November 17, 2008

The End of the Sixties

by Jim Newsom

The 1960s finally ended on November 4, 2008.

That most exciting, controversial, raucous, rancorous, mellow, explosive, invigorating, uninhibited, uptight, far out, war-mongering, peace-loving of decades breathed its final breath with the election of Barack Obama.

Taps had been played and eulogies issued several times before—after the tragic violence at the Altamont rock festival on December 6, 1969; when Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment proceedings on August 9, 1974; when Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam draft dodgers on the second day of his presidency in January, 1977.

I have always dated the real end of the ‘60s to the last two months of 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president on November 4, and John Lennon was murdered five weeks later, on December 8. Those two events happening so close together produced a period of mourning in America and throughout the world that subsequent history has confirmed to be a bellwether of seismic cultural shift. It marked the end of the golden age of rock and roll while signaling the beginning of a 28-year reign in which Republicans would attempt to dismantle the spirit, and the regulatory safeguards, of the New Deal and post-World War II middle class ascendancy. Thus began the modern age of greed, “me first,” “not in my backyard,” “trickle down,” privatization and upward wealth redistribution.

The overreaching power grabs of the Bush administration, going to war for the sake of going to war, Enron and other corporate scandals, the clueless response to the Katrina disaster, the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the current massive economic meltdown—all are the inevitable consequence of our long experiment in right wing governance. It was an experiment born in fearful reaction to the times that were a-changin’ and the manipulation of that fear by radical conservatism’s puppeteers.

This year, John McCain allowed his campaign to use the same old playbook that had worked so often for his party in the recent past. Unfortunately for the self-proclaimed “maverick,” those plays no longer work with most Americans; the body politic has at last built up immunity to them.

More important, though, was the hopeful inspiration offered by 47-year old Barack Obama. Though technically a member of the baby boom generation (an era officially delineated as 1946-64), his defining experiences were not those of the bulk of the boomer cohort. He doesn’t remember where he was when JFK was assassinated; didn’t watch the battles of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War on the nightly news; had his sixth birthday during the Summer of Love, his eighth the summer of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Woodstock. I heard him say in an interview, “When I think of baby boomers, I think of my mother’s generation.”

He may say that his formative experiences come from later decades, but both the style and promise of his presidential campaign owe much to that of John F. Kennedy’s in 1960. Whether by intention or coincidence, President-elect Obama conveys the same feeling of hope and optimism to today’s young people that Kennedy gave to mine. I hear in his speeches the same call to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” While Obama’s themes of “Change” and “Yes We Can” are not as poetically resonant as Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” the implication is much the same to a populace hungry for real leadership and a fresh start.

It is astonishing, however, that the baby boom generation may end up being represented in the White House only by members of its first and last classes. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were born in the first post-war summer of 1946, Obama in the summer of 1961. But the bulk of the boomers were children of the ‘50s, with 1957 being the top of the curve. Though it now looks likely, it will be demographically surprising if there turn out to be no presidents born during the peak decade of the boom. (Sarah Palin was born in 1964.)

Nonetheless, Clinton and Bush were representative of two main strains running through the children of the ‘60s. Clinton was the Kennedy-inspired idealist out to make the world a better place; intelligent, questioning, caught up in the tenor of the times and driven to make more of himself than his circumstances would have predicted. He married a woman as smart, idealistic and ambitious as he was. He supported civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War based on principle, not self interest. But once he entered politics, he discovered that he had to temper his idealism with pragmatism, and make compromises to win elections and accomplish goals. Along the road to power, he made so many compromises and concessions that he probably lost sight of what had originally motivated him. But he was totally self-made and, in spite of long odds, very successful.

Bush was the frat boy, not very smart, uninterested in matters of the mind, tuned in to issues like the Vietnam War only insofar as they affected him personally. A classic underachiever, he floated through life aimlessly, going to fancy schools and finding employment solely because of his daddy’s connections. When he entered politics, he was entering the family business. As often happens with the third generation of a family business, he ran it into the ground.

As he leaves the government in disarray, the economy in tatters and American prestige in ruins around the world, Bush and his administration have succeeded in bringing the extended ‘60s to a close on the same sad note that the actual decade ended—with a president lying to the country and an unnecessary foreign war wasting lives and money.

But on this Election Day, November 4, 2008, the American people were not looking backwards. Standing in line at my polling place before the sun came up that morning, I could feel a palpable sense of optimistic expectation, a renewed feeling of commonality and community. As the returns came in from across the country that evening and expectations rose even higher, there was a joyousness rising throughout the land.

My first tears appeared when I saw Congressman John Lewis being interviewed on TV, as I remembered seeing him beaten mercilessly on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. When Virginia went blue and Barack Obama was simultaneously declared the winner at 11:00 pm, forty-some years of emotion poured out of me. As he spoke an hour later to the huge gathering in Grant Park, where young anti-war demonstrators were clubbed indiscriminately in 1968, I was overcome with excitement and disbelief. The televised faces in the crowd, like mine teary-eyed, exhausted but so filled with hope, were the multi-hued faces of America and the world.

As the curtain finally comes down on the ‘60s, as the Reagan era finally limps off into the sunset, as we wake up at last from the Bush-Cheney nightmare, Hope is the word. Let us pray that Barack Obama has within him the strength and courage to challenge and inspire us to turn that Hope into Action, to put our nation and our world back together again.

copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.