by Watergate and President Gerald Ford failed to win reelection in part because of the persistence of energy and economic woes, oil-supply problems again intensified.

When Iran overthrew its US-friendly Shah and Americans at the US Embassy in Tehran were taken hostage, it was a seemingly perfect metaphor for America's own growing sense of incarceration by Middle East oil producers. President Carter ordered broad conservation measures and called the energy crisis the "moral equivalent of war."

The 1970s crisis, says Hogarty, also pitted various segments of society against one another. Oil companies, and big business per se, became villains. And government efforts to control the distribution of oil and gasoline pitted state against state.

That contrasts sharply with today's picture: a record-breaking economic boom, the end of the superpower rivalry, and the United States' unrivaled influence in the Middle East. While rising gas prices are becoming a powerful pocketbook issue, analysts don't foresee domestic political or social ramifications much beyond that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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