Will we ever recover from the 1960s?
What's happening with the bitter dispute over John Kerry's role in Vietnam confirms my fears that my generation may never see the day when the baby boomers who came of age in that troubled decade are reconciled sufficiently with each other to lead a united country.
I remember precisely when this premonition of perpetual division first struck me. On Aug. 19, 1992, the third night of the Republican National Convention in Houston, Barbara Bush and Marilyn Quayle were the featured speakers. The first lady praised her husband's fine qualities and Mrs. Quayle turned her fire on the Bill Clinton Democrats, who had just finished their convention in New York.
Through almost gritted teeth, Marilyn Quayle declared that those people in Madison Square Garden, who were claiming the mantle of leadership for a new generation, were usurpers. "Dan and I are members of the baby boom generation, too," she said. "We are all shaped by the times in which we live. I came of age in a time of turbulent social change. Some of it was good, such as civil rights; much of it was questionable."
And then she drew the line that has not been erased: "Remember, not everyone joined in the counterculture. Not everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution or dodged the draft. Not everyone concluded that American society was so bad that it had to be radically remade by social revolution. . . . The majority of my generation lived by the credo our parents taught us: We believed in God, in hard work and personal discipline, in our nation's essential goodness, and in the opportunity it promised those willing to work for it. . . . Though we knew some changes needed to be made, we did not believe in destroying America to save it."
When she finished, I turned to my Post colleague Dan Balz, a contemporary of the Clintons and the Quayles, and said, "I suddenly have this vision -- that when you guys reach the nursing homes, you're going to be leaning on your walkers and beating each other with your canes, because you still will not have settled the arguments from the Sixties."
Now it is 12 years later. The United States is at war. It is threatened with terrorist attacks. The economy is under stress. And the presidential campaign has been usurped -- by what? An argument among aging boomers about who did what in Vietnam and in the protests against that war.
The ferocity of the dispute over John Kerry's Vietnam wounds and decorations -- and about his testimony when he decried U.S. atrocities in that war -- is explainable only as the latest outburst of a battle that has been going on now for more than three decades. Neither Kerry nor his critics in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth will yield an inch. On both sides, the unending culture war is as searing as it was when it first burst into flames.
Having lived with that legacy since the start of his political career, Kerry may be judged naive to have thought that Vietnam would be a golden credential for the presidency -- and not an inevitable source of controversy. When he chose to make his Navy combat in Vietnam the principal metaphor for his dedication to public service and the proof of his toughness in a time of terrorism, he might have guessed that the skeptics would not remain silent. In a 2002 conversation, Kerry told me he thought it would be doubly advantageous that "I fought in Vietnam and I also fought against the Vietnam War," apparently not recognizing that some would see far too much political calculation in such a bifurcated record.
John McCain, unlike Kerry, insisted that Vietnam was not the defining experience of his life and refused to build his 2000 presidential campaign on the foundation of his heroism as a POW. He was right to call the attacks on Kerry's combat record dishonest and dishonorable and urge President Bush to disown them.
But the reality is that on both sides of the '60s culture war, the wounds are so deep that they apparently cannot be forgotten or forgiven. Whatever collusion may or may not exist between the Bush campaign and the Swift Boaters, these veterans' disdain for Kerry is as genuine and deeply felt as his resentment of them.
The only thing that will save the country -- and end this breach in its leadership -- is that the boomers are now in their sixties. Another generation will eventually come to power, and the country will finally be spared from constantly refighting these same battles.