1968. You already know the front page news from that year, spun in fury and acrimony.
But, did you know that the Boomers’ popular baby doctor, Benjamin Spock, faced indictment for conspiring to violate draft laws? A B-52 loaded with hydrogen bombs crashed at North Star Bay, Greenland? American soldiers fought the 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh, the longest and bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War? Thirty-two African nations threatened to boycott the Olympics because of participation by South Africa, then mired in apartheid? An epic battle between students and police in Paris left 1,000 injured? Carlos Castaneda published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, a provocative book having nascent influence on the developing recreational drug culture?
If Leading-Edge Boomers have only one thing in common, they have that year. One year never defines a generation, but survivors of 1968 know something changed — something deep and fundamental — something that can still influence their thoughts, actions and reactions today.
With the arrival of 2008, we finally have the collective perspective of 40 years. It’s a very good time to look back once more, and former NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw has taken the initiative.
When Brokaw’s publisher sent me his newest book to review, I already knew that any book attempting to deconstruct and delineate the Sixties is destined to become a lightning rod for controversy. That tumultuous decade remains an omnipresent exclamation point of unfinished business in today’s red-state/blue-state psyche. That decade is still beloved and berated with emotions hauntingly uncensored when aroused.
Uniquely present at the unfolding of a cataclysmic period, a young and ambitious news reporter travels the decade, which he defines as beginning in 1963 with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and ending with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. This journalistic neophyte encounters giants of a social and political revolution, from Reverend Martin Luther King to Bobby Kennedy. His eyewitness accounts contribute to a media culture that uplifts the human spirit by, for example, pressing forward the promises of a racially inclusive zeitgeist. He is simultaneously a party to degradation of the American Experience by presenting searing black & white footage of violent urban confrontations between protestors and police.
In all its distilled complexity, this book drives at something critically needed in today’s national conversation, as another momentous political year ending in eight begins to unfold ... and perhaps unravel. Boom! isn’t just an interesting history lesson, or a reporter’s personal accounts from his front-row seat, or a reunion of the decade’s most provocative characters. The book is a concrete manifestation of one of that decade’s most intense lessons from the feminist movement: the personal is the political.
As Brokaw acknowledges: “When I decided to write about the causes and the effects of the Sixties on a disparate group of Americans who had experienced the triumphs and failures of that time, I realized that I was stepping back through a looking glass in which images and memories are shaped by very personal perceptions on matters large and small. It was not going to be an easy assignment…”
Perceptions of the Sixties, including Tom Brokaw’s, inevitably underscore a realization that every part of our personal lives reflects and reacts to the macro political and social events swirling around us. A narrative of the Sixties today mirrors the consciousness of millions who individually lived through the turmoil, who questioned their paradigms, who took sides, who played the cards of social change, who engaged and withdrew from an “in your face” parade of protests, placards and high purpose. We were all perpetrators and victims, and our reflections are inherently personal, and the residual is inherently political … and visa versa.
Like the decade it represents, Brokaw’s Boom! asks us to search for perspective about a time so perplexing. It requires readers to think again about Martin, Bobby and John, to return to Richard Nixon and LBJ, and to reconsider Havens, Hawn and Hayden. It forces those who were there to recall raw hate over Vietnam and a moment of global awe as a tiny blue planet rose from the moon's horizon. The book nudges thoughtful readers to reconsider their noblest moments of psychological growth and to beseech acceptance for personal mistakes: our days of arrogant naiveté. This book demands that we pay attention to seedtime for what we are now and what we’ve evolved to become as a nation.
Boom! is inherently a Boomer book. For those on the leading-edge who were old enough to understand fully the turmoil their lives had become, both personal and political, it is detail and depth from a journalist with an inimitable backstage pass. For those members of Generation Jones who were too young to have gathered sufficient self-awareness as the decade unfolded, it is wise counsel about that which may have never been fully assessed or understood. Yet, for those who were born after the Sixties, it’s where we’ve been; it’s also explanation for why we are who we are now as a nation. It’s an interleaving mélange of images, instructions and incantations from the most galvanizing decade of the 20th century. At the epicenter of all this was 1968, so, fittingly, a book for our time, this year, right now.
Boom! must be controversial, an imperative. Any book about the Sixties must be contentious. Yet, given unresolvable differences about the merits of that fiery decade, we are still capable of gleaning vital lessons about constructing a better nation tomorrow.
This was Tom Brokaw’s challenge in Boom! Voices of the Sixties, Personal Reflections on the '60s and Today. It is a challenge well met.