Friday, November 09, 2007

Mixed Feelings About the Sixties

Suddenly we are back in the 1960s with Hillary Clinton citing virtues for what she did back then, Barack Obama claiming he is of a new generation above the divisiveness of those days and Tom Brokaw, as usual, writing a book to explain it all.

At her alma mater, Wellesley, this week, Clinton said, "I need your help to make the calls and knock on the doors and talk to your friends and family. That's what I did back in 1968 when a group of my dear friends and I jumped in a car…and would drive from Wellesley to Manchester, New Hampshire, stuffing envelopes and walking precincts for Eugene McCarthy. He was running for president on a platform of ending the Vietnam War. I am running for president on part of a platform of ending the war in Iraq."

In Iowa, Obama is telling voters, "Senator Clinton and others have been fighting some of the same fights since the '60s. It makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done. And I think that's what people hunger for."

Politicians hype everything about themselves, including the accident of when they were born, but the 1960s were formative years for today's America, exposing fault lines in our national life that still divide us.

From my ancient perspective, what happened back then goes too deep for glib generalizations and political pandering.

On the one hand, the first generation of Americans not entirely driven to outdo their parents materially turned to moral superiority--about war, race, gender. In the 1950s movie, "The Wild One," biker Marlon Brando, asked what he's rebelling against, answers, "What have you got?"

There was awakening from complacency to challenge injustice and try to create a better society. But there was also self-righteous and self-serving acting out by draft-card burners, culminating in the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention where anti-war protesters and delegates, including me, were tear-gassed.

We started the decade with JFK's "Ask what you can do for your country" and ended up with Richard Nixon and his dirty tricksters in the White House.

The culture wars began. People Nixon called "The Silent Majority" were appalled by privileged kids publicly trashing their traditional values at Woodstock and elsewhere, paving the way for Reagan's revival a decade later of the fictional feel-good America he lived in as an actor in 1940s movies.

In looking ahead to 2008, it would be a mistake to overuse the 1960s as a template. America was going through social and political growing pains back then that are not quite parallel to what we face now, but at the same time, there is no virtue in dismissing all that and assuming we can just turn to a blank new page in our history.

If Republicans are living in a nostalgic past, Democrats can't just push ahead to a fantasy future. There are enough questions to answer about what we do now in today's world.

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