A few of my correspondents have suggested that I should write a note this month about the events of forty years ago. That I’ve taken this long to get around to it is an index of my ambivalence toward the whole idea. 1968 was, of course, an entire year, perhaps the most tumultuous since the end of World War II. There were major student revolts at Columbia, in Mexico City, Prague & at the Sorbonne. There were two major assassinations. The Democratic Convention in Chicago devolved into a sustained police riot ordained & supported by the city’s obscene mayor Daley, who went so far as to denounce Sen. Abraham Ribicoff as a “kike” on national television when the senator suggested shutting the convention down and reconvening in a city absent the Gestapo. Mind-numbingly, the Republicans nominated the only member of their party whom the Democrats could have beaten, the ever-shifty-eyed Richard Nixon, already a two-time loser, a politician who even then evoked feelings somewhere midway between those now reserved for Dan Quayle & Dick Cheney. Even more mind-numbingly, the Democrats then nominated the only member of their party who could not beat Nixon: Hubert Horatio Humphrey, a man who personified the concept of craven subservience as vice-president to Lyndon Baines Johnson. I cast my ballot that fall for Eldridge Cleaver, running on the Peace & Freedom Party Ticket, a concept he didn’t do much to personify either.
In California, then-governor Reagan tried mightily to get his pal Max Rafferty elected to the Senate, ousting Alan Cranston, a longtime liberal Democrat (and one-time boss of Charles Olson). Reagan’s plan was simple. He wanted to provoke a student revolt at one of the state’s public universities and then show the world that his administration had learned how to cope with such events through the deployment of overwhelming force. The campus he picked was San Francisco State,where I was a sophomore studying writing. The student body had raised funds for a new student union and had hired architect Moishe Safde – then a big deal thanks to his design of the facilities for the recent Montreal Expo. Reagan ensured that the plan for the student union was vetoed. He then moved to rescind the authorization for two of the school’s ethnic studies departments. The students voted to strike in response, but also decided not to go out on strike until late on election day. That way their actions couldn’t benefit Rafferty, who was Reagan’s secretary of education. Very quickly, however, Reagan’s plan to deploy overwhelming force came into play – police chased students on horseback, swinging their billy clubs indiscriminately; hundreds were arrested’; the school president, John Summerskill, a handsome JFK clone, was fired and a faculty member who’d put himself forward as the leader of the anti-student forces, linguist S.I. Hayakawa (he climbed onto a flatbed truck where the students’ sound system was located & tried to wrest the mike away from the speaker – someone grabbed Hayakawa’s signature tam-o-shanter, which made every TV news program in the state – but nobody reported what Hayakawa had done next, which was to bite student leader Ernie Brill) was appointed to replace him. Every teacher I respected was either fired or quit at the end of that term (everyone in the English Department & writing program knew Hayakawa). I had a Chaucer instructor who was carrying a pistol on campus out of fear of the police. And, thanks no doubt to philosopher John Searle’s trips over from UC Berkeley to identify “known Berkeley radicals” inciting these events, somebody opened a CIA file on me, tho I wouldn’t learn about that for a decade.
From my perspective, that was the logical end of a disastrous year. Not one of the student or citizen rebellions had been successful, although in Paris they had come very close (and might have succeeded if it had not been for the betrayal of the Communist Party). The victories had been few. Cranston’s reelection would have been a nit had it not prevented Rafferty from taking office. And, in fact, the Democratic Party had accomplished one thing worth noting. It had forced out a sitting president of its own party because the lies & fabrications he told about an unnecessary war. That was a level of patriotism the Republicans never have approached.
One almost forgets that the year began with the Tet Offensive, an event that destroyed any illusion that the U.S. was winning the war in Vietnam (tho, to accomplish this, the Vietnamese forces were themselves barely able to carry on). Other significant public events, such as the shooting of Andy Warhol by SCUM Manifesto author Valerie Solanis on June 3, barely were able to get attention in all that followed.
In those days, the only access to national news came via radio or television and in Berkeley, TV meant going from wherever you lived to one of the two TV sets they had in the Student Union at UC Berkeley. Night after night we watched the Democratic Convention on NBC, surrounded by hundreds of other students (my wife was attending Berkeley tho I was at State). I don’t think that we bothered to do so, say, for the rebellion at Columbia, and the news from both Mexico & Europe were spotty & heavily biased. For information about those events, you had to turn to The Nation.
In Berkeley, having gone through the Free Speech Movement in 1964-65 & the earliest anti-war activism (the Vietnam Day teach-in was in the fall of 1965), the events at Columbia seemed, to put it mildly, a day late & a dollar short. I remember reading magazines like Time & Life and being startled to see the amount of coverage these Eastern preppy poseurs were getting compared with what we’d gotten three years earlier. Here, for example, was a two-page spread of students who’d taken over the office of Columbia President Grayson Kirk as a centerfold [!!] of Life magazine. That image, which is at the head of this note, featured none other than student poet David Shapiro sitting at Kirks’s desk helping himself to a cigar. With all that hair, that great mustache amp; the dark glasses, Shapiro might as well have been a movie star. I already knew him to be a concert violinist and somebody already having books published by trade publishers – how was it conceivable that somebody could be that talented, good-looking & successful that young? I’m sure that I wasn’t the only young poet that year riven with envy.
I’d spent the first part of the year working for the US post office in San Francisco and had just come back from a reading in the City when I learned that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. I hadn’t been a Kennedy supporter – I’d voted that morning for Eugene McCarthy, in fact, who’d been the person who’d forced LBJ off the ticket. I thought of Kennedy as a crass opportunist, jumping in because he thought he could pull enough votes from progressives and enough from establishment Democrats to gain the nomination. Like the King assassination just two months & two days earlier, it was an event I experienced entirely through radio, feeling very distant & alienated both by the news and how very far away it all felt.
In retrospect, one of the largest lessons of 1968 was that the problems of globalization can be devastating. With rebellions going on more or less simultaneously from Saigon to Paris to Mexico City, as well as within the United States, there was no means for representatives of these different movements to even communicate with one another, let alone offer anything more than moral support. Certainly there was no global Communist menace here. With the possible exception of funds for the Vietnamese, the actually existing Communist Party directed out of Moscow was completely useless everywhere, and actively on the wrong side in both France & Czechoslovakia. That Communists were rebelling in Mexico City & were being rebelled against in Prague was one of the great contradictions of that year. It was a level of incoherence on the Left that it could not overcome. And it meant that almost every member of my generation would be left with a deep distaste & distrust of our local CP. When the CP USA decided not that long afterwards to “give itself” to the direction of California philosophy professor, Angela Davis, a protégé of Herbert Marcuse, the real problem was that there wasn’t anything left to give. From my perspective, what is most tragic about 1968 is not the failures nor even the needless deaths, but that the Left then proceeded to splinter into a million more segments as the self-enclosing bantustans of the identity movement came into play. More than anything, that is what has condemned my generation to decades of malicious, malevolent, dishonest regimes in Washington.
Within the Democratic Party, the what-ifs are almost endless. What if Robert Kennedy had decided to support Eugene McCarthy, which would have been the principled thing to have done? Or what if Kennedy had lived & gone on to have gotten the nomination, a completely plausible scenario? The Democrats are only now really beginning to recover from the disaster brought on by his assassination. The Obama campaign is really the first I’ve ever seen that hasn’t been predicated on the fault lines cemented within the party by the cataclysm of 1968. Yet even that campaign carries its echoes, as Sen. Clinton’s words of last week have been a painful reminder. That’s why the counter-campaign of Hillary Clinton feels so very tragic. She certainly knew that the nomination would come down eventually to herself versus somebody who would be the “anti-Clinton” candidate. But she presumed that it would be a white male who had likewise voted in support of the war in Iraq – a Chris Dodd or John Edwards. Against any white male who supported the war, Clinton has no trouble winning. The most visible national Democrat who had opposed the war from day one, Russell Feingold, had already announced the year before that he would not run. But Obama completely blind-sided her. Now she must eventually realize that she lost this campaign the day she voted to support the war in Iraq.
I’m going to be getting fiber-optic cabling for the internet sometime in the next few days. If I should disappear, it just means that things are not going smoothly. Never fear – I shall return.