How Lt. John Kerry performed on a naval vessel in Vietnamese waters in 1968-69 became a central issue in America’s 2004 election. The question of whether the onetime Air National Guard pilot George W. Bush had discharged his military duty after graduating from Yale University in 1968 played a lesser part.
This past October, needling Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had supported a tiny federal appropriation for a museum to commemorate the Woodstock concert of 1969, Senator John McCain brought a Republican audience to its feet when he declared that he hadn’t attended that concert because “I was tied up at the time” - an obvious allusion to his long imprisonment in North Vietnam after his navy plane was shot down. Senator Barack Obama has periodically told adoring crowds that the culture wars of the 1960s ought to be ended.
Politicians disagree over the consequences of 1968
As in 1992, when Bill Clinton’s wartime draft evasion and his claim not to have inhaled marijuana became campaign issues; as in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s speech defending “state’s rights” in the county where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964; American politicians are still fighting over the Sixties, over what happened and over its meaning. Were the changes, on balance, good or bad?
This is the recurrent divide that defines the fundamental cleavage in American politics today. This history, or wound, is still open because the conflicts that burst open during 1968 and the years immediately preceding and following went to the heart of American identity. Two Americas collided, sometimes in the same breast.
Clashing ideas about male-female relations, about race and sexuality, about authority altogether, about America’s relation to the rest of the world. They collided, and sometimes they mixed together, and the terms changed, but the forces unleashed four decades ago have not ceased to collide.
Protests helped Nixon to powerdemonstrators at the Democratic Convention than on the actually responsible police and political authorities.
With one convulsion after another, all amplified by the mass media, it was Richard Nixon who was elected president on the strength of a political backlash, launching a political counterrevolution that has lasted almost uninterrupted, and with savage results, for four subsequent decades.
History as a collective nightmare
History was a prologue to freedom, if not an illusion that the moment of freedom had already arrived. Perhaps - thought the utopians - history was a collective nightmare from which we were already beginning to awake! But looming in the background was a political majority that joined the newly Republican South with disaffected white working class males - Nixon’s “silent majority” - insisting that history was very far from open, and slamming the door.
The ‘68ers believed they were the future, but they were not even the present. America’s bestselling poet of 1968 was neither Bob Dylan nor the antiwar radical Robert Lowell but a sentimental kitschmeister named Rod McKuen. The most popular television shows were traditional westerns and rural comedies. The musical Funny Girl sold more tickets in the United States than 2001: A Space Odyssey. As ‘68’s own bards and guerrillas manqués often failed, or refused, to know, not everyone under thirty was swinging together into the age of psychedelic mystery tours, surrealistically stuttering consciousness, and fervent gauchisme.
Discontent about the excesses of the Bush eraof Nixon’s Southern Strategy, soon to be joined by the neoconservatives, all of them triumphant (after an embarrassing pause for impeachment) in the Reagan restoration and then riding high in the current administration.
Against them there deploy popular currents revolted by the reactionary excesses of the Bush years. It is, as they say, no accident that the two rivals for the Democrats’ current attempt to reap some long-deferred harvests from the ‘60s are an African-American and a woman, neither of whose candidacies would be imaginable without the movements of that decade. It isn’t clear who gets the last word in history, but what is clear is that the fight is still on to inherit that improbable and unrepeatable decade.
Professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, and author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage” (Bantam) and, most recently, “The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals” (Wiley)