22.12.07

DIZZY WITH EXCESS. Although Tom Brokaw grew up in South Dakota, in the late 1950s and early 1960s the meritocracy was still open enough that a news anchor in Los Angeles did not have to hold a degree from one of the usual suspects on the coast. There was enough of a consensus that a midwestern graduate of a state university and a graduate of one of the Ivies could hold the same positions. In Boom, however, Mr Brokaw repeatedly (is it unwittingly?) suggests that shared consensus was one of an out-of-touch elite. A passage on page 430 captures it perfectly.
In the course of writing this book, I was startled by the number of people I encountered who said, "I didn't know anyone who went to Vietnam." Or they would say, "I think a kid in my high school class went; I don't know if he came back." It is one more manifestation of the generation gap that appeared in America in the Sixties. The parents of the baby boom generation had experienced World War II as a unifying experience. Everyone, in and out of uniform, had a role. But Vietnam was a the war that deeply divided a generation. Moreover, the nature of the resistance to Vietnam -- which included burning the American flag, cheering on North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, welcoming an enemy victory, and disparaging military service -- was taken (and in most cases meant) as an insult to the patriotism of the World War II generation.
Had Mr Brokaw focused more carefully on the divisions within the generation, rather than the divisions between the noisy subset that became the coastal elite and the larger and less noisy subset that didn't protest (or didn't know how to) or came of age a little after the excitement had died down. There are many passages in Boom that suggest Mr Brokaw is having cognitive dissonance over how all the Righteous Causes (peace, civil rights, feminism, rock 'n roll) mutated into Republican presidents for 28 of the next 40 years after 1968 with intellectual lightweights in the war room. Turn to page 32.

It is now largely unchallenged political dogma that the chaos on the left delivered the country to the right in 1968. Says Pat Buchanan, the commentator, sometime presidential candidate, and longtime keeper of the conservative flame, who was a speechwriter for Richard Nixon from the mid-Sixties on, "Nineteen sixty-eight was two sides of the same coin. Everything came apart for the Democrats and together for the Republicans. We went on to create a new majority built on the ruination of the Great Society [President Johnson's ambitious attempt to expand on the New Deal policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt]."

Tom Hayden, a founder of the SDS -- Students for a Democratic Society -- and a proponent of a radical remaking of America, thinks that it's wrong to castigate the left for the results of the Sixties, and he dismisses those claims of self-destruction on the left. ...

Hayden says, "There's a big 'what if' over the Sixties that should keep people from casting blame or causality, and that is the assassinations. ... Who knows what would have happened if [Martin Luther] King and [Robert] Kennedy were alive? It could have launched a liberal period of governance."

Or not. This Book Review No. 37 notes that Boom, for all its length, reads easily, and Mr Brokaw interviews a variety of figures, not limited to the usual Coastal Establishment suspects and their hippie counterparts in entertainment, and the interviews bring up a number of subtleties, including the regret of some draft resisters who discovered that it was the young men from elite precincts who knew what buttons to push to be disqualified for service (try coaching a high school kid from a rough neighborhood to fake homosexuality), and a number of observations about Robert Kennedy, a Catholic father of eleven children, who might not have been the advocate of easy access to abortion that characterized the feminist true believers, and who was on record as "hating" the welfare system and the common schools of poor neighborhoods. Had he lived, would he have been mau-maued as a sellout? Taken together, it's not a bad oral history of the major events of 1968, with a little bit of historical context beginning with the murder of President Kennedy and ending with the resignation of President Nixon.

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