How boomer wave changed our nation

The Baltimore Sun

The title of Tom Brokaw's new book "Boom! Voices of the Sixties" suggests another "generations" book, an account of baby boomers creating the 1960s and vice versa. But it isn't -- not exactly. For Brokaw, "Boom!" refers not to boomers but rather to explosive differences before and after the decade's "volcanic center" of 1968.

As for boomers, if one adheres to the standard demographic definition as the generation born from 1946 through 1962, then perhaps half the people whose voices are invoked here are boomers' older brothers and sisters, such as Pat Buchanan (69 years old), Andrew Young (75), Nora Ephron (66), Gloria Steinem (73), Tommy Smothers (70), Joan Baez (66) and Dick Gregory (75). Brokaw himself is now 67.

Yet the contrast between title and cast of characters is instructive. It punctures the popular misconception that boomers led the 1960s political, cultural and lifestyle revolutions. Some did, but many initially were foot soldiers, inspired by slightly older men and women; other boomers mocked the movements; most simply went on with fairly conventional lives. Indeed, the range and number of "Voices of the Sixties" makes for a 662-page saga that, like the Sixties, can seem "never-ending."

The genial Brokaw casts himself as class president of a "virtual reunion" of 1960s folks telling what they did back then, where they've been since and how they assess that tumultuous decade. As he did in "The Greatest Generation," Brokaw places individual stories within broader themes: race, gender, war, politics, popular culture and music.

"Boom!" is packed with memorable people, places, events -- many directly observed by the veteran NBC reporter. (Brokaw's own autobiographical snapshots serve as an unobtrusive narrative as well as marking a cultural trajectory likely traveled by many white men who have one foot in the conformist '50s and the other in the rebellious '60s.) Historical newcomers and professionals alike should appreciate the book. (Note to professors: This would be a groovy supplement for courses in recent American history.) For those more familiar with the era, there are new details and fresh takes.

Brokaw draws out contrasts and similarities by sometimes deftly pairing political opposites. First boomer President Bill Clinton and congressional adversary Newt Gingrich: "Two bright, prematurely gray, gabby Southern boys from dysfunctional families, they both avoided military service, discovered politics at an early age, became powerful and influential and got into trouble over women and ethics." Today, Clinton defensively argues that "the rhetoric of my administration was remarkably free of the Sixties. I was trying to move us beyond that. ... Newt built a movement out of a caricature of the Sixties." Gingrich is currently less concerned with culture wars than with broken government, astutely observing that the Democrats' ideology blocks pragmatic solutions to major problems such as immigration and health care reform - but that Republicans don't even see the need for solutions.

Non-celebrities' stories are often the most moving. Brokaw illustrates the Vietnam War's lasting scars through Tom and Nellie Coakley. Tom, an Ivy League hockey player and reluctant soldier, lost a leg in Vietnam. While recuperating, he met Nellie, a dedicated Army nurse. They married and had children, but suppressed Vietnam issues resurfaced. Nellie became a veterans counselor; Tom lectured high school classes. Nellie, haunted by memories of tending the lonely death of a badly wounded soldier, sought out his mother via the Web; after an emotional reunion, they remain close. As Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia and Vietnam veteran Jim Webb tells Brokaw, "You never really leave the battlefield."

Civil-rights gains are self-evident to Brokaw and the African-Americans he interviews, but interracial mistrust and miscommunication linger, along with many problems: fatherless families, entrenched poverty (untouched by affirmative-action programs, which Brokaw and others admit need rethinking) and a destructive ghetto street culture epitomized in rap music. Likewise, women have moved into the workplace and up corporate ladders, but integrating work and family remains difficult. Judith Rodin, the first female Ivy League university president, notes that women "can have it all but not at the same time."

Brokaw warns that the 2008 presidential election may be an "echo chamber" of the watershed 1968 election. Nonetheless, he hopes that his book "will be a catalyst for our moving on together with fresh ideas and lessons learned." He also hopes that retiring baby boomers will acquiesce to a reduction in their benefits as their numbers strain Social Security and Medicare. Don't bet on it.

Frederick Lynch writes for the Los Angeles Times

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