What Happened Here?

Tom Brokaw, top row, second from right, surrounded by an ensemble of '60s notables
Tom Brokaw, top row, second from right, surrounded by an ensemble of '60s notables (Random House)
Reviewed by Charles Kaiser
Sunday, November 25, 2007

BOOM! Voices of the Sixties

Personal Reflections on the '60s and Today

By Tom Brokaw

Random House. 662 pp. $28.95

Tom Brokaw's sprawling new book about the 1960s has a striking cover, and it includes interviews with 50 people, many of them recognizable names from the era, like Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Andrew Young and Gloria Steinem. Combining oral history with the author's own memories, this 662-page tome touches on nearly all the major events of that extraordinary time. Unfortunately, it tells us nothing new about any of them.

The same abilities that made Brokaw a great anchorman don't serve him well in this venture. On TV he was pleasant and affable. A facile and friendly interviewer, he never made a premature judgment about anything he was reporting on. Together with a handsome face and a manly voice, those qualities were enough to keep him at the top of the TV totem pole for most of his career.

In these pages he remains pleasant and affable. But the interviews yield more platitudes than insights. What is most infuriating, 40 years on, is the author's nearly absolute refusal to come to any conclusions.

The main leitmotif is that it's too early for anyone to judge the impact of this remarkable period. Brokaw writes, "The evidence is still coming in and the jury is still out -- and forty years later we don't seem anywhere near being able to render a verdict," and "for the rest of my days, when my mind wonders back to the Sixties, I will probably think: Boom! what was that all about?" Nearly three hundred pages later, he is still quoting George Will saying the same thing.

Interviews are loosely organized by subject (Jane Pauley, Linda Greenhouse and Dorothy Rabinowitz for "I Am Woman," or James Taylor, Paul Simon and Jann Wenner for "Like A Rolling Stone") in an effort to produce what Brokaw calls a "virtual reunion of a cross section of the Sixties crowd."

But instead of analysis, we get endless clich¿s and plenty of celebrity worship -- sometimes in the same sentence. Brokaw recognizes a "calm before a ferocious storm," but he can't decide if these were "the best or the worst of times." Ronald Reagan was "every inch a star," and Warren Beatty was "every inch, and without any apologies, unquestionably a star," as well as "tall, dark, and handsome." The battle between Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy for the presidential nomination in 1968 was "a saga of Shakespearean proportions," while Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were "the most unlikely dynamic duo in diplomatic history."

Considering that Brokaw lived through all the events he is writing about, and reported on many of them, it's surprising how many facts he gets wrong. In Brokaw's history, one of the decade's soaring moments -- Lyndon Johnson's declaration, "We Shall Overcome," occurred when the president signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That happened in the White House on July 2, 1964. However, Johnson actually said the words that brought tears to Martin Luther King Jr.'s eyes in an address to a joint session of Congress, eight months later, when he proposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

More bizarrely, Brokaw writes that in their only televised debate in 1968, Kennedy challenged McCarthy's "suggestion to move thousands of residents out of Watts and into Orange County." The trouble is, McCarthy never said that. The Democratic senator from Minnesota merely suggested that something should be done to make it easier for residents to move out of the ghetto. It was Kennedy who pandered to white fears by pretending that McCarthy had specified the number who should be moved and where they should be relocated: "You say you are going to take ten thousand black people and move them into Orange County." McCarthy partisans were infuriated by that invention; they were even angrier after McCarthy waited more than 12 hours to correct the record.

One theme Brokaw comes back to repeatedly is the idea that the street fights of 1968 were more "counterrevolutionary" than "revolutionary" because their main effect was to cause a powerful and long-lasting right-wing reaction. Certainly, there was a backlash. But there are two problems with this analysis. First, it ignores the fact that the crucial events that gave the South to the Republican Party for a generation were the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Second, though he mentions the gains of blacks and women in passing, he never explains how the explosions of the 1960s created fundamental and dramatic social change. There is nothing here about the Stonewall Riot that began the gay liberation movement in 1969 or any of the heroes of the gay revolution, like Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols.

This book purports to be about some of the most dramatic and traumatic events of the last 50 years -- including the triumphant protests of the civil rights movement and the ultimately successful anti-war movement. But the way Brokaw tells this story deprives it of all of its drama. For my generation, the one after Brokaw's, there was a brief, astonishing moment, when our determination to change the world was fueled by the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Supremes and, yes, by drugs like marijuana -- and the outcome was a fundamental and permanent change in the way black people and gay people and women have been treated ever since. The much-derided Vietnam syndrome prevented America from engaging in similar misadventures for 20 years afterward. These are not insignificant achievements. But this oddly bloodless account robs the 1960s of both their triumphs and their tragedies. *

Charles Kaiser is the author of "1968 in America" and "The Gay Metropolis." He is completing "The Cost of Courage," about the French Resistance, and he writes press criticism in a blog for www.radaronline.com called Full Court Press.

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