CAMBRIDGE, MASS., JUNE 9 -- Returning to Harvard University 25 years after his graduation, Vice President Gore offered a salute today to the school's World War II veterans and called for an end to the cynicism that he said had gripped America when he was a student here.
Gore, principal speaker at Harvard's 343rd commencement, was warmly received -- both when he hailed the class of 1944 as liberators of Europe and again when he said how proud he was of his class, which is notorious for having helped shut down this, America's oldest college, in protest against the war in Vietnam.
"Without question, because of your service, the world changed in 1944," Gore said. "I believe the world also changed in important and enduring ways because of the events of 1969, a year of contradiction and contrasts, of glory and bitterness."
Gore's conciliatory speech climaxed a week of reunion festivities in which Harvard's class of 1969 sought to come to terms with the legacy of the Vietnam War and with itself.
"Back in 1969 our graduating class was in no mood to salute or to celebrate your sacrifice and your achievement," Gore told the class of '44.
But he drew cheers when he added that today, "We salute you."
The 1,500 or so members of the class of '69 is one of Harvard's most interesting collections. Gore and his college roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones, are two of the most notable members.
Others include television journalist Chris Wallace, former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams, the late singer-songwriter Gram Parsons of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and classical music composer John Coolidge Adams. And many who are not household names help run institutions that are -- from Sesame Street to Wall Street.
Children of the 1950s, they entered a Harvard in 1965 -- a world where young gentlemen wore jackets and ties at meals, where "girl" visitors had to be signed in and out of dorms and where straight white males still held dominion.
Gore said his classmates had tried to pursue their studies while "the war in Vietnam was blasting that small country apart physically and ripping America apart emotionally."
By early spring of 1969, growing student activism at Harvard had crystallized into a list of eight demands, including an end to the campus Reserve Officers Training Corps program and to Harvard's buying up of working-class neighborhoods, and the establishment of a black studies department.
When president Nathan Pusey refused, about 200 students took over University Hall and evicted the administrators.
Early the next morning, Pusey struck back, calling in hundreds of riot-equipped state and local police.
The police beat the students with nightsticks and retook the building. But their action radicalized many more students and precipitated a campuswide strike, dooming Pusey's presidency.
For many students, those final weeks of school were a heady education in power politics. "We felt that we were right on the edge of history," said Jeffrey Alexander, an SDS member and now teaches sociology at UCLA. "We felt we were living through a cultural storm with a sense of the world exploding around us."
To prepare for this week's reunion, class members were invited to sum up their lives thus far in two-page statements -- the ultimate final exam essay question. The results were released in a 1,271-page crimson volume.
Discreet as always, Gore wrote nothing, while Jones, the vice president's former roommate, bragged about his polo victories and about catching a "10-pound black bass on a fly rod."
Emily Sisson Osborn, a professor and associate dean at the University of California-San Francisco Medical School, captured in her entry the sense of change the 316 women members of the class faced after graduation:
"Looking back, I feel very different from the young woman who thought she'd be a writer, an actress, or an editor; happily married to a Wall Street lawyer with four perfect children, a house in the country and vacations in Maine... . Times have changed ... but I still see women struggling to balance a family and a career and putting their own goals behind those of their husbands."
The African American members of the class -- 40 men and just seven women -- also have had to face up to the gap between their sometimes radical aspirations and the world with which they came to terms.
"This is a class that Harvard is trying its best to forget," said Bob Hall, professor of history and African-American Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "There is another view: that we have all become lawyers, doctors and yuppies, that we have grown up and that the strike was a youthful, adolescent rebellion.
"It's true that people mature... . But you'll see that people have held on to whatever commitments they had and have found a way to pursue those."
A small band of classmates wrote in the reunion book about their homosexuality -- a fact that was seldom openly stated in 1969. Several members of the class have died of complications from AIDS, according to classmates, and the survivors staged a series of special events for gay and lesbian alums.
But perhaps the most poignant event was last Monday's reunion discussion of the Vietnam War, which by coincidence took place on the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
The dozen or so military veterans in the class who were in attendance were invited to stand and received a lengthy round of applause. Members applauded again when a speaker called for appreciation for the World War II generation.
But the longest and loudest cheers went to Joseph McGrath, a financial consultant from Arlington, Va.
He said he had entered the Reserve Officers Training Corps 25 years ago in hopes of satisfying his military requirement while avoiding combat and had wound up serving in Vietnam.
"If the people in this room have regrets, we have 30 or 40 years to do something, either in our neighborhood or in the country at large, that will make up for that," said McGrath, drawing thunderous applause.