Been There, Done That (Not!)

tags: Joe Biden

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture.  A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

Joe Biden’s got a problem — and so do I. And so, in fact, do we.

At 76 years old, you’d think I’d experienced it all when it comes to this country and its presidencies. Or most of it, anyway. I’ve been around since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Born on July 20, 1944, I’m a little “young” to remember him, though I was a war baby in an era when Congress still sometimes declared war before America made it.

As a boy, in my liberal Democratic household in New York, I can certainly remember singing (to the tune of “Whistle While You Work”) our version of the election-year ditty of 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced off against Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson. The pro-Republican kicker to it went this way: “Eisenhower has the power, Stevenson’s a jerk.” We, however, sang, “Eisenhower has no power, Stevenson will work!” As it happened, we never found out if that was faintly true, since the former Illinois governor got clobbered in that election (just as he had in 1952).

I certainly watched at least some of the 1960 televised debates between Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy — I was 16 then — that helped make JFK, at 43, the youngest president ever to enter the Oval Office. I can also remember his ringing Inaugural Address. We youngsters had never heard anything like it:

“[T]he torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world… Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

While a college freshman at Yale, I saw him give a graduation speech in New Haven, Connecticut. From where I was standing, he was as small as one of the tiny toy soldiers I played with on the floor of my room in childhood. It was, nonetheless, a thrill. Yes, he was deeply involved in ramping up the war in Vietnam and America’s global imperial presence in a fiercely contested “Cold War.” Most of us teens, however, were paying little attention to that, at least until October 1962, in what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he addressed us on the radio, telling us that Soviet missile sites were just then being prepared on the island of Cuba with “a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” As a generation that grew up ducking-and-covering under our school desks in nuclear-attack drills, young Americans everywhere, my 18-year-old-self included, imagined that the moment might finally have arrived for the nuclear confrontation that could have left our country in ruins and us possibly obliterated. (I can also remember sitting in a tiny New Haven hamburger joint eating a 10-cent — no kidding! — burger just over a year later when someone suddenly stuck his head through the door and said, “The president’s been assassinated!”)

And I can recall, in the summer of 1964, hitchhiking with a friend across parts of Europe and trying, rather defensively, to explain to puzzled and quizzical French, Italian, and German drivers the candidacy of right-wing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who was running against Kennedy’s vice president and successor Lyndon B. Johnson. Goldwater was the Trump of his moment and, had I been in the U.S., I wouldn’t have given him the time of day. Still, as an American in Europe I felt strangely responsible for the weirder political aspects of my country and so found myself doing my damnedest to explain them away — perhaps to myself as much as to anyone else. In fact, maybe that was the secret starting point for TomDispatch, the website I would launch (or perhaps that would launch me) just after the 9/11 attacks so many years later.


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