Rick Perlstein: Getting Past the '60s? It's Not Going to Happen.
[Rick Perlstein, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, is the author of"Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America," to be published in May.]
One of the most fascinating notions raised by the current presidential campaign is the idea that the United States can and must finally overcome the divisions of the 1960s. It's most often associated with the ascendancy of Sen. Barack Obama, who has been known to entertain it himself. Its most gauzy champion is pundit Andrew Sullivan, who argued in a cover article in the December Atlantic Monthly that, "If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today's actual problems, Obama may be your man."
No offense to either Obama or Sullivan, but: No he isn't. No one is.
I realized that when I read this e-mail from a friend, a passionate Obama supporter who's a veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement: "Who are you supporting for prez? You know my feelings -- and my son has been working 16-hr days for him up in NH. Kind of like his 60s . . ."
I realized it again when I saw the online ad produced by Sen. John McCain's campaign, arguing that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't deserve the presidency because she earmarked one-millionth of the federal budget ($1 million) for a museum commemorating the rock festival Woodstock.
I realized it, too, when Bill Clinton accused Obama of leaving the role of Lyndon B. Johnson out of the civil rights story, and when Sen. John Kerry announced his endorsement of Obama with a quotation from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and both set off a strange bout of opinion-journalism shadowboxing over which camp, Clinton's or Obama's, better grasped the historical legacy of the civil rights movement.
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 are all like Zhou Enlai, who, asked what he thought about the French Revolution, answered, "It is too early to tell." When and how will the cultural and political battle lines the baby boomers bequeathed us dissolve? It is, well and truly, still too early to tell. We can't yet "overcome" the '60s because we still don't even know what the '60s were -- not even close....
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