I have decided to spend a couple of weeks reposting some material from the distant past. This piece, entitled, George W. Bush: Man of the Sixties, first appeared on October 21, 2004, in the midst of a presidential election campaign. It certainly identified many of the issues that I have been focusing on ever since.
President Bush likes to contrast himself and his policies with the 1960s. “We’re changing the culture of America,” he says, “from one that says, ‘If it feels good, do it,’ and, ‘If you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make,” (When Dick Cheney used the language of the 1960s in the face of an opposition U.S. Senator and defended himself because he “felt better,” the irony got less attention than it deserved.) Culturally, of course, the President rejects the sexual liberation of his youth, and portrays himself as a reformed sinner. Politically, as a conservative, pro-war Republican whose father had campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was certainly out of step on the Yale campus of 1964-68. All this is, however, entirely misleading—and the country, particularly its younger voters, should try to understand exactly who and what they are voting for before the election. George Bush and his Administration actually represent the worst of the late 1960s—a terrifying certainty determined to repudiate the past, disrupt the present, and risk the future for an ideological ideal. His certainty is not merely, as Ron Susskind argued last in last Sunday's New York Times, a question of his faith—it is all too characteristic of his entire generation.
As George W. Bush’s college years drew to a close, the most visible political faction on most campus was the Students for a Democratic Society, which took over the main Administration building, provoked a police bust, and temporarily halted instruction at my own school, Harvard, in the spring of 1969. They were distinguished more than anything else by a complete rejection of everything our parents stood for. In their eyes, the Cold War’s “defense of freedom” was greedy imperialism; civil rights laws simply masked enduring American economic racism; marriage and family were outdated bourgeois conventions; and democracy was a sham. They and they alone knew good from evil, and they had less than nothing to learn from the past. Even within their own ranks, they had contempt for democratic processes. In April of that memorable year, a vote of the SDS turned down a proposal to occupy University Hall by a vote of about two to one—but the next day, the losing minority faction undertook the occupation anyway, dragging their colleagues (and eventually most of the student body) in their wake.
A similar omniscient spirit has dominated the Bush Administration from the day it took office. One by one, the achievements of our parents’ generation—who occupied the White House from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush—have been gleefully tossed aside: the ABM Treaty, the rigid separation of Church and State, overtime protection for workers, environmental protection, and especially the spirit of compromise and civic responsibility that allowed Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of the country from the 1950s through the 1980s. In foreign policy they have even repudiated, in effect, the NATO Alliance and the United Nations. Events in the fall of 2002 were particularly revealing. Prodded by Colin Powell, who remembers the 1950s, the Administration sought a second Security Council resolution to authorize war against Iraq, but when they found they had only two other votes on their side, they simply disregarded the opinion of the world in the same way that the SDS disregarded the majority vote the night before the occupation of University Hall. Meanwhile, our Boomer-crafted new National Security Strategy gives the United States both the right and the duty to decide what nations shall possess what weapons, and summarily to remove hostile regimes. My Harvard classmate Elliot Abrams opposed SDS’s attempt to rule Harvard University according to their lights, but he is now enthusiastically doing his part to assure that he and his Administration colleagues rule the whole world in the same way.
Other memories from the Vietnam era come to me these days. One Saturday afternoon in 1970, I sat in a packed Harvard Square theater watching Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Wild Bunch. Midway through the movie, William Holden (himself a member of what we now call “The Greatest Generation”) tried to explain to his fellow gang members why Robert Ryan was now working for the other side. “He gave his word,” Holden said, speaking for an older America. “It’s not whether you keep your word!” one of his companions shouted. “It’s who you give it to!” The audience went crazy with delight. Isn’t that the same spirit in which the Bush White House has patronized the scurrilous, baseless campaign of the Swift Boat veterans? John Kerry is on the wrong side; therefore, he can’t be a war hero. And such is the partisanship of our times that even Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush Sr. have joined this campaign—although John McCain, significantly, refuses to do so.
Reality, of course, is a casualty of classic Baby Boomer thought. SDS members truly believed in 1969 that workers and students were going to overturn the established order—because it was right. In the same way, George W. Bush, in defiance of mountains of evidence that Iraq is disintegrating and that our intervention has reduced our standing in the Arab world to new lows, repeats that Iraq is on its way to a democratic transformation that will spread through the region. Freedom, he explains, is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman on this planet—an homily which leaves a calmer observer wondering why the Almighty has been so stingy about bestowing it in so much of the world for so many centuries, or whether the President believes that he is fighting Satan’s evil presence on earth.
Caught between ideology and reality, the Administration constantly resorts to Orwellian language. A loss of jobs becomes economic progress, less health care means more, opening national forests to logging becomes “The Healthy Forests Initiative,” and so on. In the same way, the SDS explained to us that dictatorship of the proletariat was the only true democracy. And the Administration cares nothing about federalism, because federalism could stand in its way. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated federal aid to education, Nixon argued that federal money would eventually mean federal control. Now a new Republican generation is using federal money to discredit and weaken public education through the No Child Left Behind Act.
The Bush Administration and its supporters are usually less obvious than their left wing contemporaries were about their repudiation of our parents’ works, but the other day, Grover Norquist—the anti-tax activist who has bragged about his close relations with the White House for four years—let the cat out of the bag in an interview with a Spanish newspaper. The Weekly Standard has printed quotes from the tape of the interview. Here is now Norquist assessed the coming election.
"And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared…
"This is an age cohort that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. . . . Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization--not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We've spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft . . . "
Norquist, a younger Baby Boomer, has actually hit the nail on the head. The twenty million men we drafted to win the Second World War (a conflict he apparently regrets) deserved, and got, their countrymen’s reward, in the form of the GI bill, 4% mortgages, generous Social Security benefits, and real pensions. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower confirmed the government’s responsibility for their well-being and that of their families. Such policies have now become “un-American” as the Bush Administration leads us towards their New Jerusalem—really a new Gilded Age. Norquist is actually exalting the collapse of civic virtue and mutual responsibility that he has helped to promote during his political career. Younger Americans should understand one thing: our current leadership is impervious to facts. Ultimately, like so many of my contemporaries, they care less about any specific changes they make at home or abroad than about simply proving to their own satisfaction that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They have already left the nation and the world a dangerous legacy.