Brokaw recalls the upheavals of the swinging '60s
With The Greatest Generation, veteran NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw shined a spotlight on the courageous and determined men and women who lifted America out of the Great Depression and defeated Hitler in World War II. The 1998 bestseller was embraced as a long-overdue tribute to the sacrifices of ordinary people beset by extraordinary circumstances.
By contrast, Boom! Voices of the Sixties, Brokaw's omnibus of personal observations interspersed with dozens of contemporary interviews with the baby boom children of the Greatest Generation, is a kaleidoscopic collection of reflection, reassessment and occasional regret for a decade that will forever be defined by the changes it produced.
Like a lightshow worthy of a Grateful Dead concert, Boom! is both dazzling and dizzying as it plays off the sparks, fires and misfires of the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, political dissent, feminism, rock 'n' roll, the rise of the counterculture and the race to the moon. Little wonder that no Greatest Generation-style consensus emerges from these pages. One would hardly expect such diverse voices as Andrew Young, Joan Baez, Karl Rove, Gloria Steinem, Bill Clinton, Dick Gregory and astronaut Jim Lovell to agree on much of anything, and they don't.
"Oh no, there's no consensus in this one," Brokaw chuckles. "The Greatest Generation was a much more linear generation. The swings in the boomer generation are much greater. The prism through which they see the world is fractured compared to the Greatest Generation."
Brokaw divides Boom! into two parts. The first surveys the turbulent years between the JFK assassination and Richard Nixon's resignation; the second traces the " aftershocks: consequences, intended or otherwise" that followed.
"My intention was not to write the defining history of the '60s because a) I don't think you can do that yet, and b) the books that have been written about the '60s were primarily books about what was going on only at that time; they don't have any carryover. My intention was to go back and say, what do we think now?"
The title evokes both the generation that brought about sweeping cultural changes and the suddenness with which those changes occurred. "Crew-cut veterans of World War II looked up at the dinner table—and—boom! they saw a daughter wearing no bra, talking about moving in with her boyfriend, and a son with hair down to his shoulders," Brokaw writes.
Born in 1940, six years before the official start of the baby boom, Brokaw straddles the two generations, but admits the heartland values he grew up with in South Dakota owed more to the Greatest Generation. By the time the Summer of Love arrived in 1967, he was a reporter and anchor with the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, a husband and father entrenched in the American dream, and, like most Americans, struggling to understand the revolution around him.
"The swings were wild. Anybody who was living during that time was either absolutely repelled by what was going on, utterly charmed by it, or confused and somewhere in the middle. I was in the middle," he says. "They were saying America sucks, but I was thinking well, it doesn't suck for me."
Brokaw dabbled in the zeitgeist, smoked a little pot, grew his hair to a fashionable length, even donned a peasant shirt on weekends, but it was never a good fit. He aspired to join the ranks of Walter Cronkite and Huntley&Brinkley, and knew that evenhanded reportage on the swiftly changing home front was his ticket to the big chair.
"The major networks and the big newspapers in the country were run by white, middle-aged men who were mostly members of the Greatest Generation," he says. "So it was this startling upheaval in life as we had known it, and the trick was to try to get it right—not to just mock it, not to let the pendulum swing too far, not to become too infatuated with it, which was easy to do."
Loss hangs heavy over this reunion of '60s voices; gone too soon were such influential figures as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and John Belushi. Gone too is Brokaw's college buddy Gene Kimmel, a Marine captain whose 1968 death in Vietnam fueled Brokaw's anger at the war. "I honestly believe he would have been governor of the state of South Dakota," he says. God, what a loss. "I feel it to this day."
Two observers launched the earliest attempts to try to make sense of the '60s. Director Lawrence Kasdan's film The Big Chill used a reunion of college friends to explore the aftermath of the decade, while Lorne Michaels "rearranged the television landscape" by harnessing counterculture humor to produce a hit TV show at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday nights with "Saturday Night Live!"
"One of the great lessons of the '60s that people have not focused on enough is that it was very entrepreneurial," Brokaw says. "Loren was a perfect example of that; he was a very young man when he did that and it was his idea, his concept. [Apple's] Steve Jobs grew out of the '60s zeitgeist. Len Riggio said Barnes&Noble is a product of the '60s, and it truly is."
Why didn't more of the seeds of flower power take root?
"What a lot of the younger activists like Sam Brown and Carl Pope said was that they didn't have any adult supervision. We were great at organization, we were great at tactics; we had no strategy," says Brokaw. "Gary Hart said we could organize a circus in the middle of the Sahara Desert but we didn't have an economic policy."
Brokaw says that for all its sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, the '60s will likely remain a Camelot-like era whose very evanescence belies its true impact. As Arlo Guthrie puts it, "Thank God the '60s are still controversial. It means nobody's lost yet."
Jay MacDonald still tunes in, turns left and drops stuff.