Shrapnel of the Sixties, Still Under Our Skin
Barack Obama Just the Latest Figure Thought Capable of Healing a
by Rick Perlstein
Senior Fellow, Campaign for America's Future; Author of Forthcoming
Monday, February 4, 2008; 1:00 PM
"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 can't yet "overcome" the '60s because we
still don't even know what the '60s were -- not even close."
Rick Perlstein, author of the forthcoming "Nixonland: The Rise of a
President and the Fracturing of America," was online Monday, Feb. 4
at 1 p.m. ET to take questions on his Outlook article on the deep
cultural divides of the 1960s, and why there has not been and cannot
be a unifying figure to close the 40-year-old wounds.
The transcript follows.
Rick Perlstein: Rick Perlstein here, glad to take on all comers.
Washington: My favorite icon of the 1960s is the teenage garage band
of 1966. John Kerry, with his pedigree in The Elektras, a prep school
band, seemed to embody this feeling that any teenager could be the
next John Lennon, or at least the next Mark Lindsay. Who do you see
representing the Batman and Nancy Sinatra part of the 1960s on the
political scene these days?
Rick Perlstein: Friends, thrilled and proud to be able to participate
in this forum. Fascinating bunch of questions. I'll start with the
most fun one!
Absolute continuity between the 1960s and now on the cultural
production tip. Then, any kid could start a garage band. Now (using
the program bundled into every Macintosh, "Garage Band") every kid
can produce musical tracks. And videos. That kind of grassroots
cultural energy is crucial, but the big difference between then and
now was that the culture industry, I think, was much more open to
innovation, and fetished the young. One of the studios, I think it
was Warner Brothers, would give a $1 million budget to just about any
semi-established director who wanted to do a picture that "spoke to"
youth. This was after "Easy Rider" came out and became a surprise hit.
Dallas: Don't you think the whole concept of the singular
"uniqueness" of the 60's is wildly overblown? Just to name a few, the
"wounds" of the '50s -- Little Rock, McCarthy, Korea; the
70's-impeachment and resignation, loss in Vietnam; the 80's-dirty
wars in S. America, Iran-Contra, S and L fraud; the 90's-Clinton
hate, government shutdown, not to mention this very consequential decade.
Rick Perlstein: Not wildly overblown -- there was no time in this
century quite like the '60s; certainly in the 1950s or this decade no
one was bombing buildings, or hunting down anti-war activists and
shooting them in the back of the head, as I document in "Nixonland."
But there are important continuities from, say, the 1950s. I once
wrote that "a bell bottom is but a tail fin rendered in cloth." The
idea that we are a prosperous society in which individuals should
express themselves through their personal style is directly
continuous with the 1950s.
Munich, Germany: The demonstrations and violent confrontations
between police and demonstrators in the U.S. had strong side effects
in Europe, fueling leftist strong movements and demonstrations. How
would you compare the relationship between the U.S. and Europe in the
'60s (during the Vietnam and Cold Wars) with post Iraq War conditions now?
Also, is there any indication that people of the U.S. value the
relationship to Europe more now than they did in the 60s?
Rick Perlstein: There's a great book on the subject by Drew
University professor Jeremy Varon, "Bringing the War Home: The
Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence
in the Sixties and Seventies," comparing and contrasting the violent
ultra-left in America and Europe. There are continuities, too,
between the U.S.-Europe relationship in ordinary politics. Both in
the 1960s and now, there was deep distrust of the U.S. as the
800-pound gorilla of the world economy, fighting a semi-imperialist
war. The American right distrusted Europe, just as now; in 1967 they
burned a French flag for De Gaulle's opposition to the Vietnam War.
But then and now, the relationship was complex and symbiotic.
South Bend, Ind.: Greetings. I found your article interesting, but I
have to say that I don't think you understand what people like Andrew
Sullivan are getting at. The divisions of the '60s may well be
impossible to heal fully. I wasn't there, but from all I hear, they
were traumatic and it does seem impossible for many who lived through
them to forget about them. But what younger people are hoping for is
not so much that we resolve all the issues that were fought over in
the '60s, as that we move on to talking about today's problems,
without letting what happened in the '60s define how we approach
today's problems. (That is, after all, what we already do when our
elders aren't around.)
For example, one legacy of the Vietnam War is that in generationally
mixed company it's still necessary in conversations about the Iraq
War, to say that, of course, we support the troops. This is, simply
and solely, a legacy of Vietnam. Amongst ourselves, I've never heard
younger people feel they had to say this. Of course we support the
troops. Why wouldn't we? (For that matter, I've 'never' understood
why opposition to the war in Vietnam didn't make people feel sorry
for the troops who didn't start the war, but might die in it. If you
were unhappy about the war, why would you take it out on the people
most horribly affected by it?) But for older people, who saw
returning troops mistreated, it's necessary to say that they support
the troops, even now. They can't just assume it, as we do.
This would merely be irritating, if it weren't for the fact that it's
a distraction that kept us from talking about today's version of
supporting the troops: caring for the massive number of severely
wounded returning soldiers. While people were grandstanding about
supporting the troops, many of the actual troops were suffering
through horrible conditions in underfunded military hospitals. We
could have been talking about that instead.
Similarly, the battle-lines of the sixties' debate over Vietnam were
drawn as an ideological clash between 'War' and 'Peace', and that way
of discussing a decision about war has dominated our public discourse
for the last several decades now, with disastrous results. I say
disastrous, because what it has meant is that anyone who opposes a
particular war is thought to be doing so because he/she simply
opposes war in general. The opposite is also true: those who support
a particular war are thought of as supporting all wars. This has
meant that it's been hard to have a clear debate about the merits of
any particular war, like the one we're currently involved in. I
opposed the Iraq War, but had friends my age who supported it.
Amongst people my own age, though, we could debate the possibility of
WMD, the likely results of an invasion and so on pretty clearly. But
when I had to explain my opposition to the invasion to Boomers, I
often found myself having to step back and explain that I wasn't the
sort of peacenik that they were pigeonholing me as, and they should
respond to the specifics of my argument. Obama spoke for us when he
said he didn't oppose all wars but he did oppose a dumb war.
Simply put, the facts, on issue after issue, have moved on. The
contours of debate have all too often remained static. That means
that we're not talking as productively as we could be about the
problems we currently face. Perhaps we never will be able to agree
about whether the Vietnam was was warranted, etc., etc. People like
Sullivan aren't saying that we have to resolve that issue. But we
could agree not to talk about it when we're supposed to be talking
about other things. We really don't have to resolve Vietnam in order
to figure out a good way of making the best out of the mess we've
made in Iraq. And it's more than a bit insulting to soldiers risking
their lives in Iraq when our presidential campaigns turn on what
people were doing in Vietnam and Cambodia. I hardly think the boomers
would have appreciated a vigorous national debate over Korea and
World War II while people were being sent to the jungle.
I'm sure you're right that many of the divisions spawned in the
sixties will (unfortunately) remain with us for a long time, just as
those from the civil war and many other conflicts also still have a
distant effect upon our national consciousness. If that's all you
mean, then I can agree with you. But if you mean that, unlike the
divisions of the civil war, the divisions of the sixties are going to
continue to dominate our political discourse for the foreseeable
future, then I think you need to take a wider view of history.
Rick Perlstein: There are a lot of misconceptions about what actually
happened in the '60s because of so much obfuscating right-wing
propaganda. The anti-war protesters in the 1960s for the most part
supported the troops heavily! The banner the marchers to the Pentagon
carried in 1967 read, "Support the Troops, Bring them Home." By 1971
the most vibrant part of the antiwar movement was Vietnam Veterans
Against the War, and antiwar travelers to North Vietnam took great
risks to deliver family letters to POWs. Some of George MGovern's
biggest supporters were POW famlies disgusted with how the Nixon
administration had exploited the POW issue. And much (though
certainly not all) of the notion that antiwar activists were hostile
to returning veterans was simply myth: see Jerry Lembcke's book "The
In fact, the people most likely to spit on returning vietnam veterans
were World War II veterans disgusted that the returning vets "lost their war."
I have many examples of this in "Nixonland."
Baltimore: Sir: I just finished reading your excellent Outlook piece,
and agree that the '60s won't be "over" for quite some time.
Like you, I was born in 1969 and, perhaps unlike you, have spent much
of my life being repulsed by the antics of the boomers. I used to
think that perhaps once the boomers started greying (and dying), that
perhaps people our age would finally be able to not hear them relive
their lives over and over again. Unfortunately, the next generation
(Generation Y, or the Millenials, I think the media generally call
them) seems quite taken with the Boomers, at least the liberal
history they offer. Do you see this? If so, do you think they'll find
a way to reinvent the '60s yet again?
Rick Perlstein: When people start making generalizations about
generations, they drop 50 IQ points, I'm convinced. What the hell are
"the antics of the boomers"? Are you referring to the majority of new
18- to 21-year-old voters who went for Richard Nixon in 1972? They
were "baby boomers," too.
We understand so little about the complexity and richness of the
'60s. We see everything in cliches. That's what my work is about fighting.
Vienna, Va.: Isn't part of the problem with an honest depiction of
the 60s and 70s is a sympathy for the left by the media? Beginning
with the late 1960s, the media seemed to move more and more to
aligning themselves with the causes of the liberal-left and now many
in the media are veterans of those causes. The picture we get from
the media is filtered through their rose-colored glasses.
Rick Perlstein: Whatever sympathy the media had for the 1960s left
was mostly gone by 1969, when the angry reaction to the media's
sympathetic reaction to the protesters at the Chicago Democratic
convention in 1968 caused a deep bout of soul-searching among media
executives, and led to stories like this: in 1969, when NBC held
meetings to plan their new news magazine program, "First Tuesday,"
someone asked what the three biggest stories in the country were that
they should cover. "The war, the blacks, and the economy," someone
responded. Someone else shot back, "I don't want to see a single
black face on 'First Tuesday.' "
Rochester, N.Y.: I'm a titanic fan of your work, so I hope that
you'll let me ask two questions:
Isn't it in some sense the 1860s as much as the 1960s that drive the
current political climate? The most striking thing about our
political landscape is how overwhelmingly white Southerners vote
Republican -- as much as 85 percent in some states.
Don't you think that some of the reason the '60s are so important is
that boomer pundits dwell on them so obsessively? I'm not sure if you
read Joe Klein's columns for example, but he often writes as if
hippies were still an important political force. Isn't there some
uniquely boomerist about the inability to get beyond adolescent memories?
Rick Perlstein: Regarding your first question, absolutely -- and it's
147 years later! You don't just wish away social traumas like that.
Just look at today's debates about the Confederate flag.
Your second point is right, too. A lot of the boomer pundits who
monopolize the opinion sections and TV chat shows got their start as
young hotshots in a very different atmosphere -- the 1960s, when
youth was worshipped, and newspapers were hiring 22-year-old
columnists left and right. Now the same people who got their start
then, Klein among them, are wildly overrepresented, and that badly
distorts our national discourse.
Laurel, Md.: I can see at least two reasons why the '60s appear to
have set up such a fractious political climate:
Prior to the '60s, some groups didn't have a political voice. Blacks
largely were prevented from voting and women didn't have their own
issues and constituency. A lot of today's political divides are
rooted in those demographic splits.
Also, the '60s did solve some of our most important problems (through
civil rights, medicare and some measure of urban renewal) leaving
comparatively contentious but minor issue for politicians and the
press to play up. For instance, during the 2000 presidential race, No
Child Left Behind and a Social Security lockbox were highly charged
contentious issues, until Sept. 11 a year later put the scope of our
differences into perspective.
Rick Perlstein: Laurel, your town is the site of one of the most
fracious " '60s" moments (historians often speak of the "Long
Sixties," which stretches until the Nixon resignation): the
assassination of George Wallace in May of 1972.
I have to say that there are just as contentious issues rivening the
American fabric now as in the 1960s, but their contentiousness is not
well-represented in the national media, which fetishizes consensus
and fears change, just as it did in the 1950s. The economic
inequality that began taking off in the mid-1970s is epochal as the
civil rights struggles in the way it has transformed the very fabric
of our society. But just as in the 1950s America appeared relatively
tranquil because the media avoided that conflict, the 2000 election
appeared tranquil because we avoid our own deep, ineleluctable
conflicts -- but can't forever, that's for sure. There's a lot of
repression, and it makes us neurotic as a nation. (The issues Nixon
and Kennedy fought on were just as trivial as the "lockbox" was in
2000 -- but by 1968, Americans' entire sense of themselves had transformed.)
Washington: I was born in 1959 and remember the late '60s and early
'70s through the lens of the media (TV news, Life magazine, the local
newspaper, etc.). Sometimes I have a hard time believing I'm in the
same generation as the folks born in 1946 and 1947, although I get
flummoxed when I realize how many of my friends, born in the late
'60s and early '70s, have no memory whatsoever of the Apollo program
-- the moon landing was the highlight of my youth.
Since the late 1980s I've been imagining "golden age clubs" where the
elderly retirees self-segregate themselves on what side they were on
in the 1960s. Do you think we actually see that in the not so distant future?
Rick Perlstein: We already have two of those clubs. One is called the
"Democratic Party," and the other is called the "Republican Party."
That's an exaggeration--and a lot of people have switched sides from
where they were in the 1960s -- but for the most part, the political
identities of the two parties are largely products of the 1960s, for
good or ill.
Washington: Very well said, South Bend!
And as for IQ dropping when generalizing about the '60s -- isn't that
exactly what your article (and presumably your book, which you may
want to mention a few more times) did? I disagree that the millenials
glorify the boomers, as the other poster suggested -- I think that,
like South Bend, they are eager to move on and, given their numbers,
hopefully can do so to the benefit of all of us. I thought the
companion piece to your Outlook article, which focused on the
Millenials and compared them to the "Greatest Generation," was a much
more forward-looking and thoughtful piece of journalism than "it's
all about the sixties, man." (And by the way, I am in my mid-40s.)
Rick Perlstein: "Nixonland." Available for pre-order now.
I worked on it for seven years, and it's done now, so I'm a little
obsessed. I'm sorry. I'll lay off from now on. Just one more point:
it's 900 pages, so there are very few generalizations, and plenty of
Washington: One thing that stayed with me from your Goldwater book
was the enormous number of influential conservatives who played a
role in his campaign. Some were already established like Buckley, but
others such as Robert Bork and Phyillis Schlafley were just starting
out. The neo-cons were also relatively young although not entirely
ready to join the GOP. Given that so much of the intellectual capital
of the Right rests in this generation, what do you see happening as
they become inactive or die? The younger generation seems to consist
of polemicists like Coulter, shallow pseudo-intellectuals like Alan
Murray or Dinesh D'zousa. What will the next stage of conservativism
Rick Perlstein: The right invests enormous effort and capital in
cultivating young voices--they do a better job than the left. Here's
a good article about that.
Likewise, the major liberal conference in the District every year,
Take Back America, charges several hundred dollars for registration,
as does the major right-wing conference, CPAC -- but rich
conservatives subsidize the next generation by lowering the
registration fee at CPAC to $25 for youngsters. There's no parallel
on the left.
Baltimore: The less timid days of '60s media: I was 21 in 1969, so I
of course remember the era well. As someone who went to school in
Washington and was a regular reader of The Post, I also remember
columnist Nicholas von Hoffman, who had worked with Saul Alinsky as a
community organizer in Chicago and was pretty much a die-hard
leftist. Despite what the right thinks, no major newspaper in this
country has a columnist today who is as far to the left as von
Hoffman was -- E.J. Dionne is what passes for leftist today. And I
think the corporatization of the media is responsible.
Rick Perlstein: I was going to mention von Hoffman. He was part of a
whole bunch of "youth columnists" at major papers who spoke to and
from the New Left and counterculture, more or less. Bob Greene at the
Chicago Daily News. Anthony Lewis at the New York Times. Nothing like
Partly it's corporatization of the media, partly it's the very
effective organizing efforts of conservatives against the "so-called
liberal media," partly it is the unique, and perhaps never to be
repeated, worship of youth as a good in itself in 1960s culture.
Washington: Hi. I share your pessism about any candidate thought to
be able to 'mend', if you will, the unresolved cultural and political
divides that emerged in the 1960s. But my question is: don't you
believe it is the baby boomers in their 50s and 60s who are imposing
this expectation on Obama, and not the people of our generation, born
in the 1960s, like you, Obama and myself, who are interested in
creating our own narrative?
Rick Perlstein: I think Obama bears some responsibility himself, as I
mention in the article, for announcing himself as the figure to
"transcend" the 1960s.
Chevy Chase, Md.: As a woman born in 1963, and thus officially a baby
boomer (although the Obama candidacy has people questioning the 1964
cutoff as too late), I am sick and tired of the self-congratulating
navel-gazing of the real baby boomers. Give it up, people, it's a new
millenium, and there is so much excitement in the world. I truly
think the boomers are dragging down the U.S. in more ways than just
sucking up Social Security -- you are keeping us in the past and
creating a drag on momentum towards the global future. The '60s
weren't that great for a lot of the world's population, and we are
sick and tired of all the aging white people reminiscing about drugs,
protests, and free love -- now that you've all bought SUVs, I guess
the rest of the world needs to fix global warming?
Rick Perlstein: Like I say, people drop 50 IQ points. Generations are
not unitary entities. They are defined by their conflicts. In 1966,
it was teenagers and people in their early 20s, massing in crowds of
thousands -- baby boomers -- who threw rocks at Martin Luther King
when he marched for open housing in Chicago.
We hardly know what the 1960s were.
Anonymous: Do you examine the general values of the generations? I
have read commentary about how the youth of the 1960s rebelled
against the fear their parents, who went through the Depression and
World War II instilled, and how ironically many of the children of
couples who got married in the 1960s have taken the message of the
1960s of more freedom and openness and because more conservative in
attitudes than their parents.
Rick Perlstein: They main factor, I think, was economic. The economy
was propserous and unflappable like it had been probably in no other
society in human history. Many young people could afford personal
experimentation in a way unimaginable to today's students, saddled as
they are with massive student debt (remember that at Berkeley, one of
the epicenters of the student uprising, tuition was free!).
By the same token, this increased the resentment of less-privileged
young people for the dalliances of countercultural and antiwar folks
who were seen, accurately, as for the most part more financially
comfortable than "traditional" young people. It wasn't uncommon for
working class youth to hear, "Come back when you have that draft
thing out of the way," they heard at the factory gates, while richer
kids had no problems getting out of their military obligations.
A lot of the resentments were class resentments. Fortune magazine did
a huge poll of college students' attitudes in 1969 (like I said, the
society worshipped youth; can you imagine a business magazine
devoting a whole issue to such a survey now) and the respondents from
the more prestigious tier of schools were considerable more
left-leaning than the lower tier.
'60s and the boomers: To what extent can one separate the psychology
of the boomers from the events of the 60s? Isn't some of the residue
of the 60s the self-involved, self-important mindset of boomers?
Maybe I'm wrong but I don't think other generations were as inclined
to bloviate about all the great things they learned growing up in
Buffalo or to agonize about politicians' "character" the way boomer
Rick Perlstein: Once again, which boomers? A 1969 study from the
University of Michigan's Survey Research Center found that twice as
many voters under 35 had voted for George Wallace in 1968 than they
had Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Of course, a lot of the baby boomers who were radical in 1968 were
radical in a very shallow way, and shamefacedly reacted against their
former selves and overcompensated by moving right, or by developing a
visceral loathing of phantom hippies they see lurking around every
corner even in 2007.
It's complicated stuff.
Mt Rainier, Md.: How do you see the 60s ,legacy carrying over into
the next presidential term? More importantly, how can we get serious
needs (like a new style Public Works Administration to re-do
infrastructure, making it safe and sustainable) through today's
codified (by the 60s or whatever else) Congress?
Rick Perlstein: A Democratic president with a strong Democratic
Congress might be able to do what you imagine. A Republican
president, or a Democratic president without a strong Democratic
Congress, will not, because conservatives don't believe in a strong
central government to provide such things. It's a basic ideological
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