Writing for the op-ed page of The Washington Post yesterday, Robert J. Samuelson quoted Charles Dickens and sought to capture the temper of the "wrenching" times in which we live. I met Samuelson, a distinguished denizen of this town, just the other day at a Wilson Quarterly party. If he had asked me then about growing up in the 1960s, I wouldn't be writing this now. He seemed like a fine fellow with gravitas, don't get me wrong, but he got something wrong in his op-ed essay in the Post, which is like the village crier. It is presumed our town's truth-teller.
Consider this sentence: "About two thirds of Americans, born in 1960 or later, are too young to have a firsthand memory of the convulsions of the '60s," Samuelson asserted in a piece published on the day the nation honors Nobel Peace Laureate, civil rights leader, and Southern Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr.
Please stop there, sir. Much depends upon remembering the 1960s as a child—a child in the '60s. Those of us born in 1960 or during John F. Kennedy's "thousand days" are certainly not children of the '60s, who were mostly college students having the time of their lives. We missed the Summer of Love and went to camp instead. We weren't old enough to be drafted. But you'd better believe we remember the angst around the Vietnam War and the twin tragedies of spring 1968, followed by Richard M. Nixon's election at the end of the year. We were there as children in the '60s, full of first impressions imprinted on us. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]
Let's start with the cruel April day that King was slain in Memphis. At five or six, I was shattered, along with family and friends in the faculty housing community where we lived in Madison, Wis. I remember clearly that I wept a good long time upstairs, listening to Dr. King's sonorous voice on the radio. There was a lot I didn't know about this visionary dreamer, but I knew he was "a helper" (my parents kept it simple) whose breath was snuffed out like a light by a hater. It broke my heart.
Then the same thing happened all over again just two months later: Robert F. Kennedy's life was taken in a late-night flash, a burst of gunfire that stunned the nation. I remember my father, a doctor, coming home from the hospital and sitting silently in a Rodin-like pose of grief. Children are absorbers and barometers of the anguish adults show around them. On the June day of the Kennedy assassination, we knew all bets were off and that we lived in a violent country where the best men died too soon in scenes of lightning fury. It wasn't fair and didn't make sense, but that was the America we met when we were young. We were the "post" generation after the Baby Boomers—and Barack Obama, born in 1961, the year of JFK's swearing-in 50 years ago, is one of us. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Such remembrance matters because the rebellious '60s shaped our consciousness as children and later as citizens. Nothing and nobody ever seemed so safely dull to us as the Eisenhower '50s suburbia did to those who came before. You never knew what was going to happen next in the '60s—and to this day I count 1968 as the worst year that I've ever witnessed. Granted, I was lucky to live in the University of Wisconsin political culture as a girl, and so developed a taste for anti-war movement protests and singing "We Shall Overcome," Pete Seeger's "Freedom," and other civil rights anthems. These are pearls of memory from my early childhood education; they can't take that away from me.
In all seriousness, many of us learned the lesson early that the government—make that the president, Lyndon B. Johnson—could lie about an unpopular war and its rising death toll. The American families that came to oppose the Vietnam War (with a little help from Walter Cronkite) all had conversations around their dinner table that we listened to as children. From Ohio to California, you name the state, we who were born early in the '60s were taking in the eventful decade on a simpler plane.
Those events informed us as adults who were notably more cautious, with a little less faith in big institutions, solutions, and leaders. Obama's characteristically cool demeanor reflects our trait of holding back a bit, lest we lose something with no warning. Yes, the unforgettable '60s filled our minds and broke our hearts when we were young.
And so it is with sorrow I say: The latest nightmare of murderous violence in Arizona, falling days before the national King holiday, brings back the gunshots and echoes of an America we remember all too well.