July 10, 2008
By DANIEL HENNINGER
How perfect it was that while running for president in 2008, the 40th
anniversary of "1968," Barack Obama should denounce the 1960s. His
candidacy and his times are bland compared to what was happening
then, or so everyone thought.
The year 1968 had a torrent of cataclysmic political events, each of
which might have destabilized any other year.
We just passed Robert Kennedy's assassination, and before that the
Paris student riots in May 1968. Up next month, the Democratic
convention in Chicago – with its pitched battles in Grant Park
between the cops and antiwar demonstrators, the anti-Vietnam protests
inside the hall, Mayor Richard Daley on home TVs screaming
hysterically at Sen. Abraham Ribicoff.
Thus spake Sen. Barack Obama, b. 1961:
"There is no doubt that we represent the kind of change that Sen.
Clinton cannot deliver on. And part of it is generational. Sen.
Clinton and others, they have been fighting some of the same fights
since the '60s. And it makes it very difficult for them to bring the
country together to get things done."
Sen. Clinton "and others" would include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi,
various Senate and House Committee chairmen, DNC Chairman Howard
Dean, and much of the Congressional Black Caucus whose political
formation started and stopped in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Insofar as many of the people running Sen. Obama's own party have
spent the past four decades playing the Hatfields to the conservative
McCoys, can one truly say he has freed himself from those times?
As someone might have said back then, sort of.
A phrase born in the '70s out of the feminist movement held that "the
personal is political." As an epigram for the age, she got that
right. Back then, it seemed to make sense.
Neither Barack Obama nor others of his generation can fathom the
fantastic emotional intensity of 1968. It was a year submerged in
physical and emotional violence. After the Martin Luther King
assassination in April, many American cities erupted in violence and
arson, most notably Washington, D.C. The smash-face antiwar movement
For the then-young men and women of the liberal left, politics
became, and remained, unapologetically personal. The falling away of
restraint on personal behavior required that the new ethos had to be
codified by politics and the courts. Fighting for the right to hang
erotic art in a Cincinnati museum became their idea of crucial
struggle. Their counterparts on the right were appalled. The point is
that for both sides, 1968 was a political furnace; it forged belief
systems that drive many in politics today, especially Democrats.
Hillary Clinton came out of this intensely fought milieu. Barack
Obama did not. When Obama criticized the fights born back in the
'60s, he was severing the personal from the political. He is
personally very different from these people. (I wouldn't say this
about Michelle Obama.)
What has struck me most about Obama's personality is that it conveys
nearly no sense of irony. Hillary in stump speeches would respond to
applause for her tales of woe by bobbing her head and forming her
mouth into a knowing smirk. Obama doesn't do "knowingness." He's
earnest and emotionally quiet. Making un-ironic earnestness seem
charismatic is hard, but he's doing it.
His recent flip-flops on guns, the death penalty and Iraq suggest he
is less inclined to belief-based '60s style activism than to
pragmatic opportunism. The old school wanted to triumph. He wants to succeed.
The Democratic bloggers, truly a tribe descended from 1968, hate
Obama's easeful flexibility. But it explains in part how he is
slipping by with a standard liberal policy-set no one seems to
notice. A lot of moderate Democrats and younger voters, who consider
themselves mainly achievers rather than activists, are OK with this.
They would rather vote for a flexible opportunist than a committed
man of the left. So that's what they're getting.
If he wins, though, the country would have a president who lacks
personal and political clarity. This would give the politics of hope
new meaning. What precisely do voters think they're getting? You
don't have to wait for an answer. It will be supplied in January by
Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, the House caucus and many others who turned
professional after the '60s and know what to do with a big governing
majority in Congress.
For Democrats who think 1968 was yesterday, the next four look good:
Obama's personality produces a win (proving the personal remains
political), and the win produces traditional party goals on universal
health insurance, tax levels and, not least, the more modest American
footprint in the world they have sought since the charismatic Jack
Kennedy got the country into Vietnam. Looks like the sunshine may be
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org