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‘Boom!’ Brokaw brings back the ’60s

The journalist has a “virtual reunion” with some of the decade’s most important people, writing his latest book based on more than 50 interviews with artists, politicians, activists, business leaders, journalists, Vietnam vets and more. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

As a young reporter based in Omaha, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., during the 1960s Tom Brokaw witnessed firsthand the issues that continue to affect America today — racial inequality, poverty, women’s rights, freedom of speech, journalism, activism, politics, war and a country divided.

In addition to Brokaw’s own experiences, “Boom!” is based on more than 50 interviews with a wide variety of well-known artists, politicians, activists, business leaders and journalists, as well as lesser-known figures, including a daughter of a former Mississippi segregationist governor, Vietnam veterans, civil rights activists, health care pioneers, environmentalists and war protesters. An excerpt.

Introduction: What was that all about?
When I began to tell members of that large, raucous generation born just after World War II, the baby boomers, that I was thinking of writing a book on the aftershocks of the Sixties, a number of them laughed a little nervously and said, “What are you going to call this one? 'The Worst Generation'?

Their references to my book about the generation that grew up in the Depression and fought in World War II were a little defensive and a little defiant. More than a few baby boomers had told me over the years that they represented the greatest generation. After all, they said, they were the largest, the best educated, and the wealthiest generation in American history. More important, many believed they had stopped a war, changed American politics, and liberated the country from the inhibited — and inhibiting — sensibilities of their parents.

I assured my boomer buddies that I don’t think they represent the worst — far from it — but I also teased that I didn’t think many of them were as great as they thought they were.

They did give us the Sixties. There’s no doubt about that. But the bottom line has yet to be drawn under those turbulent times. Conclusions have yet to be established. Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Former president Bill Clinton, who was a bearded student and famously avoided the draft during the Sixties, says in these pages, “If you thought something good came out of the Sixties, you’re probably a Democrat; if you thought the Sixties were bad, you’re probably a Republican.” The evidence is still coming in and the jury is still out — and forty years later we don’t seem anywhere near being able to render a verdict.

In fact, here we are, nearing the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and as you will discover in this book, many of the debates about the political, cultural, and socioeconomic meaning of the Sixties are still as lively and passionate and unresolved as they ever were. Moreover, those debates and the issues involved are a critical and defining part of our contemporary dialogue about where this nation is headed now and how it gets there. The presidential election of 2008 in many respects may be an echo chamber of the election of 1968, with the lessons learned or ignored in Vietnam applied to the war in Iraq.

So I decided to organize a virtual reunion of a cross section of the Sixties crowd, in an effort to discover what we might learn from each other, forty years later. Just like your high school or college reunion, not everyone showed up for this one. Some who did will surprise you with what they have to say about then and now. You’ll meet some famous names from the Sixties, but also those who went through life-changing experiences entirely comfortable in their anonymity.

Personally, as someone who lived through the Sixties — a time I count as beginning with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and ending with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974 — I have many personal memories of that turbulent, exhilarating, depressing, moving, maddening time that simply do not come together in a tidy package of conclusions.

Nineteen sixty-eight was the volcanic center of the Sixties, with landscape-altering eruptions every month: political shocks, setbacks in Vietnam, assassinations, urban riots, constant assaults on authority, trips on acid, and a trip around the moon.

Nineteen sixty-eight was the year when Kris Kristofferson says he did “a one-eighty turn” in his life; it was also the year Pat Buchanan realized his dream of a conservative victory in the presidential election.

There are many voices and many different judgments in these pages, but there is at least one common conclusion. Everyone agrees that the Sixties blindsided us with mind-bending swiftness, challenging and changing almost everything that had gone before.

Boom! One minute it was Ike and the man in the gray flannel suit and the lonely crowd ... and the next minute it was time to “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” time for “We Shall Overcome” and “Burn, baby, burn.” While Americans were walking on the moon, Americans were dying in Vietnam. There were assassinations and riots. Jackie Kennedy became Jackie O. There were tie-dye shirts and hard hats; Black Power and law and order; Martin Luther King Jr. and George Wallace; Ronald Reagan and Tom Hayden; Gloria Steinem and Anita Bryant; Mick Jagger and Wayne Newton. Well, you get the idea.


Few institutions escaped some kind of assault or change. The very pillars of the "Greatest Generation" — family, community, university, corporation, Church, law — were challenged to one degree or another. Nothing was beyond question, and there were far fewer answers than before. A Time magazine cover story on a Southern theological philosopher stopped America in its tracks with the front-cover question “Is God Dead?”


Authority lost its privileged place almost overnight. Authority figures — fathers, mothers, cops, judges, teachers, senators, and the president of the United States — were suddenly spending as much time defending their conduct as they were exercising their power. University presidents and deans were physically thrown out of their offices. Flags were burned and cops were routinely called “pigs.”


Crew-cut veterans of World War II looked up at the dinner table and — boom! — they saw a daughter with no bra, talking about moving in with her boyfriend, and a son with hair down to his shoulders, wearing a T-shirt with a swastika superimposed over an American flag, discussing his latest plot to avoid the draft. In those same families, however, Mom came to realize her life did not have to be defined by the walls of the kitchen and laundry room.


A good deal of the assault on authority was uneven. Citizen coalitions rallied around common interests and forced politicians to abandon smoke-filled rooms.

Lawyers banded together to represent the poor against the insensitivities of the establishment.

The public began to question the effects of pollution, overpopulation, and overconsumption, injecting energy into the nascent environmental movement.


Ralph Nader took on the auto industry — the high church of American capitalism — and changed it, forcing it to become protective of the safety of the vehicles and their occupants. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and personal courage, embodied in his philosophy of nonviolence, struck a mighty blow against racism. Other challenges to authority were mindless and self-serving, exaggerated acts designed to replace one kind of authoritarian excess with another.

Dick Armey, the former North Texas State University economics professor who was part of the Newt Gingrich–led Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, said famously, “I think all the troubles in the country began in the Sixties.” His ideological opposite, Michael Heyman, a former dean of the UC Berkeley law school and chancellor of the university, was sympathetic to the students’ demands for more free speech in 1964. But as the movement expanded he became personally conflicted by what he calls “the anarchy — there was a lot of provocation ... like the filthy speech ... which infuriated me because it strengthened the hand of the right so much.”


Kids in ponytails and dressed in Army fatigues stood at barricades and demanded a revolution in which they would have a fully equal voice in determining university curricula and faculty appointments. At the same time they denied fellow students who simply wanted to attend class their right to exercise that choice.

Boom! The Sixties also brought us bean sprouts, brown rice, veggies, yogurt, whole-grain bread, holistic medicine, and drugs, lots of drugs — from homegrown marijuana to laboratory-produced speed and LSD, from heroin to glue sniffing. Drug use went from an exaggerated fear in the Fifties, when a little pot was considered a satanic doomsday, to a badge of honor in the Sixties. “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.” Ha, ha.

Boom! The popular American music scene underwent a transformation that continues to this day. Singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Mick and the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, and the great stable of Motown artists provided the sound track of that time and beyond, with their songs of rebellion and generational angst.

Boom! Sexuality, hetero and homo, came out of the bedroom and into the open. A combination of birth-control pills and a determination to defy the Fifties’ strictures on premarital sex brought on a rush of freelance fornication and created new freedoms for women by liberating them from the consequences of unintended pregnancies.

It was all part of the Sixties mantra “If it feels good, do it.”

Before the twentieth century, most of history’s movers and shakers had been young (and almost exclusively young men) because the average life span was so short. In colonial America, if a man made it through the Revolution, he was living on borrowed time once he reached thirty-five. Survivors of the Civil War could expect the grim reaper to come calling before they were fifty. World War II vets could expect to blow out the candles on their sixty-fifth birthday.

This unprecedented longevity and the fecundity that accompanied it (the babies started booming), combined with the increasingly affluent lifestyle enjoyed on the home front during the Fifties, resulted in a demographic phenomenon.

Adolescence became for most young Americans a period of learning and leisure from youth to young adulthood. This extended adolescence accounted for a new market, as the young were eager for clothes and gadgets, sporting goods, sweets, and fast foods, and, most of all, entertainment that said, “We’re here and we have our own ideas.”

As Jann Wenner, an enterprising boomer as the founder of the Rolling Stone magazine empire, says, “It was a cheeky, fun time — with the Beatles and all that great music. We were making our own rules.” There was also so much money around, he says, that “all you had to do was go to the post office and get a check from your parents.”

That wasn’t true for everyone, of course, but the rapidly expanding American middle and upper middle classes were cashing in on all that prosperity of post–World War II America.

Increases in the standard of living, complemented by advances in technology, were almost dizzying in the postwar period. The FCC started granting television licenses at the beginning of the 1950s, and by 1955 more than half of the homes in America had a black-and-white TV set. By 1960, almost 90 percent had more than one — and many of them were wired for “living color.”

The development of the 45 rpm single record, at the end of the 1940s, just in time for the arrival of rock and roll, at once made popular records unbreakable and easily portable. Bill Haley and the Comets released “Rock Around the Clock” in the spring of 1954, and the modern pop culture was born. The kids now had their own artists and their own sound. That grown-ups thought it tasteless and vulgar and probably downright dangerous was icing on the cake. Two years later, on September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley suddenly appeared amid the usual boring acrobats and hand puppets on The Ed Sullivan Show — television’s monument to middle-class mass entertainment.

Everyone knew that Sullivan wouldn’t allow the cameras to show anything below Elvis’s waist; but everyone knew what was going on down there. He sang his hit “Don’t Be Cruel” to some sixty million viewers — the largest single audience in history to that date.

Hollywood quickly discovered the enthusiasms and the angst, not to mention the hormones, of this large new adolescent audience with time to waste and money to spend. Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean (“the First American teenager”), appeared in 1955 and signaled another new phenomenon.

Many of these youngsters were able to extend their adolescence past high school and into college. Their fathers had used the GI Bill to get an education, and they wanted their children to have every advantage they’d had and more.

In my age group, we were often the first in our families to attend college. We approached the opportunity with a sense of awe and obligation to get on with our lives in the workaday world. Five years later, boomers took college for granted and converted campuses into staging grounds for their campaigns against anything that smacked of the establishment.

So in the reunion I organized I asked, “What seemed so important at the time that seems a little foolish or wrongheaded now? Who were the winners and who were the losers? Can we tell yet?”

How do you sum up a time when change rolled across the country in hurricane proportions, when there were so many contradictions and so many paradoxes? A time when Elvis gave way to Dylan, when Richard Nixon arose from the political dead after two Kennedys were murdered, when Ozzie and Harriet were replaced by Archie and Edith Bunker? When men in military uniform went from being respected figures in society to targets of vilification?

At this reunion, you will hear from Arlo Guthrie but also from Karl Rove. You’ll meet young women struggling with “the mommy track.” You will hear from civil rights veterans who worry that their cause has lost its way, from Vietnam vets who came back and from their contemporaries who fought against the war, not in it.

For the most part, I am like the old class president at this reunion. I call on others and then let them have their say. I am here as a journalist but also as a citizen, a grandfather now and a young man then.

I began my marriage and my career as a journalist in 1962, a straight-arrow product of the Fifties. By the time the decade was over, I’d had my first taste of marijuana, I had long hair, and on weekends I wore bell-bottoms and peasant shirts when, as a family, we went to hippie arts festivals in the hills north of Los Angeles. But Meredith and I were raising our children essentially as we had been raised by our Great Depression and World War II parents back in the Midwest.

Weekdays I was covering the political fallout of the counterculture for NBC News, dressed in the correspondent’s uniform of suit and tie, looking more like a narc than one of the crowd, as I wandered through the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury, holy ground of peace-and-love hippies and druggie runaways from across the country.

I often thought of myself as a generational straddler: one foot in the psychedelic waters of the Sixties and the other still firmly rooted to the familiar terrain of the Fifties.

Everyone who went through the Sixties sees it through his or her own distinct prism. The conventional view is that it was a time mainly of power children and angry protestors, of black power and militant feminism. But it was also the beginning of the resurrection of the political right, which had been soundly defeated in 1964.

The Sixties were a time when the nerve endings of the body politic were constantly stimulated with new sensations, but it was also a time of mindless fantasy, groundless arrogance, spiritual awareness, callow youth, and misguided elders.

Reunions are funny things. Not everyone chooses to attend them. And you can never be sure that you’ll like everyone who turns up. But for this virtual fortieth, I am confident that the people attending have something to say that is worth hearing, about then and now. I also believe that on many of the most important levels, the meaning of that amazing decade is still emerging, and that for the rest of my days, when my mind wonders back to the Sixties, I will probably think: Boom! — what was that all about?

Excerpted from "Boom!" Copyright (c) 2007 by Tom Brokaw. Reprinted with permission of Random House, Inc.