ASK THE AVERAGE AMERICAN UNDER 50 what he knows about our nation's history, and it's an even bet that the bulk of his "knowledge" will be about the 1960's. Sure, he'll be able to identify George Washington and the Civil War in the Before category, and in a pinch might be able to name Gerald Ford's vice president from the After; but nothing looms so large in his memory, or indeed the nation's, as the sixties. Even the emptiest Generation X'ersyou know, the kids who can't make change from a dollar bill and think America was discovered by "some old sailor dude"-know all about the love-ins and Vietnam, King and Kennedy, Sgt. Pepper and Motown. I myself remember them like it was yesterday, which is strange. During 1967's Summer of Love, after all, I was only four years old.
THE OLD JOKE IS THAT IF YOU CAN REMEMBER that zonked-out decade, you weren't there then. But the reality is almost the opposite: if you don't remember the sixties, you couldn't possibly be here now. The sixties are everywhere around us-it's the first decade to last for more than thirty years. We're endlessly reliving its battles, listening to its music, watching its documentaries. Politicians and activists on both sides of the aisle reflexively use it as the ultimate arbiter of the morally pure: pro-affirmative action forces invoke the memory of Martin Luther King, while their opponents call on the memory of, er, Martin Luther King. The Democratic Party keeps trying to re-light the Kennedy flame; Al Gore still carries the torch for Rachel Carson. The campaign to legalize pot goes on and on, and men-even when they're portly, and wearing suits-are still sporting ponytails. The Rolling Stones, for God's sake, are still on tour.
WHY ARE THE SIXTIES THE DECADE THAT won't go away? Partly it's because the Boomers just never grew up; and if their childhood decade is still going on, it makes sense that their childhoods are too. Look at Hillary Clinton: at age 50, she's traveling around the world like a coed fresh out of college, searching for something meaningful to do with her life. She's been a high-powered attorney, a high-powered politician's wife, mother of a daughter at one of America's finest universities, and First Lady of the United States. You'd think that would be enough to turn anyone into a grown-up, or at least make them sound like one. But Hillary sounds like a hippie chick straight out of the Age of the Groovy. On her recent trip to England-and it wasn't ever clear what exactly the point of her trip was-she couldn't stop talking about hope, and joy, and everybody coming together.
IT SOUNDS OKAY, EXCEPT THAT, in large measure, the sixties were not when everybody came together as much as when they fell apart. …