Sunday, January 02, 2011

Godfather of the Boomers

The New York Times notes a milestone: This year Baby Boomers start turning 65, and for the next 19 years, about 10,000 a day “will cross that threshold.” This is the story of the man who helped shape them.

In 1945, millions of Americans came back from World War II and began to beget. The next year, a pediatrician named Benjamin Spock wrote the child-rearing bible for those Boomers, a book that would reach more readers than any other in history except the Bible itself.

“The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” was more than a manual--it changed the mindset of parents from treating children as creatures to be trained and restrained to seeing them as human beings to be loved and nurtured.

Books before Spock’s favored “less sentimentality and more spanking,” discouraged playing with children and were dubious about affection. “Infants,” one warned, “should be kissed, if at all, upon the cheek or forehead, but the less of this the better.” Another agreed: “Shake hands with them in the morning.”

Dr. Spock rejected all this. “Trust yourself,” his book began. “You know more than you think you do.”

Over 50 million readers began to do just that and turn to Spock for everything their children did and didn’t do from the minute they came home from the hospital to the day they left for college.

The life of the man who changed childhood for Americans spanned the century. Born in 1903, Benjamin McLane Spock went to medical school to become a pediatrician, trained in psychiatry when he decided children’s minds were as important as their bodies, wrote the Book, became a beloved national figure and, in his seventies, risked everything to stop the threat of nuclear war.

When he died in 1998, Dr. Spock left behind not only his achievements as the Boomers' pediatrician but their godfather, a man of conscience who spent the last decades of a long life trying to keep them from “being incinerated in an imbecilic war.”

His life reflects 20th century America, from isolation and innocence through wars, cultural upheavals and political chaos, as a man who embodied the nation’s bedrock values and tried to uphold them in a complex world.

In Dr. Spock’s later years, I saw his struggles up close as editor of his magazine columns, publisher of his most passionate book and, most of all, his friend.

He described his own childhood as Victorian. Oldest of six, he was born at home in New Haven, Connecticut to a strong-minded mother whose faith in fresh air made her children sleep on an open porch in winter and go to school in an unheated tent.

After decades of advising parents, Dr. Spock looked back at his own childhood. “Mother was too controlling, too strict, too moralistic,” he said. “Though I never doubted her love, I was intimidated by her. All my life, I’ve felt guilty until proved innocent.” But, he added, “I identified with her love of children,” and that led him to his life’s work.

After marrying the first girl he ever dated, Spock moved to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1927 until he completed medical school at the start of the Depression.

A newly minted Dr. Spock sought psychiatric training in pediatrics but found none, detouring into adult psychiatry, undergoing analysis himself and was caught up by growing interest in Freud’s ideas fostered by influx of European intellectuals escaping from Hitler.

His studies led to enthusiasm for learning how children’s minds work and to a Manhattan practice, where sophisticated parents sought him out. One was the anthropologist Margaret Mead, famous for her studies of the South Seas. She not only wanted Spock to be her child’s doctor but insisted on having him in the delivery room while a camera crew filmed the birth.

As a successful pediatrician, the sheltered boy from New Haven began to move in a cosmopolitan world, wearing a fitted overcoat and black Homburg. But something was brewing under that rakish hat. In his office, parents asked about behavior but in Freudian seminars no one cared about such mundane matters. Spock began to translate theory into practice, offering advice in simple, reassuring terms.

When an editor of Pocket Books suggested a book (“For a quarter, it doesn’t have to be very good,” he said), he saw it as a way of passing along his ideas.

In the 1950s, Dr. Spock became a household name. First year sales were three-quarters of a million and never slowed down. His comforting tone resonated with parents who had moved to suburbs, away from their families, and wanted to give children a happier childhood than their own.

He soon attained publicity sainthood, becoming a beloved figure like Ike and Albert Schweitzer, representing values of goodness and decency to a public yearning for stability after a Depression and a devastating war.

A decade later, in the middle of a night when my first child was two, he began barking like a seal with dry, rasping coughs. We did what parents did then. In our copy of Spock, we found “croup” and took the baby into a bathroom to let steaming hot water from the shower ease his cough.

Seven years later, in Vermont, our third child was running a high fever. At an emergency room, doctors asked us to leave him in the hospital.

After a sleepless night, I phoned Ben Spock. He spoke to the head of pediatrics, who told us, “The resident did the right thing. Blood in the stool can indicate serious conditions. But in over thirty years I’ve never seen any of them in a child that age. Take him home.”

Once again, Dr. Spock saved us from worry as he did generations of parents. In the time between, I had persuaded him to write for the magazine I edited, Redbook, and in years to come, would see him use his fame, not to get more fame, money or power but try to stop what he considered an immoral war. His efforts hurt his reputation, reduced his income, disrupted his family life, got him arrested repeatedly and finally convicted in a Federal court and sentenced to two years in prison.

All this happened when Benjamin Spock was almost 70. He spent the next two decades speaking, marching and protesting. Instead of retirement on the sailboat he loved, he was on the road, sleeping in cheap motels and student apartments.

He never cared about self—protection. Once, I pointed out possible objections to something he had written. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry about my sounding naive. That’s how I’ve made my way.”

In the 1960s, when we were on a committee to ban testing of nuclear weapons, someone proposed an ad. Although Spock had never endorsed a product, he agreed. The result was a memorable image, the tall pediatrician looking down at a child, with the headline “Dr. Spock is Worried” and an appeal to save future generations from nuclear war.

In those days, amid campus riots, sexual revolution, drugs and the rise of the counterculture, Dr. Spock was blamed for creating a rebellious generation by encouraging parents to be permissive.

Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who later resigned for taking bundles of cash when he was a Governor, would point to rowdy hecklers of his speeches (often planted in the audience) and then intone, “Look at what Spock has spawned!”

The first article Dr. Spock wrote for me in 1963 foreshadowed the injustice of such accusations, explaining the rigid pediatric advice when he started practicing and how later he had revised his book “to counteract a growing tendency toward over-permissiveness among certain parents, to buck up their self-assurance and authority, to help them give firmer guidance to their children.” He had warned about “spoiled or undisciplined behavior.”

But media labels have to be short and punchy. A few years later the “Beloved Baby Doctor” became “Father of the Spock Generation.” Critics overlooked more salient facts that the hippies were children of unprecedented affluence and the first kids to grow up with television. Although Spock deplored their manners and style, he came to agree with them about Vietnam.

He had always voted Republican because his father had. But after Eisenhower promised to boost federal aid to education and failed to follow through, Spock took it personally and supported Adlai Stevenson in 1956.

Four years later, Spock told a reporter he would vote for Kennedy. When Jacqueline Kennedy heard he was for her husband, she replied, “Well, I’m for Dr. Spock.” They did a commercial together at the Kennedy home.

After the “Dr. Spock is Worried” ad helped persuade the Senate to ratify the test-ban treaty, he joined the board of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and a year later was elected co-chairman.

In 1964, he supported Lyndon Johnson, who vowed not to “send American boys to fight an Asian war.” LBJ called him afterward and said, “I hope I’ll prove worthy of your trust.” Three months later, Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and sending more troops there.

Spock’s outrage got him into trouble, not only with those he opposed, but political allies. SANE felt its respectability threatened when he led a New York march of 150,000 people, not all of them respectable, against the war in April, 1965 along with another disaffected board member, Martin Luther King.

Soon there was talk of a King-Spock ticket for the White House in 1968, but after King was killed, Spock found himself isolated among the youngest, most radical peace seekers.

In 1969, in a brief career as a book publisher, my first volume was by Dr. Spock. Although “Baby and Child Care” had earned millions, his new manuscript sent his publishers into panic: He was writing about morality and politics. I published it.

“I’ve spent my life,” Dr. Spock wrote, “studying and advising how to bring up children to be well-adjusted and happy. Now I see the futility of such efforts if these children are then to be incinerated in an imbecilic war.” The book gave his views on idealism, sex roles, aggression and hostility, and the need for moral education. I suggested the title, “Decent and Indecent: Our Political and Personal Behavior.”

In 1968 Spock was indicted for “conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet resistance to the draft” in a blatantly political act by the Johnson Administration.

The main testimony came from FBI men who, while interviewing him, had received a lecture about the immorality of the war. Spock urged them to take notes and had them scribbling furiously to keep up. Under cross—examination, Spock’s lawyer showed that, even so, the FBI men got much of it wrong. The other “evidence” consisted of films showing anti—war protests.

After lunch, with courtroom lights dimmed, Spock would nod off. “I was surprised,” he said, “that somebody brought up as goody-goody could go to sleep at my own trial for a federal crime.”

He was convicted, sentenced to two years in jail and fined $5000. A year later the Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

In 1972 Spock ran for President of the United States as candidate of the People’s Party, described as “feminist, democratic and socialist.” Spock said he was chosen “partly because I was well-known and partly because I could pay my own traveling expenses.”

In early September, he qualified for Secret Service protection and was surrounded by three shifts of eight agents each. “It was enjoyable to have lots of company when traveling,” he recalled. “They were a cheerful, witty group of men.” On the ballot in ten states, Spock got 79,000 votes.

One of Ben Spock’s endearing traits was his good-natured surprise at the affection he inspired, unaware that it was a response to his own expansive nature. When he was honored in Connecticut, he was astounded I had driven up to be there, along with Robert Ryan, an idealistic man who was usually cast as a psychopath in the movies. He found it hard to believe we would leave our families on a Saturday night to show our respect.

In 1993, at a dinner for the 25th anniversary of his conspiracy trial, the man who had prosecuted him, John Wall, came up to shake his hand. Told that Wall considered him “a real hero,” Spock’s reaction was typical, “I’m amazed.”

Until he died in 1998 at 94, Benjamin Spock never stopped giving of himself. “Every couple of years,” he wrote, “I respond to a call from a peace organization, knowing the older I get, the more attention I’ll draw. Especially if there is a barbed-wire fence to be climbed. I’m going to keep climbing until I keel over.”

So he did, a plain-spoken man who walked tall through a dramatic life of trying to do the right thing and inspiring generations to rear their children to do the same.

1 comment:

Christina G. said...

This is an amazing, very informative article. I certainly knew of Benjamin Spock, but only as the Baby Doctor...Though not young, I am much younger than he would be today, never had children either so this incredible man wasn't really on my radar. But still, I was completely unaware of his political/public protester side.

Wow. Thank you for such a wonderful account of his life & accomplishments.