Saturday, March 29, 2008

Tom Brokaw's Generation

By David Luhrssen
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Tom Brokaw popularized the idea of “the Greatest Generation” and more recently the amiable news anchor has focused on his own generation. The History Channel documentary “1968 With Tom Brokaw,” out now on DVD, examines a year that virtually everyone agrees was pivotal. Whether ‘68 moved the world for better or for worse remains debatable. Brokaw finds voices willing to take up both positions.

The flaw of “1968” is its skimpy global perspective. Brokaw quickly acknowledges other events elsewhere on Earth, but offers no idea what undercurrents connected the widespread upheaval against everything that existed—not only in the U.S. but in France and other Western European nations, in Czechoslovakia and China. The focus is on America and, admittedly, there is much to discuss. 1968 saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, peace protests-turned-violent, race riots, the rise of Black Power, Women’s Liberation and other special focus movements, and the unraveling of the Democratic Party’s grand coalition, leading to the rise of the Right. The year culminated in the election of Richard Nixon by a slender majority, but also with photographs of the Earth from the Apollo mission orbiting the moon.

Brokaw shows the heady sense of exploration associated with rock music and drugs while acknowledging the shadow side. Pot may be easier on the liver than liquor and psychedelics opened the doors of perception for those with eyes to see, but the spread of cocaine and heroin has had a cancerous effect on society. The radical youth on the streets of Chicago were mostly products of the pampered precincts of American life. They were pitched against working class cops, whose stake in America was more precarious than the children of wealth whose faces they gleefully clubbed.

One of the most interesting people interviewed was Bruce Springsteen, a teenager in 1968 declared medically unfit by his draft board. He wore hippy hair but never took drugs, absorbed the flood of new music with eager ears while “one leg remained rooted in my little town.” In some way, his experience was similar to millions of Americans who kept clear of the barricades.

Jon Stewart, who calls the Smothers Brothers his inspiration, had something interesting to say about the contrast between the Vietnam and Iraq eras. Despite the proliferation of cable channels and the Internet, the public appears less informed in 2008 than it was in 1968

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