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Outlook: Shrapnel of the Sixties, Still Under Our Skin

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Rick Perlstein
Senior Fellow, Campaign for America's Future; Author of Forthcoming "Nixonland"
Monday, February 4, 2008; 1:00 PM

"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 can't yet "overcome" the '60s because we still don't even know what the '60s were -- not even close."

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Rick Perlstein, author of the forthcoming "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America," was online Monday, Feb. 4 at 1 p.m. ET to take questions on his Outlook article on the deep cultural divides of the 1960s, and why there has not been and cannot be a unifying figure to close the 40-year-old wounds.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Rick Perlstein: Rick Perlstein here, glad to take on all comers.

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Washington: My favorite icon of the 1960s is the teenage garage band of 1966. John Kerry, with his pedigree in The Elektras, a prep school band, seemed to embody this feeling that any teenager could be the next John Lennon, or at least the next Mark Lindsay. Who do you see representing the Batman-and-Nancy-Sinatra part of the 1960s on the political scene these days?

Rick Perlstein: Friends, thrilled and proud to be able to participate in this forum. Fascinating bunch of questions. I'll start with the most fun one!

Absolute continuity between the 1960s and now on the cultural production tip. Then, any kid could start a garage band. Now -- using the program bundled into every Macintosh, "Garage Band" -- every kid can produce musical tracks (and videos). That kind of grassroots cultural energy is crucial, but the big difference between then and now was that the cultural industry, I think, was much more open to innovation, and fetishized the young. One of the studios, I think it was Warner Brothers, would give a $1 million budget to just about any semi-established director who wanted to do a picture that "spoke to" youth. This was after "Easy Rider" came out and became a surprise hit.

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Dallas: Don't you think the whole concept of the singular "uniqueness" of the 60's is wildly overblown? Just to name a few, the "wounds" of the '50s -- Little Rock, McCarthy, Korea; the '70s -- impeachment and resignation, loss in Vietnam; the '80s -- dirty wars in South America, Iran-Contra, Savings and Loan fraud; the '90s -- Clinton hate, government shutdown; not to mention this very consequential decade.

Rick Perlstein: Not wildly overblown -- there was no time in this century quite like the '60s; certainly in the 1950s or this decade no one was bombing buildings, or hunting down anti-war activists and shooting them in the back of the head, as I document in "Nixonland." But there are important continuities from, say, the 1950s. I once wrote that "a bell-bottom is but a tail fin rendered in cloth." The idea that we are a prosperous society in which individuals should express themselves through their personal style is directly continuous with the 1950s.

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Munich, Germany: The demonstrations and violent confrontations between police and demonstrators in the U.S. had strong side-effects in Europe, fueling strong leftist movements and demonstrations. How would you compare the relationship between the U.S. and Europe in the '60s (during the Vietnam and Cold Wars) with post Iraq War conditions now?

Also, is there any indication that people of the U.S. value the relationship to Europe more now than they did in the '60s?

Rick Perlstein: There's a great book on the subject by Drew University professor Jeremy Varon, "Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies," comparing and contrasting the violent ultra-left in America and Europe. There are continuities, too, between the U.S.-Europe relationship in ordinary politics. Both in the 1960s and now, there was deep distrust of the U.S. as the 800-pound gorilla of the world economy, fighting a semi-imperialist war. The American right distrusted Europe, just as now; in 1967 they burned a French flag for De Gaulle's opposition to the Vietnam War.

But then and now, the relationship was complex and symbiotic.

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South Bend, Ind.: Greetings. I found your article interesting, but I have to say that I don't think you understand what people like Andrew Sullivan are getting at. The divisions of the '60s may well be impossible to heal fully. I wasn't there, but from all I hear, they were traumatic and it does seem impossible for many who lived through them to forget about them. But what younger people are hoping for is not so much that we resolve all the issues that were fought over in the '60s, as that we move on to talking about today's problems, without letting what happened in the '60s define how we approach today's problems. (That is, after all, what we already do when our elders aren't around.)

For example, one legacy of the Vietnam War is that, in generationally mixed company, it's still necessary in conversations about the Iraq War to say that, of course, we support the troops. This is, simply and solely, a legacy of Vietnam. Amongst ourselves, I've never heard younger people feel they had to say this. Of course we support the troops. Why wouldn't we? (For that matter, I never have  understood why opposition to the war in Vietnam didn't make people feel sorry for the troops who didn't start the war, but might die in it. If you were unhappy about the war, why would you take it out on the people most horribly affected by it?) But for older people, who saw returning troops mistreated, it's necessary to say that they support the troops, even now. They can't just assume it, as we do.

This merely would be irritating if it weren't for the fact that it's a distraction that has kept us from talking about today's version of supporting the troops: caring for the massive number of severely wounded returning soldiers. While people were grandstanding about supporting the troops, many of the actual troops were suffering through horrible conditions in underfunded military hospitals. We could have been talking about that instead.

Similarly, the battle-lines of the '60s debate about Vietnam were drawn as an ideological clash between "war" and "peace," and that way of discussing a decision about war has dominated our public discourse for the past several decades now, with disastrous results. I say disastrous, because what it has meant is that anyone who opposes a particular war is thought to be doing so because he/she simply opposes war in general. The opposite is also true: those who support a particular war are thought of as supporting all wars. This has meant that it has been hard to have a clear debate about the merits of any particular war, like the one we're currently involved in. I opposed the Iraq War, but had friends my age who supported it. Among people my own age, though, we could debate the possibility of WMD, the likely results of an invasion and so on pretty clearly. But when I had to explain my opposition to the invasion to Boomers, I often found myself having to step back and explain that I wasn't the sort of peacenik that they were pigeonholing me as, and they should respond to the specifics of my argument. Obama spoke for us when he said he didn't oppose all wars but he did oppose a dumb war.

Simply put, the facts on issue after issue have moved on. The contours of debate all too often have remained static. That means that we're not talking as productively as we could be about the problems we face. Perhaps never we will be able to agree about whether Vietnam was warranted, etc., etc. People like Sullivan aren't saying that we have to resolve that issue -- but we could agree not to talk about it when we're supposed to be talking about other things. We really don't have to resolve Vietnam in order to figure out a good way of making the best out of the mess we've made in Iraq. And it's more than a bit insulting to soldiers risking their lives in Iraq when our presidential campaigns turn on what people were doing in Vietnam and Cambodia. I hardly think the Boomers would have appreciated a vigorous national debate about Korea and World War II while people were being sent to the jungle.

I'm sure you're right that many of the divisions spawned in the '60s (unfortunately) will remain with us for a long time, just as those from the Civil War and many other conflicts also still have a distant effect on our national consciousness. If that's all you mean, then I can agree with you. But if you mean that -- unlike the divisions of the Civil War -- the divisions of the '60s are going to continue to dominate our political discourse for the foreseeable future, then I think you need to take a wider view of history.

Sincerely.

Rick Perlstein: There are a lot of misconceptions about what actually happened in the '60s because of so much obfuscating right-wing propaganda. The antiwar protesters in the 1960s for the most part supported the troops heavily! The banner the marchers to the Pentagon carried in 1967 read, "Support the Troops, Bring them Home." By 1971 the most vibrant part of the antiwar movement was Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and antiwar travelers to North Vietnam took great risks to deliver family letters to POWs. Some of George McGovern's biggest supporters were POW families disgusted with how the Nixon administration had exploited the POW issue. And much (though certainly not all) of the notion that antiwar activists were hostile to returning veterans was simply myth -- see Jerry Lembcke's book "The Spitting Image."

In fact, the people most likely to spit on returning Vietnam veterans were World War II veterans disgusted that the returning vets "lost their war."

I have many examples of this in "Nixonland."

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Baltimore: Sir: I just finished reading your excellent Outlook piece, and agree that the '60s won't be "over" for quite some time.

Like you, I was born in 1969 and, perhaps unlike you, have spent much of my life being repulsed by the antics of the Boomers. I used to think that perhaps once the Boomers started graying (and dying) that perhaps people our age finally would be able to not hear them relive their lives over and over again. Unfortunately the next generation (Generation Y, or the Millenials, I think the media generally call them) seems quite taken with the Boomers, or at least the liberal history they offer. Do you see this? If so, do you think they'll find a way to reinvent the '60s yet again?

Rick Perlstein: When people start making generalizations about generations, they drop 50 IQ points, I'm convinced. What the hell are "the antics of the Boomers"? Are you referring to the majority of new 18- to 21-year-old voters who went for Richard Nixon in 1972? They were "Baby Boomers," too.

We understand so little about the complexity and richness of the '60s. We see everything in cliches. That's what my work is about fighting.

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Vienna, Va.: Isn't part of the problem with an honest depiction of the '60s and '70s is a sympathy for the left by the media? Beginning with the late 1960s, the media seemed to move more and more to aligning themselves with the causes of the liberal left and now many in the media are veterans of those causes. The picture we get from the media is filtered through their rose-colored glasses.

Rick Perlstein: Whatever sympathy the media had for the 1960s left was mostly gone by 1969, when the angry reaction to the media's sympathetic reaction to the protesters at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968 caused a deep bout of soul-searching among media executives, and led to stories like this: In 1969, when NBC held meetings to plan their new news magazine program "First Tuesday," someone asked what the three biggest stories in the country were that they should cover. "The war, the blacks and the economy," someone responded. Someone else shot back "I don't want to see a single black face on 'First Tuesday.' "

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Rochester, N.Y.: I'm a titanic fan of your work, so I hope that you'll let me ask two questions:

Isn't it in some sense the 1860s as much as the 1960s that drive the current political climate? The most striking thing about our political landscape is how overwhelmingly white Southerners vote Republican -- as much as 85 percent in some states.

Don't you think that some of the reason the '60s are so important is that Boomer pundits dwell on them so obsessively? I'm not sure if you read Joe Klein's columns for example, but he often writes as if hippies were still an important political force. Isn't there some uniquely Boomerist about the inability to get beyond adolescent memories?

Rick Perlstein: Regarding your first question, absolutely -- and it's 147 years later! You don't just wish away social traumas like that. Just look at today's debates about the Confederate flag.

Your second point is right, too. A lot of the Boomer pundits who monopolize the opinion sections and TV chat shows got their start as young hotshots in a very different atmosphere -- the 1960s, when youth was worshipped, and newspapers were hiring 22-year-old columnists left and right. Now the same people who got their start then, Klein among them, are wildly overrepresented -- and that badly distorts our national discourse.

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Laurel, Md.: I can see at least two reasons why the '60s appear to have set up such a fractious political climate: Prior to the '60s, some groups didn't have a political voice. Blacks largely were prevented from voting and women didn't have their own issues and constituency. A lot of today's political divides are rooted in those demographic splits.

Also, the '60s did solve some of our most important problems (through civil rights, Medicare and some measure of urban renewal) leaving comparatively contentious but minor issue for politicians and the press to play up. For instance, during the 2000 presidential race, No Child Left Behind and a Social Security lockbox were highly charged contentious issues, until Sept. 11 a year later put the scope of our differences into perspective.

Rick Perlstein: Laurel, your town is the site of one of the most fractious "1960s" moments (historians often speak of the "Long '60s," which stretches until the Nixon resignation): the assassination of George Wallace in May of 1972.

I have to say that there are just as contentious issues riving the American fabric now as in the 1960s, but their contentiousness is not well-represented in the national media, which fetishizes consensus and fears change, just as it did in the 1950s. The economic inequality that began taking off in the mid-1970s is as epochal as the civil rights struggles in the way it has transformed the very fabric of our society -- but just as in the 1950s America appeared relatively tranquil because the media avoided that conflict, the 2000 election appeared tranquil because we avoid our own deep, ineluctable conflicts (but can't forever, that's for sure). There's a lot of repression, and it makes us neurotic as a nation. (The issues Nixon and Kennedy fought on were just as trivial as the "lockbox" was in 2000 -- but by 1968, Americans' entire sense of themselves had transformed.)

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Washington: I was born in 1959 and remember the late '60s and early '70s through the lens of the media (TV news, Life magazine, the local newspaper, etc.). Sometimes I have a hard time believing I'm in the same generation as the folks born in 1946 and 1947, although I get flummoxed when I realize how many of my friends, born in the late '60s and early '70s, have no memory whatsoever of the Apollo program -- the moon landing was the highlight of my youth.

Since the late 1980s I've been imagining "golden age clubs" where the elderly retirees self-segregate themselves by what side they were on in the 1960s. Do you think we actually see that in the not so distant future?

Rick Perlstein: We already have two of those clubs. One is called the "Democratic Party," and the other is called the "Republican Party."

That's an exaggeration -- and a lot of people have switched sides from where they were in the 1960s -- but for the most part, the political identities of the two parties largely are products of the 1960s, for good or ill.

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Washington: Very well said, South Bend, Ind.!

And as for IQ dropping when generalizing about the '60s -- isn't that exactly what your article (and presumably your book, which you may want to mention a few more times) did? I disagree that the Millenials glorify the Boomers, as the other poster suggested; I think that, like South Bend, they are eager to move on -- and given their numbers, hopefully can do so to the benefit of all of us. I thought the companion piece to your Outlook article, which focused on the Millenials and compared them to the "Greatest Generation," was a much more forward-looking and thoughtful piece of journalism than "it's all about the '60s, man." (And by the way, I am in my mid-40s.)

Rick Perlstein: "Nixonland." Available for pre-order now.

I worked on it for seven years, and it's done now, so I'm a little obsessed. I'm sorry. I'll lay off from now on. Just one more point: it's 900 pages, so there are very few generalizations, and plenty of specifics.

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Washington: One thing that stayed with me from your Goldwater book was the enormous number of influential conservatives who played a role in his campaign. Some were already established like Buckley, but others such as Robert Bork and Phyillis Schlafly were just starting out. The neocons also were relatively young, although not entirely ready to join the GOP. Given that so much of the intellectual capital of the right rests in this generation, what do you see happening as they become inactive or die? The younger generation seems to consist of polemicists like Coulter, or shallow pseudo-intellectuals like Alan Murray or Dinesh D'Souza. What will the next stage of conservativism look like?

Rick Perlstein: The right invests enormous effort and capital in cultivating young voices -- they do a better job than the left. Here's a good article about that.

Likewise, the major liberal conference in the District every year, Take Back America, charges several hundred dollars for registration, as does the major right-wing conference, CPAC -- but rich conservatives subsidize the next generation by lowering the registration fee at CPAC to $25 for youngsters. There's no parallel on the left.

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Baltimore: The less-timid days of '60s media: I was 21 in 1969, so I of course remember the era well. As someone who went to school in Washington and was a regular reader of The Post, I also remember columnist Nicholas von Hoffman, who had worked with Saul Alinsky as a community organizer in Chicago and was pretty much a die-hard leftist. Despite what the right thinks, no major newspaper in this country has a columnist today who is as far to the left as von Hoffman was -- E.J. Dionne is what passes for leftist today. And I think the corporatization of the media is responsible.

Rick Perlstein: I was going to mention von Hoffman. He was part of a whole bunch of "youth columnists" at major papers who spoke to and from the New Left and counterculture, more or less. Bob Greene at the Chicago Daily News. Anthony Lewis at the New York Times. Nothing like that today.

Partly it's corporatization of the media; partly it's the very effective organizing efforts of conservatives against the "so-called liberal media"; partly it is the unique -- and perhaps never to be repeated -- worship of youth as a good in itself in 1960s culture.

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Washington: Hi. I share your pessimism about any candidate thought to be able to "mend," if you will, the unresolved cultural and political divides that emerged in the 1960s. But my question is, don't you believe it is the Baby Boomers in their 50s and 60s who are imposing this expectation on Obama, and not the people of our generation -- born in the 1960s, like you, Obama and myself -- who are interested in creating our own narrative?

Rick Perlstein: I think Obama bears some responsibility himself, as I mention in the article, for announcing himself as the figure to "transcend" the 1960s.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: As a woman born in 1963, and thus officially a Baby Boomer (although the Obama candidacy has people questioning the 1964 cutoff as too late), I am sick and tired of the self-congratulating navel-gazing of the real Baby Boomers. Give it up, people, it's a new millennium, and there is so much excitement in the world. I truly think the boomers are dragging down the U.S. in more ways than just sucking up Social Security -- you are keeping us in the past and creating a drag on momentum towards the global future. The '60s weren't that great for a lot of the world's population, and we are sick and tired of all the aging white people reminiscing about drugs, protests and free love -- now that you've all bought SUVs, I guess the rest of the world needs to fix global warming?

Rick Perlstein: Like I say, people drop 50 IQ points. Generations are not unitary entities -- they are defined by their conflicts. In 1966, it was teenagers and people in their early 20s, massing in crowds of thousands -- Baby Boomers -- who threw rocks at Martin Luther King when he marched for open housing in Chicago.

We hardly know what the 1960s were.

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Anonymous: Do you examine the general values of the generations? I have read commentary about how the youth of the 1960s rebelled against the fear that their parents -- who went through the Depression and World War II -- instilled, and how ironically many of the children of couples who got married in the 1960s have taken the message of the 1960s of more freedom and openness, and because of that are more conservative in attitudes than their parents.

Rick Perlstein: They main factor, I think, was economic. The economy was prosperous and unflappable, like it had been probably in no other society in human history. Many young people could afford personal experimentation in a way unimaginable to today's students, saddled as they are with massive student debt (remember that at Berkeley, one of the epicenters of the student uprising, tuition was free!).

By the same token, this increased the resentment of less-privileged young people for the dalliances of countercultural and antiwar folks who were seen, accurately for the most part, as more financially comfortable than "traditional" young people. It wasn't uncommon for working-class youth to hear "come back when you have that draft thing out of the way," at the factory gates, while richer kids had no problems getting out of their military obligations.

A lot of the resentments were class resentments. Fortune magazine did a huge poll of college students' attitudes in 1969 (like I said, the society worshipped youth; can you imagine a business magazine devoting a whole issue to such a survey now?) and the respondents from the more prestigious tier of schools were considerable more left-leaning than the lower tier.

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'60s and the Boomers: To what extent can one separate the psychology of the Boomers from the events of the '60s? Isn't some of the residue of the '60s the self-involved, self-important mindset of Boomers? Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think other generations were as inclined to bloviate about all the great things they learned growing up in Buffalo or to agonize about politicians' "character" the way Boomer journalists do.

Rick Perlstein: Once again, which Boomers? A 1969 study from the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center found that twice as many voters under 35 had voted for George Wallace in 1968 than they had Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Of course, a lot of the Baby Boomers who were radical in 1968 were radical in a very shallow way, and shamefacedly reacted against their former selves and overcompensated by moving right, or by developing a visceral loathing of phantom hippies they see lurking around every corner even in 2007.

It's complicated stuff.

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Mount Rainier, Md.: How do you see the '60s legacy carrying over into the next presidential term? More importantly, how can we get serious needs (like a new Public Works Administration to redo infrastructure, making it safe and sustainable) through today's codified (by the '60s or whatever else) Congress?

Rick Perlstein: A Democratic president with a strong Democratic Congress might be able to do what you imagine. A Republican president, or a Democratic president without a strong Democratic Congress, will not, because conservatives don't believe in a strong central government to provide such things. It's a basic ideological difference.

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