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Getting Past the '60s? It's Not Going to Happen.
Consider this example. The Library of Congress, which houses the photo archives of Look magazine and U.S. News & World Report, holds hundreds of images of the violent confrontation between cops and demonstrators in front of the Chicago Hilton at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and, from the summer of 1969, of Woodstock. But I could find no visual record of the National Convention on the Crisis of Education. Held two weeks after Woodstock in that selfsame Chicago Hilton, it was convened by citizens fighting the spread of sex education in the schools as if civilization itself were at stake. The issue dominated newspapers in the autumn of 1969 and is seemingly forgotten today.
But it's not truly forgotten. Those right-wing '60s activists were protesting a group called the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), which believed that its "age appropriate" sexual-education guidelines, devised in consultation with parents, clergy, educators and scientific experts, would help strengthen the nation's moral values. Instead, they brought about an anguished backlash among Americans who believed that to talk about human reproduction in schools was an unmitigated horror. They still do. Last summer, the conservative activist Barbara Comstock savaged none other than Obama for speaking warmly of SIECUS, which Comstock claimed -- just as the '60s activists did -- teaches that "masturbation and homosexuality are appropriate for kindergartners."
Like a patient under psychoanalysis, we still repress much that was most searing in those times, only to have it burst forth in odd moments. The after-effects of the divisions are so great that, glibly seeking to master these ghosts, we manage mostly to reproduce them.
In Sullivan's attempt to exorcise the 1960s, for example, he behaves like a textbook pundit . . . in the 1960s. Back then, pundits were always imagining magically conciliatory figures with the power to make the awful cacophony stop. Quiet and civil Eugene McCarthy challenged Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination as an antiwar candidate; columnist Mary McGrory called him "visibly and dramatically successful [in] closing the gap between the generations." Then came Robert F. Kennedy, whom the columnist Joseph Kraft likewise proclaimed to be one who held in his hands the power to unite "Black Power and Backlash."
In fact, both figures turned out to be massively polarizing. McCarthy was despised by Americans who saw all antiwar activists as harbingers of anarchy -- like the cops at the 1968 Democratic convention who were spotted vandalizing cars with McCarthy bumper stickers. Polls showed that RFK was "intensely disliked" by 50 percent more people than Johnson -- who was so intensely disliked that he had to drop out of the 1968 presidential race. Nixon, traditionally believed to be the most divisive figure in American politics, was also reinvented that year as a uniquely uniting figure; Kraft praised his ability to call the country to "charity and forbearance."
Four years later, many saw George McGovern the same way -- as "a politician of reconciliation," in the South Dakotan's own words. The Republican National Committee didn't get the memo. "He is in reality a dedicated radical extremist," declared its monthly magazine, First Monday, who would "unilaterally disarm . . . and open the White House to riotous street mobs."
A President Obama could no more magically transcend America's '60s-born divisions than McCarthy, Kennedy, Nixon or McGovern could, for the simple reason that our society is defined as much by its arguments as by its agreements. Over the meaning of "family," on sexual morality, on questions of race and gender and war and peace and order and disorder and North and South and a dozen other areas, we remain divided in ways that first arose after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. What Andrew Sullivan dismisses as "the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation" do not separate us from our "actual problems"; they define us, as much as the Great War defined France in the 1920s, '30s, '40s and beyond. Pretending otherwise simply isn't healthy. It's repression -- the kind of thing that shrinks say causes neurosis.
At least there's some comfort in knowing that our divisions aren't what they once were. Heck, in the 1860s, half the nation was devoted in body, mind and spirit to killing the other half; in the early 1930s, many sage observers presumed the nation to be poised on the verge of open, violent class warfare. We'll manage to muddle through again -- even burdened with mere flesh and blood human beings, not magical healing shamans, as our leaders.
Rick Perlstein, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, is the author of "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America," to be published in May.