It was truly a revolutionary era, and the University of Maine at Presque Isle has done an outstanding service in conducting a six-day “1968 Retrospective” for the benefit of the many who are too young to recall it.
For many who lived through it, the Sixties were a disaster. Drugs, profanity, resistance to any authority, and random, indiscriminate sex seemed to be everywhere. Kids seemed to be taking over the schools, the colleges and the streets. Blacks joined black power groups.
For others, the era was a long-overdue revolt against the Vietnam war, against oppressive government and institutions, against meaningless rules, against arrogant authority, against inhibitions about language and action and sex, and against nicey-nice habits of dress and behavior.
It is credited, perhaps too much, with forcing an end to a seemingly endless war. But, much as most young people hated to admit it, President Nixon’s halting of the military draft took some of the fire out of the anti-war movement.
While it did bring a new freedom and independence of mind to young men and particularly young women and to African Americans, it also brought a resentful backlash among many rural residents and blue-collar workers. Many of them gravitated to political conservatism and became part of the coalition that twice elected Ronald Reagan president.
More directly, the anti-war activities of the era spurred President Nixon to create the “Plumbers,” a secret corps of spies and enforcers, whose crimes led direction to Mr. Nixon’s near impeachment and resignation.
In a far longer range sense, the Sixties revolution may have laid the groundwork for the unprecedented election this year of a black president. The scenes at Chicago’s Grant Park were far different. In 1968 there were riotous demonstrators, club-wielding police, fumes of teargas, along with thousands of wildly enthusiastic supporters of Eugene McCarthy.
This year, there was none of the violence or repression but a similarly wild enthusiasm over the Obama victory. But the opening of minds in that Sixties revolution must certainly have helped lead the way toward this year’s clean break with past politics.
Has this year’s political revolution hastened the end of the current seemingly-endless war in Iraq? And has it brought an end to a period of secretive and intrusive government that spied on its own citizens and repeatedly violated the guarantees of the Constitution? Or, like that other revolution, will it bring a political backlash?
Much depends on one man, Barack Obama. The Sixties produced three possible national leaders, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but all three were assassinated and, therefore, unable to see their visions become reality.
Barack Obama, who remains determined to change Washington after a long, tiring and sometimes bitter campaign soon will begin a new presidency. He has brought fresh hope to a nation that needed it.
How that hope is translated into policy will help define this era.