I didn’t get a chance to tell Tom Brokaw that I’d grown up watching him deliver the news every evening. That’s all right: he knows he was watched. He knows a lot, in fact, and when the erstwhile anchor called recently to chat about 1968—he’s the honorary chair for the new exhibit on that turning-point year at the Minnesota History Center, opening October 14—it was clear he hadn’t lost his commanding viewpoint, even if he’s no longer the one telling us what’s going on.
Had you been to Vietnam by 1968?
No, NBC had a policy, which in retrospect may not have been smart, that they didn’t send married people, by and large—mostly single people. So I didn’t get to go. I say that I covered the war at home. I was in Chicago in 1968. The other day, someone recalled that I did the first profile of a Navy Seal.
Do you recall reporting the Tet Offensive, and did you have a sense that this may be a boiling point for national sentiment on the war?
Everybody did. It stunned America, because the military had been saying how good the war in Vietnam had been going. In retrospect, it was a not a military victory for the Vietcong, but a big psychological victory. To have that bold an attack on the Vietnamese, it proved they would do anything to advance their goals.
You’re as identified with your research on the Greatest Generation of the 1940s as much as the 1960s. How do you account for the tremendous shift from united patriotic fervor to deep social divisions in just 20 years?
I think it was a combination of a lot of things. There was a clear and present danger in WWII, we’d been attacked in Hawaii, people understood what the consequences were. Vietnam was more problematic, more difficult to persuade people that it was in our national interest to be in that war. Moreover the baby boomers were a generation that had gotten used to a very comfortable life, they hadn’t gone through the sacrifices of their parents in the Great Depression. They were pushing back against the militarization of America and the positions of power. I was not a boomer. But I was close enough that I got their sensibilities. They didn’t have to be marched off to war; they were able to question whether we should even be in it.
We tend to think of today’s America as being polarized—how does today compare to 1968?
It was deeply polarized in those days. We had Humphrey from Minnesota who was a middle-of-the-road Democrat and couldn’t unify his own party. Nixon took his party to the southwest, and there was Wallace who represented the old racist South. The country was divided, but at the same time you had, at the top in Washington, people who represented different points of view but were willing to talk to each other. Now there’s an unwillingness to even work with each other.
Was the nation seeing a reflection of Minnesota values on the national political stage that year or were Humphrey and McCarthy simply politicians who happened to be from Minnesota?
Minnesota always had a reputation of electing the best and the brightest, people who came from backgrounds in public policy. Hubert Humphrey had an advanced degree and was a serious student of public policy—McCarthy, too. And Walter Mondale was an acolyte of them. Minnesotans took public policy seriously and it was reflected in the people they elected. People sometimes forget Walter Judd, too, who was a very smart congressman from Minnesota [from 1943 to 1963]. It was a different order of politician then, I think.
Many Americans born after 1968, looking at Richard Nixon from the other side of the Watergate scandal, can’t fathom his appeal. Did you have a sense before election night that he might win, and how would you describe that appeal?
We knew that the party was deeply divided. Humphrey had lost the south which had traditionally been a source of power for Democrats. Nixon had an outstanding comeback, considering he’d lost to Kennedy in 1960 and lost the California governorship in 1962, but he was a resilient figure. I think he was mocked a lot by the establishment but played much more to heartland, Main Street values that people appreciated. But he had demons like no one could believe, and I still don’t think we understand today.
How much of a turning point was that 1968 election for American liberalism?
I think it was a turning point in ’68 and in ’72. Now, with the Tea Party pushing from the right, the Republican have to be conscious that they could get as divided as the Democrats in ’68. It was the end of classic postwar liberalism and the party continued to struggle to find its place really until Clinton got elected.
The exhibit “1968” is in a museum, which gives it a neat sense of closure—this happened, it’s over. But some of the modern-day political and social battles really can be traced back to that year, right?
The election in 2012 is going to be huge for settling some of these differences. Since the attacks of 9/11, we’ve had very little breathing space in this country and the world for that matter. We haven’t conquered Islamic rage, we’ve been involved in two major wars, we’ve had a Great Recession and may be going back into one, national disasters have had huge consequences in Haiti and Japan. We’ve had the Arab Spring. And there’s the rise of China, as the world’s second-largest economy. These are big plates in motion and ’68 was a very important election because the country was trying to decide between two worldviews. I think we’re at that point again.
Minnesota History Center
345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul
Exhibit Running Friday, October 14 – Monday, February 20