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Living the '60s in the '90s


"The '60s are still with us," Oliver Stone said. "We're living the '60s now."

He meant that those of us who came of age in the '60s, and were inspired and/or traumatized by the '60s, are forever affected by all that the '60s wrought. And we are getting older, and moving on, taking the baggage with us.

Children of the '60s have moved into positions of power and influence. Some want to be president of the United States. Many are just parents trying to deal with middle-class life -- "Oh my God, I'm my father!" I heard a fellow Baby Boomer exclaim -- while looking nervously toward middle age.

"What did you do during the '60s?" is what millions of early- to mid-boom Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1956) have to answer. And quite often their kids are the ones who pop the big questions:

"Did you do pot, dad?"

"Did you burn your bra, ma?"

"Did you dodge the draft, pop?"

"Did you ever live with a guy, mom?"

Living with the '60s in the 1990s requires an adjustment in thinking, in how we make judgments -- especially when it comes to the standards we set for men and women who strive for positions of power. The flap over Bill Clinton's Vietnam-era draft deferment is what stirred this up again.

Conventional standards -- that is, the standards forged by our parents, the generation that survived the Depression and World War II, then created the Baby Boom -- still hold in this society. But, at long last, they are starting to crack.

Apparently, we no longer dismiss a nominee for the Supreme Court because he might have smoked marijuana in college. A man need not be a war hero -- or even a combat veteran -- in order to further his political career; the vice president slipped into the Indiana National Guard to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. And only people with the moral rigidness of the Church Lady sneer at couples who have had marital troubles.

Recall Hillary Clinton, wife of the Arkansas governor, on the famous post-Super Bowl "60 Minutes" interview: "I'm sitting here because I love him, and I respect him and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together. And you know, if that's not enough for people, then heck -- don't vote for him."

A lot of the Clintons' peers silently nodded when they heard that because a lot of them have been through what the Clintons went through, and they've got scars to prove it. Experience hardens us on the outside. But it can soften us on the inside.

And that might be true for everyone, but it's more likely to be true for a generation that came of age during the turmoil and tragedy of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and the advent of the feminist movement. The '60s presented incredible challenges, and it was one of the most painful of American decades. But it was a time of personal and political liberation, too. All of what happened in the '60s left a mark on the souls of its children, and while it might have hardened us on the outside, it softened us on the inside.

So I had a hunch that, having come of age in a time of rebellion and radical change, children of the '60s would be more flexible than their parents, less inhibited by convention, more open to new ideas, and less judgmental of their peers. Despite the rise of '60s-trashers and other neo-conservative brats, I still believe it's so.

The problem, as the candidacy of Bill Clinton reveals, is that not enough people have let go of the old standards. There might be better reasons why Clinton dropped in the polls in New Hampshire, but the combination of L'Affaire Flowers and the draft deferment issue is what really hurt him. People over 65 make up one of the most active voting blocs in the country. They are not children of the '60s. They are parents of the children of the '60s. And they make judgments by the standards of their generation.

They don't really want to hear a candidate admitting to marital problems.

And they really don't want to hear about the college boy who tried to get out of the draft. I doubt they read, with any significant sympathy, the anguished letter of a 22-year-old kid trying to stumble through the thorny question of duty during the Vietnam War. They didn't want to hear it then, they don't want to hear it now.

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