Sunday, December 16, 2007

No Country for Old Anchormen

Tom Brokaw was born somewhere in South Dakota with a pretty but masculine face and a deep resonant voice. He parlayed these gifts into a forty-year career reading news from a teleprompter. This, evidently, qualified him to spend his retirement years as one of America's favorite pop historians.

Brokaw is best known for his work on the men and women who endured the Second World War, documented in his bestselling tome, "The Greatest Generation". The book is, at first glance, a harmless ode to the folks who stormed the beaches, liberated the islands, and kept the home fires burning. The title, however, tips Brokaw's hand. The use of the superlative, greatest, suggests a comparison, and it should be obvious exactly who is, by implication, less great. Nobody remembers anything about the World War I generation and the Gen X'ers are just beginning to make their mark. So Brokaw is rather clearly suggesting that it is, in fact, the baby boomers who were and are inferior to their heroic parents.

Thus, when Tom Brokaw decided to focus his attention on the 1960s, it was clear that he had already chosen sides. I don't have a clue as to Tom Brokaw's personal politics, but I know that his veneration of those born during the 1910s and 1920s plays directly into the prejudices and resentments of conservative culture warriors. To this day, right-wing firebreathers, even those born after 1970, insist that the hippies and radicals of the 1960s hijacked Ward Cleaver's country, leaving military defeat, sexual promiscuity, and political correctness in their wake. The Greatest Generation, by contrast, exemplified the manly virtues of physical courage, moral certitude, and rugged individualism, traits revered—if rarely exhibited—by social conservatives.

I doubt I will bother reading Brokaw's latest book. But I did force myself to sit through his documentary on the year 1968, presented by the History Channel. To hear the ex-anchorman tell it, 1968 was the pivotal year of the decade, altering history and inaugurating many of the cultural debates that rage up to this very day.

Much of Brokaw's work is hopelessly self-referential, as he reminisces about being around the famous and powerful as they made their marks on history. About a half hour in, one begins to imagine that Brokaw has selected 1968 mainly because it allows him to talk incessantly about himself and to show copious clips of his early years as an L.A. broadcaster. Truth be told, 1963 and 1964 were at least as consequential as 1968, but, alas, Brokaw spent those years still in newsreader finishing school, leaving him unable to place himself, Forrest Gump-like, at the center of every story.

The documentary itself paints with broad strokes and hits just about every cliché of the era. Think of it as "1968 for Dummies". You've got Lyndon Johnson and Gene McCarthy, the King and Kennedy assassinations, the student takeover of Columbia University, and the violence at the Chicago Democratic convention. Graying heads discuss their moments in a sun that set many, many years ago. Richard Nixon makes a few appearances, creepy and sweaty as ever.

The central theme of the piece is the battle between elitist, over-educated young radicals and the salt-of-the-earth blue collar folks they alienated. For his part, Brokaw finishes one segment (it might have been the one about Chicago) with a little story about going home and talking to his working class father. I flipped the station at that point (I can only take so much of this sort of thing), but I'm sure daddy lamented the breakdown of patriotism and the nerve of those uppity young college kids and their Vietcong flags. And, of course, as goes Tom Brokaw's father, so goes the Silent Majority. Or something like that.

(By the way, what is it with these guys and their blue collar dads? First Russert, now Brokaw. Could it be that they have some need to work out their filial issues on our time? Or is it simply that smuggling hard-working papa into the picture makes them seem less like overpaid celebrity fops?)

At one point, Brokaw interviews a woman who protested at the Democratic convention and a former Chicago police officer who participated in the violent law enforcement overreaction. The ex-cop is unapologetic for what took place, and Brokaw baits him with a question about whether he, as a son of the working class, resented these spoiled young Ivy Leaguers spending their summer vacation cheering for the enemy. But the ex-cop isn't having any. No, he says, it was just another day at work for him, suggesting that busting heads was simply what he did and he wasn't especially concerned about whose melon got squashed.

Brokaw, however, is undaunted. In scene after scene, he contrasts angry, long-haired radicals with pictures of workin' men who could have stepped out of a Chevy truck ad. When Eugene McCarthy puckishly suggests that his supporters are "A" students and Bobby Kennedy's are the "B" crowd, Brokaw trots out Jeff Greenfield to declaim on Clean Gene's obvious elitism. Pat Buchanan appears before the camera to delight in the many ways the radicals offended Middle America and delivered the presidency to Dick Nixon.

Mainly, though, the documentary is just shallow, much like Brokaw's earlier work. Even Ken Burns, for chrissakes, could have delivered a meatier look at the 60s. The decline of working class white support for the Democratic Party is a multifaceted phenomenon that clearly predates 1968, but you wouldn't know it from watching Brokaw. The Chicago convention may have been a debacle, but, as even the documentary points out, Democrat Hubert Humphrey still came within an eyelash of winning the presidency, and probably would have done so had he sided with the hippies on Vietnam a few weeks sooner than he did.

But the biggest failing of Brokaw's retrospective is its unwillingness to acknowledge that which the historical record makes painfully clear: the freaks were right and the squares were wrong. The Vietnam War was a hopeless travesty, the failed byproduct of administration lies and unchecked national hubris. Racism was and is a cancer on our society, which is to this day not entirely in remission. The patriarchal society that existed before the 1960s deprived half the country's population of the opportunity to address their ambitions and dreams. We are, therefore, a better society because of 1968 and the years that immediately preceded and followed it.

Even worse, Brokaw refuses to face the fact that the forces of reaction in 1968—the pro-war dead-enders, the unrepentant racists, and the bullying sexists—were led by members of his own beloved Greatest Generation. The history of 20th Century America is a complicated and sometimes difficult one. Its heroes and villains are neither clear nor, in many cases, consistent. Brokaw's favorite generation may have won their war, but it took their children to address the gaping inequities between the races, sexes, and—yes, Tom—even the social classes.

Perhaps history, in the end, should be left to the historians rather than some famous broadcaster with too much time on his hands.


redbarb said...

I have the distinct impression that for Brokaw's generation, the divide is and always will be "did you or did you not get any during the summer of love." Those who did not have never stopped resenting it.

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

You're right. Of course, those that did have never stopped bragging about it.