Forty years ago this week, Morning Edition took the air for the first time just as a big story was breaking — one that would shock the nation and influence the next four decades of news.
It was coming from Iran, a country few Americans paid attention to at that time. A revolution had been underway that year, and on Nov. 4, 1979, a chanting crowd stormed the U.S Embassy in Tehran, taking Americans hostage.
They would hold 52 of those hostages, and the attention of the world, for the next 444 days. The crisis colored every phase of the 1980 presidential contest and left a mark on the history of the next four decades. Even this week, Iranians noted the anniversary with street marches and renewed their vintage chants of "Death to America!"
The news from Washington has been a big part of the 40-year history of Morning Edition. It has featured seven presidents and 10 presidential election cycles, half a dozen wars and as many major scandals and government shutdowns.
The stories that really stay with us are the ones that still seem to cast their shadows on our daily lives. In 1979, we were entering an era in which big stories often seemed to last for months and even years. And through these four decades there have been several big, persistent stories that just never seemed to go away.
A path cut by the Iran hostage crisis
The Iran hostage crisis upset life in America, primarily relating to gas and oil supplies. It had been seven years since the first Arab oil embargo (prompted by U.S. support for Israel) cut the availability of energy in the West and sent prices skyrocketing. During the crisis, it was the Iranians making drivers wait in long gas lines and pay prices unimaginable a few years before.
All that helped the hostage crisis contribute to the defeat of President Jimmy Carter, ushering in the era of Republican President Ronald Reagan.
The Iran story would morph into the Iran-Contra "arms for hostages" scandal in 1986 and 1987. Then the Persian Gulf became the battleground for a war to liberate Kuwait from invading Iraqis in 1990 and 1991 (not long after Morning Edition had celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1989).
The disruption in that region influenced the rise of a group called al-Qaida, which plotted and executed the world-changing terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That began the long U.S. involvement in Afghanistan that continues today and pushed the U.S. toward another war with Iraq in 2003. American troops have been in Iraq or neighboring Syria ever since.
In these years of the "war on terror," Americans came to know the words "homeland security." It was the title of a huge new federal department, but it was also a catchphrase for all of the ways we no longer felt safe in our way of life.
In recent years, those ways came to include renewed doubts about immigration, especially undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers. A successful presidential campaign in 2016 would feature rallies with chants of "Build that wall!"
Anxiety and distrust extended to trade with other countries. After decades of increasingly free trade and its benefits for the global economy, the concept would become cast as suspect, a threat to American power and prosperity. Tariffs, a policy staple of the past, made a comeback. The phenomenon was by no means exclusive to the U.S., as the United Kingdom voted in the "Brexit" referendum to redefine its relations with the European Union.
Women in Washington
But there were other stories of change that became, in themselves, constants in the news of the nation's capital. There was a distinct sea change in the roles of women in Washington. The number of women in the Senate and the House has grown by more than tenfold. We have seen the first female speaker of the House, the first women nominated by the major parties for vice president and the first woman nominated by a major party for president.
Take it from NPR's own Linda Wertheimer, who was covering Congress for the network when Morning Edition had its debut. She was asked whether Congress has changed in these four decades:
"The power of the place tends not to change very much. But I think the presence of women has changed the product that the Congress produces. It's one of the reasons women have more rights now; legislation has passed that women have supported and women have pushed. That's a big difference."
But Wertheimer has also witnessed and noted another trend of the era. There has been a distinct widening of the divide between the major parties and a decline in the civility of the national political discourse.
Civility and bringing the "war" to Congress
Some would trace this sharpening of the national debate to the disputed presidential election of 2000, when Morning Edition took the air for five solid weeks without a winner in that year's presidential election. The Supreme Court stepped in, stopped the re-counting of votes in Florida and awarded the presidency to George W. Bush.
Others look back further, to the early 1990s, when the first President Bush lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton (with an assist to the independent billionaire candidate H. Ross Perot). Still others point to the atmospheric change in Congress when Republican Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995, ending 40 years of Democratic majorities in that chamber.
"Newt Gingrich was elected and he brought war to the Congress," Wertheimer says. "I think that changes a lot of things. Congress is sort of a hotbed of nastiness these days. There's just such a lot of hostility, which was not the case when I first arrived."
It might also be said that the divide has widened as the issues themselves have become more contentious and personal. Disputes over fiscal and foreign policy now seem relatively manageable when compared to confrontations over gun violence, sexual identity and abortion.
No one hearing that first broadcast of Morning Edition 40 years ago could have imagined that someday they would look back on those days as a simpler time.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How much has the world changed in 40 years? We posed that question as MORNING EDITION marks its first 40 years of broadcasts. We're celebrating all week by looking back. And today - politics. Here to walk us through four decades of political history are NPR White House reporter Tamara Keith, who is exactly 40. Hi there, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.
INSKEEP: And senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, who is slightly over 40. Hi there, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: That is correct.
INSKEEP: The first broadcast of MORNING EDITION in 1979 - November 1979 - had a brief mention of a story unfolding overseas that would dramatically shape American politics.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The State Department says it has gotten what it calls indications from the Iranian government that there will be help in negotiating the release of at least 60 Americans being held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. A spokesman...
INSKEEP: These hostages were seized the day before MORNING EDITION went on the air, Ron Elving. How were things different afterward?
ELVING: It blew up the politics of 1980 before 1980 had even begun. Jimmy Carter was president, and Ronald Reagan posed the general proposition that those hostages had been taken in Tehran because the United States had been too weak on the world front. Carter was badly defeated in November, and the hostages were released on the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WARREN BURGER: I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear...
RONALD REAGAN: I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear...
INSKEEP: That specific story still looms over our politics today because the United States continues to have conflicts with Iran, among other things.
ELVING: And even this week you can hear people marching in the streets of Tehran chanting death to America because they're celebrating the 40th anniversary of the taking of those hostages.
INSKEEP: Let's go on to an event that Tamara is old enough to remember. In fact, all American adults would remember at this moment. And that was 9/11, the Sept. 11 attacks. It was a few days later that President George W. Bush stood amid the wreckage of the World Trade Center in New York City holding a bullhorn. And one of the people listening as he spoke said, I can't hear you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE W BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people...
BUSH: ...Who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
KEITH: It is an event that has led to a war on terror that is continuing to this day. You have U.S. troops in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria.
INSKEEP: And you have succeeding members of Congress arguing with succeeding presidents about whether the presidents even have the authority to continue this war.
KEITH: Because the authorization of the use of military force that was approved by Congress after 9/11 is the same one that President Trump is using today, that President Obama used before him. Congress, in a way, sort of ceded its authority to the president, and succeeding presidents have used that same authorization.
INSKEEP: You know, Ron Elving, I'm thinking that if, in 1979, someone had walked up to you and said NAFTA, you would have had no idea what they were talking about because that acronym did not exist. The North American Free Trade Agreement did not exist.
ELVING: No, I think I would have thought it was some kind of mentholated thing you rubbed on a sore elbow.
INSKEEP: Give yourself a little NAFTA after a hard tennis match. But in reality, it is something that has, again, overshadowed our politics for many years, since the 1990s when it was approved.
ELVING: It was thought of as a relatively dull story by a lot of people at the time. And we were trying to make it possible to take down the trade barriers between our respective countries. There were people who were opposed to it at the time, but trade wars are what we do these days in the place of what we used to call wars. Right now we have a trade war with China. We have the Brits trying to figure out how to Brexit, how to get out of the European Union. That has divided their country as much as anything has divided this country.
INSKEEP: One more development - and that is the change in women's rights and women's roles in the workplace, Tamara Keith.
KEITH: Well - and in particular, women in Congress. So if you go back to 1979, when this program started, there were 20 women in Congress. Today there are more than 120 women in Congress. Now, I talked to Linda Wertheimer, who covered Congress back when this show started, about this change.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: The power of the place tends to not change very much. But I think the presence of women has changed the product that the Congress produces. Women have more rights now. This - legislation has been passed that women have supported and women have pushed. You know, that's a big difference.
KEITH: And you have a woman who is the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, which is something that would have been pretty hard to imagine when there were only 20 women in Congress...
INSKEEP: Yeah. It would've...
KEITH: ...Forty years ago.
INSKEEP: ...Been a different job for you to be doing if there were virtually no women in power as you were covering them as a reporter, I suppose.
KEITH: Right. And Linda describes being the only woman at the press table. And I will say, there are times when the press corps - you know, we fly on Air Force One, this small group of reporters - and there have - was a moment where we looked around and thought - wait; there are no men (laughter).
ELVING: There are no boys on the bus.
INSKEEP: There's another change, though, over the last 40 years - the degree of partisanship in this country.
ELVING: There used to be more conservative Democrats and more liberal Republicans. Now there are scarcely even any moderates in either party. Everyone seems to have gone to their respective poles. We call it polarization in political science.
ELVING: And that lives in Congress and animates the daily discussions there to the point where it's really made it almost impossible for Congress to work the way it used to do, the cooperative nature of the way Congress used to get things done.
KEITH: You know, it used to be that members of Congress and their families could socialize and - you know, like, you fight it out on the floor, and then you leave and go to a soccer game with your family. Now it's not cool to be in Washington, and so - particularly with the rise of the Tea Party. Then it became cool for members of Congress to sleep in their offices and not have any of this sort of social fabric that existed before.
INSKEEP: And there's an event that our colleague Linda Wertheimer talks about that happened along the way of these 40 years in the 1990s - a particular election of a particular speaker of the House.
WERTHEIMER: Newt Gingrich was elected, and he brought war to the Congress. And I think that changed a lot of things. Congress is a sort of a hotbed of nastiness these days.
ELVING: I don't think it's too strong to say that there is a connection from Newt Gingrich to the Tea Party to Donald Trump to bringing a certain kind of energy into Congress that blew up this sense that everyone kind of cooperated and that there was a Washington way of doing things. And they expressed themselves through Gingrich, through the Tea Party and, ultimately, through President Trump.
INSKEEP: We could talk about so many more issues, and we will be this week as we mark MORNING EDITION's 40th anniversary. Thanks very much, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.
KEITH: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: And NPR Washington desk senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving.
ELVING: Thank you, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF TINGVALL TRIO'S "SPOKSTEG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.