Tom Brokaw Does 1968 (Poorly)

The dominant trope driving Tom Brokaw's interpretation of the meaning of 1968 for the History Channel goes something like this: The "Greatest Generation" had set up a period of quietude and tranquility that the tumult of the 1960s rudely shattered. He blames the "excesses" of the 1960s, not surprisingly, on the Left and on the kids, and indirectly on the Democratic Party.

Brokaw sees protest as the irritant and the status quo, (even with its mass murder in Southeast Asia and racial strife at home), as infinitely preferable. He argues that the "conservatives" of the Republican Party were synonymous with decorum, good manners, and dignity, while the left-wingers in the Democratic Party should be identified with mayhem, sex and drugs, and "excess." He itemizes the "excesses" of the '60s, including drug use, revolutionary politics, and wild kids waving "Viet Cong" flags, but he never really examines what led these idealistic young people to become so alienated in the first place.

Brokaw's convenient narrative fits in well with the recent explosion of books and articles casting the history of the Vietnam War-era in a Cold War triumphalist light. Brokaw implies that it was the overly tolerant Democratic Party and the Left that played nursemaid to a youth culture that alienated people, such as his father, who didn't necessarily support the war but wanted America to be as great as it had been in the 1950s. With nowhere else to turn, Brokaw argues, these true-blue Americans turned to George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon.

Brokaw covers the 1968 election closely but never mentions Nixon's famous "Southern strategy," which played the race card dividing blue-collar whites from African Americans for Republican electoral gain not only in the Deep South but also throughout the country.

Brokaw proudly alludes to his working-class father, a salt-of-the-Earth character right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But he fails to emphasize that the kids doing the killing and dying in Vietnam were also from the working class. The average age of a GI was 19, (in World War II it was 26), and the boys who died in Southeast Asia were in large part the draftee sons of bricklayers, farmers, carpenters, truck drivers, factory workers, and other trades. They were plucked from the relatively happy and privileged life of America in the 1960s, with all of its opportunities, only to be sent into a hellhole in a distant land to fight for a corrupt, brutal, incompetent military regime in Saigon. The political system at home did not allow them to vote in an election, (the voting age was still 21), but they could be sent off to fight and die in Vietnam. Brokaw gives these issues short shrift.

The American political system in which Brokaw believes so wholeheartedly was totally unresponsive to the calls for ending the war. Democracy in America failed to provide an outlet for the expression of popular will, which in 1968 clearly wanted to end the war in Vietnam. This lack of responsiveness on the part of our national political institutions precipitated a legitimacy crisis. Brokaw papers over the social and cultural manifestations of this crisis focusing instead on the Left's "excesses."

Brokaw should qualify his documentary by stating for his television viewers that he is presenting the "white middle-class view" of 1968. He leaves out the experiences of so many people who do not fit into his South Dakota farm boy "greatest generation" narrative. He's okay on the Where, What, Who, and When, questions, but he ham-handedly drops the ball on the "Why?" questions -- the stock and trade of historians.

For example, in Brokaw's 1968 there are no "isms." There is no "racism" that is pernicious and multi-layered in America, North and South. He implies that after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 the civil rights movement should have declared "Mission Accomplished," packed up its bags, and gone home.

There is also no "imperialism" or "militarism" in Brokaw's view of 1968, even though the protests of the period were directed against these forces that, although not unique to the United States, are as American as Apple Pie. The Vietnam War exposed so many unseemly aspects of America's role in the world and its capacity for military aggression. It is astonishing that Brokaw can so vapidly dismiss these aspects of the American way of life in his recent telecast when we are currently witnessing these tendencies play out again in Iraq.

And what about the "excesses" of the federal government? Not only did Lyndon Johnson unleash B-52 jet bombers as never before on a small agricultural nation, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a host of domestic spying programs -- COINTELPRO -- that targeted, harassed, infiltrated, and subverted many of the nation's legitimate civil rights and peace organizations. The FBI's COINTELPRO even targeted Martin Luther King, Jr., who is one of the heroes in Brokaw's narrative. Brokaw never mentions J. Edgar Hoover or COINTELPRO in his trite discussion of the "excesses" of the '60s. Isn't illegally spying on tens of thousands of innocent Americans who were exercising their Constitutional right to dissent "excessive" on the part of the government? Again, it is astonishing that Brokaw can ignore COINTELPRO when we are currently experiencing a new wave of illegal government surveillance.

"To many," Brokaw intones, it seemed as though "the social fabric was unraveling" in 1968, and this, he explains, was how Richard Nixon was elected. Brokaw's narrative is neat and clean: Nixon appealed to the social conservatives who were repelled by the "excesses" of the middle-class youth movement. Nixon promised to bring America back to that fabled (and non-existent) tranquil period of quietude of the 1950s that is Brokaw's point of departure. But Brokaw fails to mention Nixon's "Southern strategy" of divide and conquer that played on pernicious American racism, and that Nixon himself was a fraud and a liar. Nixon's "law and order" mantra turned out to be nothing more than hypocritical window dressing and pandering. For Brokaw, it is simply irrelevant that Nixon was a crook because it doesn't fit into his preconceived trope. In an era when we've witnessed politically inspired firings of U.S. attorneys, along with a whole host of other scandals coming out of the Bush Administration, how Brokaw can ignore Nixon's criminality in any honest interpretation of the politics of 1968 is beyond me.

The Nixon tapes expose the true nature of Brokaw's paragon of virtue who plays a starring role in his morality play. For example, one tape reveals Nixon seeking to use the IRS to punish Democratic Party fund raisers, telling his aide H.R. Haldeman: "Bob, please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. All right. Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?" And this is the Republican leader Brokaw implies restored decorum and good manners to the nation after years of left-wing "excess?"

Brokaw also treats George Wallace with kid gloves. He never really explains to his viewers that in 1968 Wallace was a bigot and a racist and his running mate, Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had promised to bomb Vietnam "back to the Stone Age." The ticket for the "American Independent Party," which carried five states in the Deep South, sounds pretty "excessive" in its platform, but really examining Wallace and Nixon would interfere with Brokaw's clean narrative of "excess" followed by redemption; the unruly and unjustified "irritation" of civil disobedience, (the engine that won workers, blacks, and women their rights), followed by the Republicans' re-established good order and quietude.

Finally, Brokaw's political analysis (or lack thereof) of 1968 is undermined by a well-known fact: Democratic nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey's poll numbers shot upward dramatically in mid-October when he began distancing himself from Lyndon Johnson's war policies. His numbers were rising to the point where he might have overtaken Nixon if he had come out against the war earlier. Brokaw doesn't address the implications of this fact. Instead, he argues that the Left and its "excesses" had alienated Middle America, (or what Nixon called the "silent majority"), because most Americans were more against the protesting kids than they were against the war. But this doesn't explain Humphrey's surge when he began denouncing the war, as well as Nixon's strategy of claiming he had a "secret plan" to end the war. By November 1968, candidates from both parties had to pander to an electorate that wanted peace.

Brokaw is tough on "hippies" and protesters, soft on Wallace and Nixon. Patrick Buchanan gets a lot of face time and Brokaw recognizes that since 1968 the conservatives in this country have largely dictated the agenda. But is the country better off for it? Brokaw lets that question drop with a thud. He knows that the nation has descended into deep malaise and crisis under three decades of Republican tutelage, which runs counter to his narrative of redemption, (i.e., the right-wing of the "Greatest Generation" redeeming the nation from the "excesses" of their unappreciative, spoiled kids).

Forty years later, we have a huge national debt, (about $9.8 trillion), a debilitating occupation of an Arab country, gaping current account deficits with the rest of the world, an economic meltdown awaiting due to reckless de-regulation and privatization, and a government that seems unwilling or unable to tackle any of the nation's most pressing problems. All of this governmental ineptitude and corruption seems natural under Republican rule because the Right never really believed in the power of government to do anything positive anyway so it becomes a convenient self-fulfilling prophecy.

Making matters worse, the right-wing baby boomers, like George W. Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, and Grover Norquist, who got draft deferments and were out waving the American flag when most of their generation was protesting the war, have created the worst mess for the nation since at least the Civil War. Brokaw's underlying assumption is that the country is better off under conservatives because their values mirror the values of his father and those of the "greatest generation" more so than the baby boomers.

Brokaw accepts the premise that America is more "conservative" today, but one could just as easily argue that the workforce is simply more insecure and scared today; the cold hand of the market has disciplined their wayward children far more severely and effectively than their parents ever could. Compared to 1968, the U.S. economy is a shell of its former self, and the new status quo that Brokaw lauds limits opportunity even while the government has grown more authoritarian and nakedly imperialistic.

Our kids today have it a lot harder than we had it -- we had far more support from the government in the form of educational and economic opportunities. There is relative quiet in 2008, even with an unpopular foreign war dragging on, because the conservative agenda has helped facilitate fear in the population on all levels, and its cynical brand of divide-and-conquer politics have demoralized would-be idealists. For over 30 years now the Republicans have told young people not to bother dreaming of creating a better world in the future. "Idealism is Dead," they say in word and deed. Better to pile up material goods and be obedient consumers than act as politically engaged citizens.

There is nothing "great" about a generation -- "conservative," "liberal," or otherwise -- that tells its kids to stop dreaming of a better world, and holds as its creed that government cannot do anything positive for the people, that we should focus on what we cannot do as a nation, instead of what we can do, (or must do). Just look at the lack of "vision" of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. At least in 1968 young people had hope and could dream of a better planet and a better future. Brokaw comes down on the side of the stern father shaming those unruly children for their "excesses," while he ignores the damage to the nation his "conservative" heroes in his morality play have brought about.