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Getting Past the '60s? It's Not Going to Happen.
Getting Past the '60s? It's Not Going to Happen.

By Rick Perlstein
Sunday, February 3, 2008

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.

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.

nixonland@live.com

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.

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