Getting Past the '60s? It's Not Going to Happen.
O ne of the most fascinating notions raised by the current presidential campaign is the idea that the United States can and must finally overcome the divisions of the 1960s. It's most often associated with the ascendancy of Sen. Barack Obama, who has been known to entertain it himself. Its most gauzy champion is pundit Andrew Sullivan, who argued in a cover article in the December Atlantic Monthly that, "If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today's actual problems, Obama may be your man."
No offense to either Obama or Sullivan, but: No he isn't. No one is.
I realized that when I read this e-mail from a friend, a passionate Obama supporter who's a veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement: "Who are you supporting for prez? You know my feelings -- and my son has been working 16-hr days for him up in NH. Kind of like his 60s . . ."
I realized it again when I saw the online ad produced by Sen. John McCain's campaign, arguing that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't deserve the presidency because she earmarked one-millionth of the federal budget ($1 million) for a museum commemorating the rock festival Woodstock.
I realized it, too, when Bill Clinton accused Obama of leaving the role of Lyndon B. Johnson out of the civil rights story, and when Sen. John Kerry announced his endorsement of Obama with a quotation from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and both set off a strange bout of opinion-journalism shadowboxing over which camp, Clinton's or Obama's, better grasped the historical legacy of the civil rights movement.
I realize it anew just about every day of this presidential campaign -- most recently when a bevy of Kennedys stood behind Obama last week and spoke of reviving the spirit of Camelot, and when the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks responded by making fine distinctions between "the idealism of the generation that marched in jacket and ties" -- the "early-60s," which he took Obama to represent -- and the "late-60s," defined "by drug use and self-indulgence," of which the Clintons are the supposed avatars.
The fact is, the '60s are still with us, and will remain so for the imaginable future. We are all like Zhou Enlai, who, asked what he thought about the French Revolution, answered, "It is too early to tell." When and how will the cultural and political battle lines the baby boomers bequeathed us dissolve? It is, well and truly, still too early to tell. We can't yet "overcome" the '60s because we still don't even know what the '60s were -- not even close.
Born myself in 1969 to pre-baby boomer parents, I'm a historian of America's divisions who spent the age of George W. Bush reading more newspapers written when Johnson and Richard Nixon were president than current ones. And I recently had a fascinating experience scouring archives for photos of the 1960s to illustrate the book I've just finished based on that research. It was frustrating -- and telling.
The pictures people take and save, as opposed to the ones they never take or the ones they discard, say a lot about how they understand their own times. And in our archives as much as in our mind's eye, we still record the '60s in hazy cliches -- in the stereotype of the idealistic youngster who came through the counterculture and protest movements, then settled down to comfortable bourgeois domesticity.
What's missing? The other side in that civil war. The right-wing populist rage of 1968 third-party presidential candidate George Wallace, who, referring to an idealistic protester who had lain down in front of Johnson's limousine, promised that if he were elected, "the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it'll be the last one they'll ever lay down in front of because their day is over!" That kind of quip helped him rise to as much as 20 percent in the polls.
It's easy to find hundreds of pictures of the national student strike that followed Nixon's announcement of the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. Plenty of pictures of the riots at Kent State that ended with four students shot dead by National Guardsmen. None I could find, however, of the counter-demonstrations by Kent, Ohio, townies -- and even Kent State parents. Flashing four fingers and chanting "The score is four/And next time more," they argued that the kids had it coming.
The '60s were a trauma -- two sets of contending Americans, each believing they were fighting for the future of civilization, but whose left- and right-wing visions of redemption were opposite and irreconcilable. They were a trauma the way the war of brother against brother between 1861 and 1865 was a trauma and the way the Great Depression was a trauma. Tens of millions of Americans hated tens of millions of other Americans, sometimes murderously so. The effects of such traumas linger in a society for generations.