Sure, There Are Some Echoes, but '08 Won't Be '68

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, December 30, 2007

Forty years ago, this country entered what would turn out to be the most politically charged, disorienting, violent and tragic year in modern American history. The year we're now heading into has some surface similarities to 1968: a protracted and wrenching war in Asia, an unpopular president, a wide-open presidential campaign and raw-nerve controversies over civil rights (with gays and immigrants this time) and geopolitics (featuring jihadists instead of communists). The murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan is another awful reminder of 1968, when two American heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, lost their lives to assassins.

History repeating itself: It's a tidy premise. In fact, it's irresistible -- and wrong, but wrong in interesting ways that shed light on both years. Sure, elements of '68 persist in the world and in America today (because folly is durable), but the difference between 2008 and 1968 is the difference between needing psychotherapy and requiring a brain transplant.

In 1968, the country came close to political disintegration. Authority wasn't merely questioned; it literally lost control. The Tet Offensive in late January 1968 shocked those who had assumed we were winning the Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson essentially quit his job on live television. Days later, the apostle of nonviolent resistance was gunned down in Memphis. The cities burned.

Just like today, millions of people vehemently opposed the war, but for many of them it was a highly personal matter: The military announced in early 1968 that it would draft 300,000 more troops. Americans were dying in Vietnam by the dozens and even the hundreds every week. Countless young people lost all confidence in the ordered, officially sanctioned version of reality.

My Washington Post colleague David Maraniss, a college freshman in 1968 (he wrote a book, "They Marched Into Sunlight," about events on campus and in Vietnam in the fall of 1967), recalls: "There was a mood that anything was possible, good or bad, that life was changing by the week, that something a week or a month ago seemed old all of a sudden. You didn't know what was going to happen. It was kind of dizzying and exhilarating and tragic -- all of those things at once."

The big question is not why 2008 has so many echoes of 1968, but why the two years are so different.

No draft, obviously. And technology may have supplanted politics as the dominant agent of change. Information runs riot, not protesters. The news cycle spins so much faster; for every action there is an instant reaction. The odd result is not a world where things are out of control, but one in which issues get quickly categorized, organized, bureaucratized and, if necessary, outsourced. Everything is more precisely measured and calibrated. There's an expert for every problem -- just ask Google.

On the campaign trail, you will occasionally feel an aftershock of the '60s. Sen. John McCain is still tweaking Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for earmarking $1 million for that "hippie museum" at the site of the Woodstock festival, which took place while he was a POW in Hanoi. A demonstrator at the Iowa straw poll a few months back carried a sign saying, "Defeat Hillary Clinton and Jane Fonda." Sen. Barack Obama, trying to cruise a high road, declares that we shouldn't re-fight the battles of the 1960s.

This may be the most unpredictable political year since 1968, when President Johnson, stunned by rising antiwar sentiment and Sen. Eugene McCarthy's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, announced that he wouldn't seek another term. Robert F. Kennedy jumped into the race. Long viewed as a ruthless operator and Cold Warrior, Bobby had transformed himself into a liberal, inciting frenzied adulation -- rock-star stuff -- as he took his campaign into impoverished rural towns and inner-city ghettoes.

Where is the spirit of that Kennedy campaign? Certainly with Obama, who's so often described as Kennedyesque. But you can also find it in the candidacy of John Edwards.

A week before Christmas, Edwards stopped in Keene, a small city in a valley in the southwest corner of New Hampshire -- prime turf for liberals, leftists, artists, organic farmers, college professors. Edwards brought Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne as his warm-up act. They sounded terrific, the lyrics saturated in idealism.

Things like hunger, greed and hatred

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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