By Rick Perlstein
Sunday, February 3, 2008; Page B01
O ne of the most fascinating notions raised by the current
presidential campaign is the idea that the United States can and must
finally overcome the divisions of the 1960s. It's most often
associated with the ascendancy of Sen. Barack Obama, who has been
known to entertain it himself. Its most gauzy champion is pundit
Andrew Sullivan, who argued in a cover article in the December
Atlantic Monthly that, "If you are an American who yearns to finally
get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face
today's actual problems, Obama may be your man."
No offense to either Obama or Sullivan, but: No he isn't. No one is.
I realized that when I read this e-mail from a friend, a passionate
Obama supporter who's a veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement:
"Who are you supporting for prez? You know my feelings -- and my son
has been working 16-hr days for him up in NH. Kind of like his 60s . . ."
I realized it again when I saw the online ad produced by Sen. John
McCain's campaign, arguing that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't
deserve the presidency because she earmarked one-millionth of the
federal budget ($1 million) for a museum commemorating the rock
I realized it, too, when Bill Clinton accused Obama of leaving the
role of Lyndon B. Johnson out of the civil rights story, and when
Sen. John Kerry announced his endorsement of Obama with a quotation
from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and both set off a strange
bout of opinion-journalism shadowboxing over which camp, Clinton's or
Obama's, better grasped the historical legacy of the civil rights movement.
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 are all like Zhou Enlai, who, asked what he
thought about the French Revolution, answered, "It is too early to
tell." When and how will the cultural and political battle lines the
baby boomers bequeathed us dissolve? It is, well and truly, still too
early to tell. We can't yet "overcome" the '60s because we still
don't even know what the '60s were -- not even close.
Born myself in 1969 to pre-baby boomer parents, I'm a historian of
America's divisions who spent the age of George W. Bush reading more
newspapers written when Johnson and Richard Nixon were president than
current ones. And I recently had a fascinating experience scouring
archives for photos of the 1960s to illustrate the book I've just
finished based on that research. It was frustrating -- and telling.
The pictures people take and save, as opposed to the ones they never
take or the ones they discard, say a lot about how they understand
their own times. And in our archives as much as in our mind's eye, we
still record the '60s in hazy cliches -- in the stereotype of the
idealistic youngster who came through the counterculture and protest
movements, then settled down to comfortable bourgeois domesticity.
What's missing? The other side in that civil war. The right-wing
populist rage of 1968 third-party presidential candidate George
Wallace, who, referring to an idealistic protester who had lain down
in front of Johnson's limousine, promised that if he were elected,
"the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it'll be the
last one they'll ever lay down in front of because their day is
over!" That kind of quip helped him rise to as much as 20 percent in
It's easy to find hundreds of pictures of the national student strike
that followed Nixon's announcement of the invasion of Cambodia in the
spring of 1970. Plenty of pictures of the riots at Kent State that
ended with four students shot dead by National Guardsmen. None I
could find, however, of the counter-demonstrations by Kent, Ohio,
townies -- and even Kent State parents. Flashing four fingers and
chanting "The score is four/And next time more," they argued that the
kids had it coming.
The '60s were a trauma -- two sets of contending Americans, each
believing they were fighting for the future of civilization, but
whose left- and right-wing visions of redemption were opposite and
irreconcilable. They were a trauma the way the war of brother against
brother between 1861 and 1865 was a trauma and the way the Great
Depression was a trauma. Tens of millions of Americans hated tens of
millions of other Americans, sometimes murderously so. The effects of
such traumas linger in a society for generations.
Consider this example. The Library of Congress, which houses the
photo archives of Look magazine and U.S. News & World Report,
holds hundreds of images of the violent confrontation between cops
and demonstrators in front of the Chicago Hilton at the 1968
Democratic National Convention, and, from the summer of 1969, of
Woodstock. But I could find no visual record of the National
Convention on the Crisis of Education. Held two weeks after Woodstock
in that selfsame Chicago Hilton, it was convened by citizens fighting
the spread of sex education in the schools as if civilization itself
were at stake. The issue dominated newspapers in the autumn of 1969
and is seemingly forgotten today.
But it's not truly forgotten. Those right-wing '60s activists were
protesting a group called the Sexuality Information and Education
Council of the United States (SIECUS), which believed that its "age
appropriate" sexual-education guidelines, devised in consultation
with parents, clergy, educators and scientific experts, would help
strengthen the nation's moral values. Instead, they brought about an
anguished backlash among Americans who believed that to talk about
human reproduction in schools was an unmitigated horror. They still
do. Last summer, the conservative activist Barbara Comstock savaged
none other than Obama for speaking warmly of SIECUS, which Comstock
claimed -- just as the '60s activists did -- teaches that
"masturbation and homosexuality are appropriate for kindergartners."
Like a patient under psychoanalysis, we still repress much that was
most searing in those times, only to have it burst forth in odd
moments. The after-effects of the divisions are so great that, glibly
seeking to master these ghosts, we manage mostly to reproduce them.
In Sullivan's attempt to exorcise the 1960s, for example, he behaves
like a textbook pundit . . . in the 1960s. Back then, pundits were
always imagining magically conciliatory figures with the power to
make the awful cacophony stop. Quiet and civil Eugene McCarthy
challenged Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination as an antiwar
candidate; columnist Mary McGrory called him "visibly and
dramatically successful [in] closing the gap between the
generations." Then came Robert F. Kennedy, whom the columnist Joseph
Kraft likewise proclaimed to be one who held in his hands the power
to unite "Black Power and Backlash."
In fact, both figures turned out to be massively polarizing. McCarthy
was despised by Americans who saw all antiwar activists as harbingers
of anarchy -- like the cops at the 1968 Democratic convention who
were spotted vandalizing cars with McCarthy bumper stickers. Polls
showed that RFK was "intensely disliked" by 50 percent more people
than Johnson -- who was so intensely disliked that he had to drop out
of the 1968 presidential race. Nixon, traditionally believed to be
the most divisive figure in American politics, was also reinvented
that year as a uniquely uniting figure; Kraft praised his ability to
call the country to "charity and forbearance."
Four years later, many saw George McGovern the same way -- as "a
politician of reconciliation," in the South Dakotan's own words. The
Republican National Committee didn't get the memo. "He is in reality
a dedicated radical extremist," declared its monthly magazine, First
Monday, who would "unilaterally disarm . . . and open the White House
to riotous street mobs."
A President Obama could no more magically transcend America's
'60s-born divisions than McCarthy, Kennedy, Nixon or McGovern could,
for the simple reason that our society is defined as much by its
arguments as by its agreements. Over the meaning of "family," on
sexual morality, on questions of race and gender and war and peace
and order and disorder and North and South and a dozen other areas,
we remain divided in ways that first arose after the assassination of
President John F. Kennedy in 1963. What Andrew Sullivan dismisses as
"the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation" do not separate us
from our "actual problems"; they define us, as much as the Great War
defined France in the 1920s, '30s, '40s and beyond. Pretending
otherwise simply isn't healthy. It's repression -- the kind of thing
that shrinks say causes neurosis.
At least there's some comfort in knowing that our divisions aren't
what they once were. Heck, in the 1860s, half the nation was devoted
in body, mind and spirit to killing the other half; in the early
1930s, many sage observers presumed the nation to be poised on the
verge of open, violent class warfare. We'll manage to muddle through
again -- even burdened with mere flesh and blood human beings, not
magical healing shamans, as our leaders.
Rick Perlstein, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future,
is the author of "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the
Fracturing of America," to be published in May.