I was a kid for most of the fabulous Sixties, but by the very end of the decade I was in high school, and by the time the Seventies began I was at university. So I missed some of the good parts—the free speech movement, the early days of the civil rights movement, the free love movement—and what I remember best about the years of 1968 through 1974 was how tense everybody was, all the time.
Divisive politics—hardhats versus hippies—were on everybody’s mind, and back then the stakes were high. Tens of thousands of mostly blue-collar kids went off to fight a war without the support of the citizens they were serving; many of those kids never got the chance to grow up. Other kids, smart enough or at least well-off enough to go to college, used student deferments to postpone or avoid the draft. From that latter group, here and there sprang up groups such as SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Weathermen. Most of the men and women in these organizations were not terrorists of the Bill Ayers-Bernadine Dohrn variety, but they were passionate in their opposition to the Viet Nam War, vehemently “anti-establishment,” and united in their hatred of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, who inherited the mess President Kennedy made when he diddled with the balance of power in Southeast Asia.
I shared none of these deep emotions, and I did not understand them. I’d flee the campus scene if a large demonstration was in the offing. I never chanted “hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today.” I didn’t feel the visceral, soul-draining hatred of Richard Nixon that ate at the gut of so many of my contemporaries even unto today. For me, politics was somewhere between a sport and an intellectual challenge: I watched, I listened, I formed opinions, I mouthed off—but I did not dwell in a house of doom. It seemed to me that the United States had weathered centuries of good interrupted by bad, very bad, times and would therefore continue as at always had, an imperfect union ruled by imperfect law imperfectly administered at times but with built-in mechanisms for righting wrongs.
When the Sixties finally wound down in the mid-Seventies, with Nixon “in exile in San Clemente” and President Carter presiding over eighteen percent inflation rates, I’d occasionally wonder why Nixon was still a punching bag, but occasional wonder was about it. When Reagan ran for president I was skeptical and a little embarrassed to tell the truth that an actor could aspire to “the highest office in the land.” So I was at least prepared for the spew of venom that drenched him and Nancy Reagan after the election. In 1980 it seemed as if the end of days were at hand. The country was being governed by an “out-of-touch” “Teflon” old geezer and his shrew of a wife. Reagan delegated too much. As old as he was, he nevertheless provided fresh meat for the Sixties squad—Nixon’s history, now let’s hate Reagan. Reagan’s “morning in America” became “mourning in America,” for many a clever leftie.
George Bush was elected on Reagan’s coattails and suffered much of the same irrational emotional response. His notion of a “kinder, gentler nation” was ridiculed; his ideas about community service—“A Thousand Points of Light”—mocked or ignored by the left, who prefigured their portmanteau “[GW] BushHitler” with “ReaganBush,” as if the two administrations were a monolith of fat-cat politics out to get the little guy. By this time I was working and living in a community that prides itself on politics so left-of-center that it once declared Linda Jenness its patron saint. So President Clinton’s election was greeted with joy in the streets, and sweetness and light obtained until nasty Congressional Republicans took out their “contract on America.” Newt Gingrich was evil incarnate, and forget about monsters like Henry Hyde, Bob Barr and other Republicans in the House and Senate who ganged up on the president to impeach him for—well, you know what for.
The eight years of BushHitler that followed President Clinton’s two terms in many ways brought me back to the Sixties, more so certainly than any of the preceding decades. Bush was stupid. Bush was evil. Bush was crooked. Bush was a cokehead. Bush was Cheney’s puppet. Bush knew about 9/11 and did nothing to prevent it. Bush suspended our civil liberties. Bush wanted to know what library books you were checking out. Bush wanted to avenge his daddy in Iraq. Bush dodged the draft. On and on and on…if you could say it, think it, or make it up, about George Bush it was probably true…after all, he was a traitor to his class: in spite of two Ivy degrees, he’d somehow avoided drinking the Kool-Aid of socially acceptable leftism, so that was strike one. And he espoused bourgeois values of home, hard work and religion so that was strike two. No matter that he wore none of them on his sleeve. And he pretty much didn’t give a damn about America’s enemies, excepting for wanting them stopped. Strike three. The pulsating, consuming, ice-hot hatred lavished on Richard Nixon at long last had a new prince of darkness on which its practitioners could fixate.
No matter how hard I tried, I could not wrap my mind around the genuine emotional investment of the haters. Many of them were colleagues, some friends. In other areas of life they seemed like good people, stable and kind, but mention the B(H)-word and they’d start foaming at the mouth. Although I did not understand them, I did not doubt the sincerity or the depths of their emotions. These people really and truly thought one man and his gang of political cronies were using the United States as their piggy bank and plaything. I didn’t get it.
But now of course I do, and I owe all of them an apology. For what I had been reading as hatred for forty years was something else entirely: terror. These people weren’t eaten up on the inside from hatred; they were terrified for the future of their country. Afraid of the fragility of their American way of life. Anxious that their Constitution was imperiled. I am sorry that I didn’t understand these people. Ces’t moi.