Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Semi-clad, free-loving hippies, bearded protestors, androgynous purse-carrying wrist-swishers: it's the 60s and they're back! John McCain launched a major ad yesterday, "Love." It begins with stereotyped images of the 1960s and ends with cliched images of McCain.
The ad is the latest in a long and now tired history of Republican distortions of the 1960s for political gain. The tumultuous decade was not even over when Richard M. Nixon's handlers turned protests to their advantage, depicting the square Californian as the voice of the silent majority, ready to defend middle America against the excesses of campus protests and riots. His TV spots (check out "Convention" for a taste) were among the best ever produced: they depicted a dark, apocalyptic vision of America on the brink of apocalypse. Nixon's team perfected the message in 1972, portraying true straight-shooter and uptight South Dakotan George McGovern as the candidate of acid, amnesty, and abortion (he opposed the first, took more or less the same position as mainstream Republicans on the second, and had grave misgivings about the third). By then, running against the 60s became a standard bit of campaign fare: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush positioned themselves as bulwarks against the madness of the era; even Democrats like Jimmy Carter positioned his prayerful and fiscally conservative self against the alleged excesses of the Great Society. The DLC made running against the 1960s the core of its two-decade-long effort to win back Reagan Democrats and capture business interests for the Democratic Party.
The Republican version of the 1960s was not--and is not--good history. The 1960s was as important a period in the rise of the New Right as it was for the left. Young Americans for Freedom was as big and influential as Students for a Democratic Society. The Campus Crusade for Christ remade student life in ways that were as far-reaching as the counterculture. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George Wallace, Phyllis Schlafly, and Jesse Helms were as much products of the 1960s as Eugene McCarthy, Tom Hayden, Gloria Steinem, and Stokely Carmichael.
It's unfair to expect campaign ads to represent history accurately. But using the 1960s as political propaganda is probably not a winner this year. Sixteen years ago--when 1968 was a lot closer in memory--an anti-60s campaign failed. Smoking but not-inhaling, peace-protesting, womanizing Democratic candidate Bill Clinton dodged association with the 1960s just as successfully as he dodged the draft. Clinton may have been one of Newt Gingrich's "counterculture McGoverniks," but the label was not his undoing. Eight years later, the Republicans played the sixties card again, but Al Gore had greater liabilities than his presence at Harvard at the fin-de-60s (though his military service certainly innoculated him from some criticism). Only hapless John Kerry, the Vietnam vet and 70s-era McGovernik, faced charges of guilt-by-association with such figures as Hanoi Jane, even though the incumbent president and vice president had both dodged the draft and avoided service in Vietnam. Kerry's problem was not his association with the 60s. It was his campaign's utter inability to neutralize the mendacious Swift Boaters.
It's a sign of the poverty of conservatism that McCain has decided to make a splash in 2008 by running against 1968. I'm sorry to say, but forty years was a long, long time ago. The younger participants in the Summer of Love are pushing sixty. Most Americans just don't have strong feelings about the sixties anymore. The election of 2008 won't be won or lost as a referendum on the 1960s. The presumptive Democratic candidate was scarcely a sentient being then. Obama was not rolling around in the mud at Woodstock or protesting against the Vietnam War or donning a dashiki.
Put yourself in 1968 and imagine candidates shaping a campaign around the issues of 1928--forty years earlier. Old Tricky Dick wouldn't have gotten very far running ads that alluded to prohibition and Catholicism. And Hubert Humphrey attempted to taint Nixon with the Herbert Hooverism to no avail (a sign of the poverty of Democratic rhetoric in the late 1960s).
McCain might not be over the 1960s--and the exhausted conservatives might believe that reigniting the culture wars is their ticket to victory. But at a moment of economic crisis and amidst an unpopular war, I have to ask McCain's advisors: what were you inhaling when you put the ad together?