Back to the '60s
By NANCY DEWOLF SMITH
December 7, 2007; Page W6
For better or worse, 1968 has become iconic in American history, and
we're about to get a burst of retrospecting in the looming
40th-anniversary year of 2008. A harbinger, "1968 With Tom Brokaw"
appears on the History Channel Sunday ( 9-11 p.m. ET). It makes a
start at sorting through the chaff that era has generated. Beginning
(groan) in Haight-Ashbury, it eventually reminds us that beneath the
free love and the face paint, 1968 was also a bummer. Yet while the
time-tripping is irresistible, there is a lot of stale material along the way.
This is not entirely Mr. Brokaw's fault (and in a way it may be his
point -- more about that later). Take the soundtrack, including such
classics as "Magic Carpet Ride," "All Along the Watchtower" and
"Jumpin' Jack Flash." The latter, which accompanies footage of
brawling protesters and Chicago cops at the 1968 Democratic
Convention, accidentally made me laugh. You could picture an editing
room where everybody said, "Hey, cool, this Stones tune will set the
mood." Yet the music of the era has been replayed so often and become
such a routine part of the culture -- including advertising for
everything from cars to retirement financial planners -- that it has
lost its punch and is veering toward kitsch.
At least for people who were in the thick of things in the '60s, the
old music evokes a satisfying feeling of nostalgia. That cannot be
said for the appearance of Tommy Smothers, trotted out here, for what
feels like the millionth time, to natter on about how CBS censored
and ultimately canceled "The Smothers Brothers" show because of its
barbs about the Vietnam War and government morons. He's been dining
out on that for decades, as has Arlo Guthrie on the whole "Alice's
Restaurant" thing. At least it's fun to see Arlo, his famous locks
now glowing brilliant white, admitting with a grin that although he
was part of a movement that believed it was more healthy to smoke
dope than to drink alcohol, he has now changed, and "grown to like whiskey."
But what about Michelle Phillips, who tells us: "I had a good
relationship with drugs. I used them, I had fun with them. I grew
with them"? This coming from the Mama whose erstwhile husband Papa
John, and teenaged stepdaughter Mackenzie, became ravaged addicts?
Mr. Brokaw, perhaps spellbound like so many other men by the
still-lovely Ms. Phillips, offers no perspective along this line.
When the subject of drugs comes up among those interviewed for the
film, in fact, it is usually in the context of how LSD or something
expanded their consciousness. An annoying echo, in other words, of
the same things Time magazine and others were breathlessly reporting
four decades ago.
As a strong antidote, however, we have David Smith, who set up the
Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, and now, as in 1968, still struggles to
patch up lives ruined by drugs. Dr. Smith has no patience for those
who ignore "the dark side" of an era they instead romanticize: "How
can we learn from history if we don't have an accurate reflection of history?"
Of course, some of the darkness was obvious in 1968, and not all of
it had to do with the Vietnam War. We meet a draft dodger, and Mr.
Brokaw reminds us that many more Americans went not to Canada but to
serve in Southeast Asia. Yet the turmoil of antiwar protests was
punctuated by shattering events. The assassinations of Martin Luther
King and Robert Kennedy and an explosion of race riots contributed to
a sense, as Mr. Brokaw puts it, that "the entire social fabric was
unraveling with frightening speed."
For some, that was the goal, although most have little to brag about
now. There's Mark Rudd, a leader of the campus takeover that shut
down Columbia University (soon after his trip to admire the Cuban
Revolution). Mr. Rudd went on to help found the Weather Underground.
He says now that he was mistaken to believe that such a revolution
was possible, but offers no more profound observations than that.
Ditto the folks who fought police outside the August convention. For
a battle with the establishment that lasted only 18 minutes -- we're
shocked to be reminded how brief it was -- what did they accomplish?
How about Nixon's election and the eclipse of the Democratic Party?
Amid nonsense from token figures like Jerry Garcia and footnotes like
Mr. Rudd, some voices stand out. The Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz
tartly observes that for all the hoopla then (and wait for 2008)
about the idealistic youth and their counterculture, "Most of the
time, it was a wild excess of self-glorification and narcissism..."
by "an incredibly spoiled, self-indulgent generation...." Stewart
Brand, founder of "The Whole Earth Catalogue," is less trenchant, but
you get the feeling that he thinks a lot of the beautiful people were
poseurs, too. This doesn't come across so strongly in the film as it
does in Mr. Brokaw's new book "Boom! Voices of the Sixties." There we
learn that Internet pioneer Mr. Brand supports nuclear power, and
that when people tell him they read "Whole Earth" in their youth, he
asks them "Why?" Few have a good answer.
Mr. Brokaw's book is far more interesting than this film, because it
affords time for analysis and insights. On TV, events and fads tend
to whip by, leaving only a faint taste of the substantial, in, say,
the obvious contrast in reactions to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. As
for the staleness of some images, Mr. Brokaw doesn't say so
explicitly, but you sense that he wants us to notice that as much as
the '60s altered America, America has also defanged the era by
absorbing and even consuming it like a commodity.
The times may change, but they also change back. Perhaps the most
delicious moment comes when we see a women's liberation protest
outside the 1968 Miss America pageant. There they are, marching on
the boardwalk in Atlantic City and throwing into a trash can the
hated symbols of their oppression. And not only bras, we are
informed, but high-heeled shoes. Manolo Blahnik and Victoria's Secret
must be laughing all the way to the bank.
Tom Brokaw's '1968' sheds too little light on a very dark year
December 7th 2007
by David Hinckley
1968 with Tom Brokaw.'
There's a lot we've never put in perspective about the 1960s, and if
Tom Brokaw's special on 1968 suggests we're ready to start trying
again, that's okay. If 2008 learns some lessons from 1968, it will be
a much smarter year.
But at some point, we're going to need more than this special provides.
"1968" doesn't lack integrity, interest or insight. It just stops
short of exploring the questions that could move the chains from
where the discussion left off a few years ago when media attention
started shifting from the '60s to the '70s and '80s.
Brokaw, who's just written a book on the '60s, acknowledges that 1968
was one of those years when news blew in on every passing wind.
With President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision not to seek reelection,
the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert
Kennedy, campus rebellion, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam
War, even two hours allows for only a short summation of a long year.
Brokaw handles that part well. His personal recollections, enhanced
by news footage and interviews with other people who were there,
frame the story solidly.
Thing is, we've been there before. Hearing Olympic champion Rafer
Johnson talk about Robert Kennedy is moving, but - not to sound
callous - redundant. We know what Kennedy represented.
More intriguing are ideas that pop up and fade away. When Brokaw
smartly notes that Sen. Eugene McCarthy was an unlikely catalyst for
the antiwar movement, it could have been instructive to explore the
complex relationship between McCarthy and the forces he tapped into -
with the obvious link to the choices anti-war forces face today.
Pat Buchanan, the strongest conservative voice here, hits another
promising chord by calling 1968 "the most divisive year in American history."
While the Civil War might argue otherwise, it's undeniable that
division felt like a defining force in '68. Resentment against
"Godless anti-American hippies," a force that pushed Richard Nixon
into the White House, needs more discussion at some point than clips
of George Wallace on the campaign trail.
Still more provocative is Bruce Springsteen likening his own life in
1968 to "two trains running on the same track," one in sympathy with
the rebels, the other maneuvering to make it under the old rules.
Bruce speaks for a whole lot of people there, and the implications of
that duality helped shape not just 1968, but the decades that followed.
It's not that "1968" doesn't make valid points. It does. But it also
makes you dream of documentaries not yet made and ask why not.
1968 timeline - courtesy of the History Channel
January 22 - Rowan & Martin's variety show Laugh-In debuts.
January 23 - North Korea captures the USS Pueblo.
January 30-31 - The Tet offensive in Vietnam shatters the American
public's image of the war.
February - The 1968 Winter Olympics open in Grenoble. Frenchman
Jean-Claude Killy wins three gold medals in alpine skiing; Peggy
Fleming takes the only U.S. gold, in figure skating.
February 1 - Eddie Adams snaps the Pulitzer-winning photo of South
Vietnamese Police Chief Nyguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong officer.
February 1 - Priscilla Presley gives birth to Elvis's only child,
Lisa Marie, at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.
February 8 - Highway patrolmen in South Carolina shoot into a crowd
of black college students protesting a segregated bowling alley;
three die and 27 are injured in what becomes known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
February 8 - George Wallace enters the presidential race as an independent.
February 16 - The Beatles travel to India to visit the Maharishi
Mahesh Yogi. In the Grammy Awards on February 29, album of the year
goes to the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
February 19 - The PBS children's show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood debuts.
March 12 - President Johnson wins the New Hampshire presidential
primary by a surprisingly narrow margin over anti-war candidate
March 16 - Sen. Robert Kennedy announces he will run for the
March 16 - U.S. soldiers, under the command of Lt. William Calley,
kill more than 300 Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre.
March 25 - The TV show The Monkees airs its last original episode.
March 31 - President Johnson announces he will not seek reelection to
April 4 - The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. Riots
break out in cities across the U.S.
April 10 - In the Heat of the Night, a thriller exploring black/white
social issues, wins five Academy Awards including best picture. Mike
Nichols is named best director for The Graduate. The ceremony is
postponed for two days due to the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.
April 11 - President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
April 23-30 - Anti-war protestors, led by Mark Rudd and Students for
a Democratic Society (SDS), shut down Columbia University. The
protest will continue, in various forms, into June.
April 29 - The Broadway musical Hair opens, creating a sensation with
its profanity, irreverence for the American flag and its nude scene.
May 13 - The United States and North Vietnam begin peace talks in Paris.
May 13 - After massive student protests erupt in Paris, French
workers join them for a one-day general strike in which nearly
800,000 people march through the streets protesting police violence
and calling for the fall of Charles de Gaulle's government.
May 30 - The Beatles begin recording the White Album. It will top the charts.
June 5 - Senator Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan
after winning the Democratic primary in California.
July 25 - Pope John Paul VI publishes Humanae Vitae, condemning birth
control and abortion.
July 28-29 - The American Indian Movement is founded in Minneapolis.
August 8 - Richard Nixon wins the Republican nomination for president.
August 22-30 - In Chicago, police and anti-war protestors clash
outside the Democratic National Convention, leading to the arrest of
the Chicago Eight (later the Chicago Seven) - some of whom were Bobby
Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden. Hubert H. Humphrey
is nominated as the Democratic candidate for president.
September 7 - Members of a new Women's Liberation Movement protest
the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.
October 17 -Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their arms in Black
Power salutes while receiving their summer Olympic medals.
November 5 - Richard Nixon wins the presidential election.
November 5 - Democrat Shirley Chisholm of New York is first black
woman elected to Congress.
November 22 - William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols share the first
interracial kiss on U.S. television in the Star Trek episode "Plato's
December 3 - Elvis Presley's "68 Comeback Special" airs on NBC.
December 24 - Apollo 8 orbits the moon, sending back the "Earthrise"
picture credited by many with fueling the environmental movement.
For further information on '1968', go to http://www.history.com/1968
Brokaw Sells '60s To Packed House
December 07, 2007
By ELSA S. KIM
Crimson Staff Writer
"I suppose out of all the characters I interviewed," journalist Tom
Brokaw told a packed audience at First Parish Church on Monday, "my
favorite line may have come from Arlo Guthrie: 'It's a good thing
that the '60s are still controversialthat means nobody's lost yet."
Brokaw, best known as the managing editor and anchor of "NBC Nightly
News" for 21 years, is also the author of four best-selling books,
most notably "The Greatest Generation." At the event, which was
sponsored by the Harvard Book Store, he presented his latest, "BOOM!:
Voices of the Sixties," combining anecdotes from his life, a brief
retelling of the major events of the 1960s, and a reflection on what
our nation has gained and how we should best proceed.
"What I hope will happen as a result of 'BOOM! is that it will be a
catalyst for national dialogue," Brokaw said. "What should we keep
from the '60s and what should we leave behind? What should be the
SHOT HEARD 'ROUND THE WORLD
Before taking the podium, Brokaw presented the trailer for "1968," a
two-hour History Channel documentary based on a portion of "BOOM!"
The screen displayed Brokaw, standing in San Francisco's
Haight-Ashbury district, where he stood 40 years ago when it was "the
center of the world for the counterculture." It cut first to a clip
of Tom Brokaw as a strapping young journalist, then to a dramatic
retelling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy '40 that layered
Brokaw's narration over dramatic music and blurred visuals.
Conceptually, Brokaw's presentation unfolded in a similar way. He
began with personal narrative, describing how he spent his youth on
an army base in South Dakota, the son of working-class parents. He
became the first member of his family to enter college and later
married a woman he had known since he was fifteen. When he was
offered a job at the number-one NBC affiliate in the United States,
he flew South and found himself right in the middle of the civil
Brokaw's personal story soon blended into a national one beginning
with a large "Boom"the shooting of Kennedy.
"That was the beginning of the '60s for mewhen he was assassinated,"
For Brokaw, each major event of the '60s represented a "boom,"
particularly the assassinations. The last "boom," which signaled the
end of the '60s for Brokaw, was the resignation of President Richard
Nixon in 1974.
"What was great about the '60s is that all the nerve endings were
exposed, all the time," Brokaw reflected. "Left, right, and in the
middle. At the end of the day, everyone was talking about what had
happened, where we should go next."
The generation following the '60s has, in Brokaw's estimation,
benefited from the national change the decade brought about. Not only
have the treatment of minorities and the conception of women been
changed, Brokaw pointed out, but opportunities have grown in general.
A legacy of tolerance and opportunity is what the '60s have given the
nation, by his estimation.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'
But events in the '60s happened from the ground up, and, Brokaw
claimed, this part of the legacy has unfortunately not been
preserved. Most important now, he argued, is finding a way to join
the working class and the more affluent portions of society so that
America can move forward without leaving any group of people behind.
His hope is that the 2008 election will become a referendum on issues
from the '60s that remain unresolved.
Brokaw recalled an anecdote about an interaction with Hillary
Clinton. When Clinton asked Brokaw if he had "cracked the code yet,"
he replied, "No, I haven't."
Similarly, Brokaw did not end the talk by providing some key to
understanding how we ought to resolve the many issues of race
relations, gender roles, and economic disparities
Instead, he concluded with the one immutable conclusion he had
reached: "Whatever else is said about the '60s, the music is fantastic."
Staff writer Elsa S. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
Brokaw visits the year that changed U.S.
by Susan Young
TOM BROKAW says his follow-up to "The Greatest Generation" sparked a
funny comment from his friend, "Doonesbury" cartoonist Gary Trudeau.
"(He) said to me, laughing, 'What are you going to call this one, the
worst generation?'" Brokaw says while discussing his new book with
the bulky title: "BOOM! The Voices of the Sixties: Personal
Reflections on the'60s and Today" (Random House, $28.95).
Brokaw calls 1968 the "nerve center of the'60s." That one year, which
is documented in this informative and compelling documentary, begins
with the January Tet offensive in Vietnam.
Unlike in previous wars, the cameras follow the action and bring it
to the American public, shattering the public image of the war.
In March, under the command of Lt. William Calley, U.S. soldiers
slaughter more than 300 civilians.
Has there been another year in American history packed with as much
social significance? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated.
Anti-war protesters led by Mark Rudd and Students for a Democratic
Society shut down Columbia University. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy is
assassinated. In Chicago, police and protesters violently clash
during the Democratic convention. The new Women's Liberation Movement
protests Miss America. San Jose State students Tommie Smith and John
Carlos raise their arms in a Black Power
salute after winning Olympic medals. The first African-American woman
is elected to Congress. "Star Trek" shows the first interracial kiss
And on Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 orbits the moon, bringing back a
picture of earth that has been credited for sparking the
Brokaw puts his years of experience as a reporter together with his
considerable contacts for a documentary that, as much as is humanly
possible in two hours, brings the year into sharp focus. What will
probably strike baby boomers most about this documentary is seeing
just how young the protesters looked and how old they look now. The
curly-haired Arlo Guthrie, who sang about his draft woes in the
classic "Alice's Restaurant," now looks more like the Jolly Old Elf
than a Merry Prankster. Rudd now looks like the guy next door who
spends more time griping about his lawn than government trespasses.
"When I looked at that old film of me as a reporter, I couldn't
believe I ever looked that young," says Brokaw. "It's been an
emotional experience for me because I've had to review my own life in
the course of all of this."
His self-exploration sparks our own exploration of our nation's
history at a pivotal point. Brokaw brings to this project a sense
that everyone who lived during that time sees it through their own
prism and believes what they saw was the defining experience. In
one segment, one of the protesters from the Democratic convention
confronts a man around her same age, a former policeman involved in
the riots. Both, as you can imagine, have radically different views
of what happened that night.
But you don't have to be old enough to remember 1968 to watch. Brokaw
links the year with its relevance to today, including a link between
the war in Iraq and Vietnam. Why did Vietnam have such a visceral
effect on the students back in'68?
"If there was a draft, man, this would be a whole different game,"
notes "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart in the film. "And (the
government) knows that. And that's why there's no draft."
The film, which incorporates much of the information and real-life
characters from Brokaw's book, begins with him standing on the corner
of Haight/Ashbury the spot he stood in back in 1968 as he reported
to the country about the growth of the hippie movement in San
Francisco. A place, Brokaw says, where his suit and tie put him in a
class of outsiders. The documentary ends with Brokaw on that same
street as it is today.
Brokaw came to California as an NBC reporter in 1966, "just four
years off the Great Plains, working-class family, a real product of
the'50s." The sensibility permeates this documentary as he walks
between the radical factions forcing change and the often bewildered
"You have that whole group in the middle, the working-class Americans
who were conflicted about what was going on," Brokaw says. "You had
the working-class dad who may have been a veteran of World War II,
who came home in 1968, sat down at the dinner table, looked up and
saw his son with hair down to here, an American flag for a shirt, his
daughter without a bra with her boyfriend with whom she was living
and (dad) wondered how he landed on this planet."
Brokaw spends a lot of time on San Francisco, with an update on his
friend Dr. David Smith who runs the famous Haight-Ashbury free
clinic. Brokaw says he spent a lot of time in Berkeley in the'60s and
wishes he could have incorporated more of city into the piece, but he
"Most of news operations didn't have storage capacity, so they just
dumped the film," Brokaw says.
In the end, Brokaw says the most significant event that came out of
1968 was that the country survived.
"I don't say that lightly," Brokaw says. "The country was up for
grabs in many ways. There were two big lessons: One was how quickly
the fundamental assumptions that we have about our society and
government (can change) and two, the resilience of the American people."
Reach Susan Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or 925-945-4705.
Flashbacks and reflections
Tom Brokaw takes a nostalgic trip back to 1968, "when the country was
up for grabs"
By Alan Pergament
Who would want to relive 1968, a turbulent year in United States
history that included war protests, assassinations, race riots and a
flight to the moon?
After watching "1968 with Tom Brokaw," which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on
The History Channel, I imagine the answer would be just about everyone.
The fast-moving, two-hour History Channel special, told through the
voices that lived through the nation- changing year, is loaded with
historical news clips, humor, lessons and nostalgia. It's all set to
a great soundtrack that features the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo
Springfield, the Chambers Brothers and the Rolling Stones.
Though it is on The History Channel, the special doesn't look to
historians for expertise. Brokaw interviews an A list of celebrities,
legendary performers and media pundits. They include Bruce
Springsteen, Jon Stewart, Arlo Guthrie, the Smothers Brothers, Lewis
Black, Jeff Greenfield and Pat Buchanan. They discuss their memories
of the year and the influence on them and the decades that
Brokaw, the retired news anchor who became a best-selling author with
his books on "The Great Generation" of World War II heroes, is back
with a new release, "BOOM! Voices of the Sixties, Personal
Reflections on the '60s and Today." The TV special was inspired by
the clumsily titled book.
Brokaw also talks with young activists of the time and ordinary folks
who lived through the tumult and saw things differently. He balances
liberal and conservative views of the excesses of what some claim is
the spoiled, hedonistic generation. He also gives his personal
remembrances 40 years after working in California and covering the
happenings in hippie land, Haight-Ashbury, where he said he was "the
freak" wearing a shirt and a tie.
One minute you may hear Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas
give a politically incorrect statement about the appeal of drugs, the
next you'll hear conservative columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz condemn
the entire youthful generation and the parents that allowed them to
become so uncontrollable.
Of course, the so-called "uncontrollable" kids ended up being right
about Vietnam and questioning authority. The passion that the
generation felt about issues was partly due to the fact that their
lives could have been affected by the war because of the military
draft, which no longer exists.
That point is driven home by Stewart, the politically aware
late-night host who makes one of the broadcast's obvious comparisons
to the war in Iraq. After watching "1968," you can't help but be
reminded of that old quote from philosopher George Santayana that
applies to history: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned
to repeat it."
Generally, the History Channel appeals to older viewers. But "1968"
is one special program that should be watched by young and old alike
even if their politics aren't anything alike. To borrow a phrase from
the soundtrack, "1968 with Tom Brokaw" "is a gas, gas, gas."
I've been looking forward to the special since Brokaw gave a summer
preview to TV critics in Los Angeles. He noted that when he began the
project, his friend Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") said to him,
laughing: " 'What are you going to call this one, the worst generation?' "
Brokaw added he didn't feel that way. He realized he is taking on a
"complex subject," and people who lived through the '60s saw things
"Those who were on the left and protesting on the streets said, 'We
changed the world. We were the defining force.' People on the right
will tell you, 'No, we changed the world because we took your
mistakes and capitalized on them to elect Richard Nixon and start the
Reagan revolution in California and, later, two terms of Ronald
Reagan as president. Then, you have ... the working-class Americans
who ... were conflicted by what was going on. You had the
working-class dad who may have been a veteran of World War II, who
came home in 1968, sat down at the dinner table, looked up and saw
his son with hair down to here, an American flag for a shirt, his
daughter without a bra with her boyfriend with whom she was living,
and wondered how he landed on this planet. But he didn't go their
way. He stayed true to who he was."
People on the right and left probably would agree on Brokaw's
assessment of the most significant event of 1968. "That we survived,"
said Brokaw. "I don't say that lightly. This country was up for grabs
in many ways ... For me, at the time, there were two big lessons. One
was how quickly it can change, the fundamental assumptions that we
have about society and our government. Two, the resilience of the
American people. '68 was the beginning of the profound distress of
the American government, and we're still working our way through that."
Of course, they times have been a changin', and Brokaw sees the
difference between 2007 and 1968. "I think that in 1968 people still
had a strong feeling that they could affect governmental decisions,
that they could change the course of society, left, right or in the
middle," said Brokaw. "I think that there's now a distancing between
the institutions of political authorities and where the people are in
"1968" certainly is more appealing than its best Sunday competitor,
the latest ABC project endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, Mitch Albom's "For
One More Day" (9 p.m. Sunday, WKBWTV).
Michael Imperioli ("The Sopranos") stars as a former major league
baseball player, Chick Benetto, who hits rock bottom as a
broken-down, suicidal alcoholic with a failed marriage and a lost
daughter. Then he gets one more day with his deceased mother (Ellen Burstyn).
Burstyn is marvelous as mom, Posey Benetto, who slowly reveals to her
adult son details about his childhood, including why his
baseball-loving dad left the family.
It's pretty slow-moving and sappy fantasy that illustrates that the
1950s and 1960s practice of keeping adult children in the dark about
painful family details may actually do more harm than good. You can't
help but wonder why mom didn't realize that Chick would have
benefited greatly by getting the details decades earlier. Even with
Winfrey's endorsement, this "Chick" flick is a big-time loser.
" 1968 with Tom Brokaw" ( Out of four) 9 p. m. Sunday, History Channel
" Mitch Albom's For One More Day" ( Out of four) 9 p. m. Sunday, WKBW- TV
Tom Brokaw tackles boomers and the upheaval of the '60s in his latest book
By JOHN MARSHALL
P-I BOOK CRITIC
December 12, 2007
For his most popular book, Tom Brokaw coined the grandiloquent term
"The Greatest Generation" for the Americans who fought and triumphed
in the crucible of World War II. But when he decided that he would
write a book concentrating on the baby boom generation and the 1960s,
it was boomer cartoonist Garry Trudeau of "Doonesbury" fame who posed
the urgent question.
"What are you going to call this one?" inquired Trudeau. " 'The Worst
A brief smile crossed Brokaw's TV-familiar face Tuesday as he
recalled Trudeau's comment in Seattle during his arduous
cross-country book tour. In fact, the term generation does not appear
in the title of his latest best-seller -- "Boom! Voices of the
Sixties" (Random House, 611 pages, $28.95).
But the new book does echo the same journalistic formula that made
"The Greatest Generation" such a publishing phenomenon. Here again is
the mix of famous folk and unknowns who recount their experiences in
a trying time, their lives captured in mini-profiles from personal
interviews, many conducted by the former NBC anchorman. However, that
is the end of the similarity between the two books and the
generations they examine.
Forgotten heroes have given way to overexposed activists.
"I could have called the boomers 'The Provocative Generation' or 'The
Hell-Raising Generation,' although the final verdict on that
generation is not yet in," Brokaw said. "But the major difference
between the two generations in my books is that the boomer generation
is not as homogeneous as 'The Greatest Generation,' who had such a
common experience with World War II. This newer generation is not as
homogeneous; it is broken up into a lot of parts."
Entire shelves of libraries already are groaning under the weight of
books about the 1960s. There have been countless TV documentaries on
that era as well (including Brokaw's own "1968" being shown this week
on the History Channel). So the natural question arises: What can
Brokaw provide that is new about the most overcovered generation in
history, subject to media scrutiny ever since its adolescent happy
days at the malt shop with the jukebox playing Dion and Ricky Nelson?
Brokaw, a reserved eminence in a stark black suit, has his own
answer: "Most of the books I read about the '60s were about what
people went through in that decade. I wanted to move it forward and
get a reflective book about the lessons of the '60s and the thoughts
of people who went through that time."
That proves to be a daunting task even for Brokaw and his trusty
cadre of what he calls "Team Brokaw," the small circle of researchers
and editors who also helped him produce "The Greatest Generation."
The biggest challenge with the new book proves to be: The discordant
voices of the '60s are still discordant. Fissures from that time
still fester: liberal vs. conservative, Vietnam War veteran vs. draft
evader, committed social activist vs. horrified defender of the way
things used to be.
So shrill is the divide even now that much of "Boom" reads like a
reprise of that immortal '60s line delivered by Buffalo Springfield:
"There's something happening here/ What it is ain't exactly clear."
It was interviewee Sen. Hillary Clinton who first asked Brokaw if he
had "cracked the code of the '60s," as if there was some magic
formula that would make sense of the raucous decade, distill what it
truly meant. But despite all his research, all his interviews and
writing, he admits the code remains uncracked.
Gingrich and Clinton: Separated at birth?
In person, the 67-year-old author suggested that the closest he got
to that elusive code may well have come during separate interviews
with the boomers' oddest political couple -- former President Bill
Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom Brokaw always
suspected were "separated at birth."
Both are poor Southerners from dysfunctional families; bright,
charismatic personalities; avoiders of Vietnam War military service;
shady in dealings with women and ethics; possessing great rhetorical
gifts; master manipulators of political will. But despite all these
similarities, they somehow ended up as contentious foes on opposite
sides of the political spectrum.
Clinton, who tells Brokaw that he left the White House with his '60s
ideals intact, offers the surprising analysis that the excesses of
the '60s helped ensure subsequent decades of mostly Republican rule
in Washington, much of it with Gingrich as a key player.
Gingrich concedes the conservative crusade did benefit from '60s
excess, but questions whether that can possibly continue much longer.
The tide seems to be a-changin' against the Republicans. The former
Republican leader criticizes both parties and their shortcomings. As
he told Brokaw, "My party -- the right -- is tactically much worse
off than the left because we have a president who fundamentally
doesn't know what's going on. That's a huge problem. ... Most of our
problems require applied intelligence, and we have a party that
doesn't believe in books and applied thought.
"The ideology of the Democrats blocks them from making the changes,
even though they understand the need. In my party, they can do it,
but they don't understand the need to make the necessary changes."
This is one of those telling moments in "Boom!" It's a moment that
illuminates what the '60s have wrought today, playing the story
forward. Such moments, unfortunately, probably can be counted on two hands.
Far more of the book's pages are consumed by reminiscences of what a
time it was and what a time we had. These reminiscences are gathered
from a large assemblage of generational touchstones, including James
Taylor, Gloria Steinem, the Rev. Andrew Young, Jann Wenner, Gen.
Colin Powell, Jeff Greenfield, Judy Collins, Garry Trudeau and Sen. James Webb.
Yes, Brokaw inhaled
Brokaw, after some initial reluctance, also provides glimpses of his
own young reporter's life as a "pilgrim" through the '60s, from
covering civil rights marches in the South to hippies in San
Francisco's Haight-Ashbury. Yes, Brokaw did inhale, and not just
once. And when a longtime friend from their South Dakota days was
killed in Vietnam, his plane shot down by a missile in 1968, the
young network correspondent burst into tears at the funeral. He also,
as he recalled, "yelled something about this goddamn war."
"Boom" includes a few startling Brokaw discoveries, none more
startling than Ouida Barnett Atkins. She is the daughter of the
segregationist Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, who in 1962 took a
symbolic stand in the schoolhouse door, trying to prevent the
registration of James Meredith as the first black student at the
University of Mississippi.
Atkins has her own Mississippi school connection these days. For more
than a decade, she has been a substitute teacher and volunteer at
Jackson's Lanier High, a largely black school where she has worked to
help promising students reach higher educational goals. In 2006, as
Brokaw reports, Atkins "had six former students graduating from Ole
Miss and one at West Point."
Atkins' unlikely activism, so in keeping with '60s ideals, turns out
to be a rare commodity among many boomers in the 21st century, as
Brokaw discovers. Former leftists are particularly unsparing in their
criticism of those who have surrendered to a me-first life of "affluenza."
Some attribute this to the "loss of innocence" wrought by the '60s'
dashed dreams and assassinated heroes (J.F.K., Martin, Bobby, Malcolm
X). Others attribute it to the generation's failure to see the length
of the struggles ahead and the need to forge long-term resolve and
plans. Others attribute it to the impact of workplace and family
demands in a greatly altered societal landscape, much of it the
result of the civil rights and women's movements.
'Having it all' -- at a cost
Judith Rodin is a boomer success story: She became the first woman to
lead an Ivy League school when she was named president of the
University of Pennsylvania in 1994. More than a decade later, she
told Brokaw, "I used to think you could have it all. Now I believe
you can have it all, but not all at the same time. There are costs to
every decision. Mine weren't cost-free. I had only one child and two
divorces. That's a cost."
Brokaw does suggest that a chance for activist boomer redemption may
well come in the crucial 2008 presidential election. He believes this
will "be a climactic showdown between those political forces that
were unleashed on the left and the right 40 years ago."
There is the war in Iraq, another unpopular, seemingly endless war
eerily reminiscent of Vietnam (although without the widespread
protests spurred when the military draft was a daily presence for an
entire generation of men). There is a great partisan gulf today on
many social issues, including health care.
"In some ways, these times are a mirror image of the '60s," Brokaw
stressed, "although without the same passions or the same violence in
society. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
P-I book critic John Marshall can be reached at 206-448-8170 or