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1968: The Long Goodbye

By Daniel Henninger

It's too bad Barack Obama wasn't able to meet Abbie Hoffman. I don't know if Hillary Clinton ever met Hoffman, who died in 1989, but like any young person up and running in America in the late 1960s, she knows him well.

One of the touchstone events in U.S. political history was the Democratic convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968. Among the demonstrators arrested, put on trial and acquitted for battling the police amid photogenic clouds of tear gas was Abbie Hoffman, a founder of the Youth International Party, a k a the Yippies. Years later, Hoffman said: "Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit."

Last weekend, Sen. Obama said this is more or less bunk. What he actually said on Fox News was: "There is no doubt that we represent the kind of change that Senator Clinton cannot deliver on. And part of it is generational. Senator Clinton and others, they have been fighting some of the same fights since the '60s. And it makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done."

After Sen. Obama said that the '60s were so over, Sen. Clinton's camp counter-spun that he had alienated voters over 50. Really?

In this age of paint-by-the-numbers political campaigns, there is no chance we'd ever get to hear Sens. Obama and Clinton discuss whether the 1960s belong in the doggie bag of history. Still there are a few other interested parties we would want to invite to our mythical summit on the '60s. Such as John McCain.

During an October TV debate, Sen. McCain noted that Sen. Clinton wanted to spend $1 million on a museum at Woodstock, a concert he missed because "I was tied up at the time." His quip about being held in a North Vietnamese prison camp from 1967 to 1973 may have been scripted, but boy did it hit the target.

There should be one more participant, a man who won't mince words about the Age of Aquarius--Nicolas Sarkozy, the new president of France. When Mr. Sarkozy was campaigning in April against the Socialist Ségolène Royal, he said: "In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May '68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all." He described the political Left born out of that period as "cynical" and "immoral."

In 1968, Nicolas Sarkozy was 13 years old. John McCain was 32 and Hillary Clinton was 21. Barack Obama was 7. It is not beyond imagining that the precocious Messrs. Sarkozy and Obama were alert to events in 1968, but for the first wave of baby boomers just touching adulthood that year, it was the beginning of a strange journey.

Nearly any one of the events that went off in 1968 would have been enough to dominate another year. To list what actually happened that year even today boggles the mind, and spirit.

The year began with sales of the Beatles album, "Magical Mystery Tour." In retrospect, it was a premonition. In late January, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and crew members. A week later, the North Vietnamese army launched the Tet offensive. On Feb. 27, Walter Cronkite announced on CBS News that the U.S. had to negotiate a settlement to the Vietnam War. On March 12, Sen. Gene McCarthy nearly defeated incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, aided by antiwar students that Sen. McCarthy called his "children's crusade." Two weeks later, LBJ announced on TV that he would not run for re-election. One week later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was only April 4.

There were race riots everywhere. On April 24, students occupied five buildings at Columbia University, protesting the war. In May bloody student riots erupted in France, likely witnessed by the impressionable Mr. Sarkozy.

On June 3, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol in a New York City loft. Two days later, Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy. In August, the Soviet Union occupied Czechoslovakia. Seven days later, antiwar demonstrators at the Democratic convention fought pitched battles with the Chicago police.

On Nov. 4, having absorbed all this, the people of the United States voted. They gave 43.4% of their vote to Richard Nixon and 42.7% to Hubert Humphrey. Alabama Gov. George Wallace got 13.5%. Four years later, George Wallace was shot while running for president. 1968 lasted a long time.

Whatever civic culture the U.S. had until the 1960s, it was now transformed. After '68, we had a new kind of political and social culture, pounding like a jackhammer into the older bedrock. The country cracked. Look at those 1968 popular vote numbers; half the country went left and half went right.

Barack Obama says these endlessly booming babies have been at it for 40 years. He's right, though let's note that like the War of the Roses (1455-1485), this one is waged today with the tireless recruitment of new fighters not born when the fires started in 1968. Check the Web.

It's hard not to share Sen. Obama's weariness with these people, even if one is over 50. But is he right to imply that their long fight has lost its point? I don't think so.

What fell out of 1968 was a profound division over what I would call civic vision.

One side, which took to the streets in Chicago or occupied Columbia University, concluded from Vietnam and the race riots that America, in its relations with the world and its own citizens, was flawed and required big changes. Their defining document was the March 1968 Kerner Commission report, announcing "two societies," separate and unequal. The press, incidentally, emerged from Vietnam and the riots joined to this new, permanent template. That, too, has never stopped.

The other side was, well, insulted. It thought America was fundamentally good, though always able to improve. The Voting Rights Act passed in 1964 on a bipartisan vote, opposed mainly by southern Democrats. This side's standard-bearer called the U.S. "a shining city upon a hill." But after 1968, no Democratic presidential candidate would ever speak those words. Nor will Mr. Obama ever repeat Mr. Sarkozy's explicit repudiation of that era.

If it's Hillary versus Rudy, McCain or even the placid Mitt Romney, we will be in those streets again. Besides, her candidacy comes with Jumpin' Jack Flash himself, Bill Clinton. Would it be a good thing if the country's politics said bye-bye baby to the children of 1968? Probably. But it won't happen this time.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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