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Talking About the Sixties: What Happened, How It Shaped Today, Lessons for Tomorrow

Written by Tom BrokawAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tom Brokaw



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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In Boom!, Tom Brokaw, one of America’s premier journalists and the acclaimed author of The Greatest Generation, gives us an epic portrait of another defining era in America: the tumultuous Sixties. The voices and stories of both famous people and ordinary citizens come together in this “virtual reunion” as Brokaw takes us on a memorable journey through a remarkable time, exploring how individuals and the national mood were affected by a controversial era and showing how the aftershocks of the Sixties continue to resound in our lives today. In the reflections of a generation, Brokaw also discovers lessons that might guide us in the years ahead. Race, politics, war, feminism, popular culture, and music are all delved into here. Brokaw explores how members of this generation have gone on to bring activism and a Sixties mindset into individual entrepreneurship , as we hear stories of how this formative decade has shaped our perspectives on business, the environment, politics, family, and our national existence. Remarkable in its insights, wonderfully written and reported, this revealing book lets us join in these frank conversations about America then, now, and tomorrow.

Bonus DVD: Excerpt From 1968 with Tom Brokaw, A History Channel special


Praise for Boom!

“Tom Brokaw does an excellent job of capturing an exciting, controversial period in American history and Boom! is a worthy addition to his growing canon.”–New York Post

“[Tom Brokaw] approaches this magnum opus with warmth, curiosity and conviction, the same attributes that worked so well for his Greatest Generation.
–The New York Times

“[A] verbal scrapbook of the Sixties . . . [Boom! shows] that the era’s core issues–racism, women’s rights, a nation-dividing war–remain central today, and that the values boomers championed haven’t yet gone bust.”
People (four stars)

“Packed with memorable people, places, events . . . A ‘virtual reunion’ of 1960s folks telling what they did back then, where they’ve been since and how they assess that tumultuous decade.”
Chicago Tribune

“Genuinely fascinating recollections . . . plenty of memorable anecdotes.”
The Wall Street Journal

Excerpt

Chapter 1

A Loss of Innocence

I felt everyone else wanted to be in our world. We were the last generation to be cooler than our kids.
—Tom McGuane

There’s a big “what if” over the Sixties. . . .Who knows what would have happened if King and Kennedy were alive?
—Tom Hayden


In 1968 America was deeply divided by a war in Southeast Asia and it was preparing to vote in a presidential election in which the choices were starkly different. The country was in the midst of a cultural upheaval unlike anything experienced since the Roaring Twenties. Everyone wondered whether America could regain its balance.

Forty years later, another war, this one in the Middle East, was deeply dividing the United States. Republican and Democratic candidates for president were laying out starkly different scenarios for the country’s future. The place of America in the world was hotly debated. The popular culture was again an issue.

The eve of 2008 was not exactly the Sixties all over again, but we still have a lot to learn from that memorable, stimulating, dangerous, and maddening time in American life forty years ago.

I arrived in Los Angeles to join NBC News in 1966, and by then, Charles Dickens’s opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities had never seemed so prophetic. Were these the best or the worst of times? I wish I could say I felt the tremors of seismic change beginning and spreading out across the political and cultural landscape, but I was mostly trying to find my way. I was a twenty-six-year-old pilgrim from the prairie heartland, raised with the sensibilities of a Fifties working-class family. I was the father of a toddler with another child on the way.

I fit the prototype of the typical young white male of the time. I had been a crew-cut apostle of the Boy Scouts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, attending Sunday school and church, drinking too much beer in college but never smoking dope; marijuana in the Fifties and early Sixties was the stuff of jazz musicians and hoodlums in faraway places.

Before I married the love of my life, my high school classmate Meredith, we had never spent a night together. In those days, parked cars and curfews were the defining limits of courtship.

We were married in 1962, when Meredith was twenty-one and I was twenty-two, in a traditional Episcopal church wedding with a reception at our hometown country club. We left the next day with all our worldly possessions, including the five table cigarette lighters we had received as wedding presents, in the backseat of the no-frills Chevrolet compact car her father had given us as a wedding present.

We were eager to see a wider world, but only one step at a time. California was still four years away. Our first stop was Omaha, Nebraska, which then was an unimaginative and conservative midsize city a half day’s drive down the Missouri River from our hometown. We could barely afford ninety dollars a month to rent a furnished apartment, but when we went looking, in the stifling heat of a Great Plains August, I was dressed in a jacket and tie, and Meredith was wearing part of her honeymoon trousseau, including a girdle and hose. Five years later, I rarely wore a tie except on television, and Meredith was freed not only of girdles but also of hose and brassieres on California weekends.

In 1962, I had an entry-level reporter’s job at an Omaha television station. I had bargained to get a salary of one hundred dollars a week, because I didn’t feel I could tell Meredith’s doctor father I was making less. Meredith, who had a superior college record, couldn’t find any work because, as one personnel director after another told her, “You’re a young bride. If we hire you, you’ll just get pregnant before long and want maternity leave.”

In retrospect, the political and cultural climate in the early Sixties seems both a time of innocence and also like a sultry, still summer day in the Midwest: an unsettling calm before a ferocious storm over Vietnam, which was not yet an American war. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was confronting racism in the South and getting a good deal of exposure on The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC and The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, the two primary network newscasts, each just fifteen minutes long.

In the fall of 1963, first CBS and then, shortly after, NBC expanded those signature news broadcasts to a half hour. As a sign of the importance of the expansion, Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley were granted lengthy exclusive interviews with President Kennedy. ABC wouldn’t be a player in the news major leagues until the 1970s, when Roone Arledge brought to ABC News the energy and programming approach he had applied to ABC Sports. Kennedy, America’s first truly telegenic president, was a master of the medium, fully appreciating its power to reach into the living rooms of America from sea to shining sea.

During our time in Omaha, John F. Kennedy was not a local favorite. The city’s deeply conservative culture remained immune to Kennedy’s charms and to his arguments for social changes, such as civil rights and the introduction of government-subsidized medical care for the elderly. I’m sure many of my conservative friends at the time thought I was a card short of being a member of the Communist Party because I regularly championed the need for enforced racial equality and Medicare.

One of the most popular speakers to come through Omaha in those days was a familiar figure from my childhood, when kids in small towns on the Great Plains spent Saturday afternoons in movie theaters watching westerns. Ronald Reagan looked just like he did on the big screen. He was kind of a local boy who had made good, starting out as a radio star next door in Iowa and moving on to Hollywood, before becoming a television fixture as host of General Electric Theater.

Reagan’s Omaha appearances were part of his arrangement with GE, which allowed him to be an old-fashioned circuit-riding preacher, warning against the evils of big government and communism, while praising the virtues of big business and the free market. He was every inch a star, impeccably dressed and groomed. But those of us who shared his Midwestern roots were a bit surprised to find that although he was completely cordial, he was not noticeably warm. That part of his personality remained an enigma even to his closest friends and advisers throughout his historically successful political career.

In Omaha the only time he lightened up in my presence was when I noticed he was wearing contact lenses and I asked him about them. He got genuinely excited as he described how they were a new soft model, not like the hard ones that could irritate the eyes. He even wrote down the name of his California optometrist so Meredith could order a pair for herself. (Later, when he became president, I often thought, “He’s not only a great politician, he’s a helluva contact lens salesman.”)

President Kennedy also passed through Omaha, but only for a brief stop at the Strategic Air Command headquarters there. In those days, SAC was an instantly recognized acronym because the bombers it comprised—some of which we could see because they were always in the air ready to respond in case of an attack—were a central component of America’s Cold War military strategy.

More memorable for me was a visit to SAC by the president’s brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The younger Kennedy was a striking contrast to the president, who had been smiling and chatty with the local press and even more impressive in person than on television. Unlike the president, who was always meticulously and elegantly dressed, the attorney general was wearing a rumpled suit, and the collar on his blue button-down shirt was frayed. He was plainly impatient, and his mood did not improve when I asked for a reaction to Alabama governor George Wallace’s demand that JFK resign the presidency because of his stance on school desegregation. Bobby fixed those icy blue eyes on me and said, as if I were to blame for the governor’s statement, “I have no comment on anything Governor Wallace has to say.”

I was on duty in the newsroom a few weeks later when the United Press International wire-service machine began to sound its bulletin bells. I walked over casually and began to read a series of sentences breaking in staccato fashion down the page:

three shots were fired at president kennedy’s motorcade in downtown dallas . . . flash—kennedy seriously wounded, perhaps fatally by assassin’s bullet . . . president john f. kennedy died at approximately 1:00 pm (cst).

John F. Kennedy, the man I had thought would define the political ideal for the rest of my days, was suddenly gone in the senseless violence of a single moment. In ways we could not have known then, the gunshots in Dealey Plaza triggered a series of historic changes: the quagmire of Vietnam that led to the fall of Lyndon Johnson as president; the death of Robert Kennedy in pursuit of the presidency; and the comeback, presidency, and subsequent disgrace of Richard Nixon.

On that beautiful late autumn November morning, however, my immediate concern was to get this story on the air. I rushed the news onto our noon broadcast, and as I was running back to the newsroom, one of the station’s Kennedy haters said, “What’s up?”

I responded, “Kennedy’s been shot.”

He said, “It’s about time someone got the son of a bitch.”

Given the gauzy shades of popular memory, the invocations of Camelot and JFK as our nation’s prince, it may be surprising to younger Americans to know that President Kennedy was not universally beloved.

Now Kennedy was gone, and this man was glad. I lunged toward him, but another coworker pulled me away.

The rest of the day is mostly a blur except for one riveting memory. As I was speeding out toward SAC headquarters to see what restrictions they were putting on the base, I began to talk aloud to myself. “This doesn’t happen in America,” I said, still a child of the innocence of the Fifties. And then I distinctly remember thinking, “This will change us. I don’t know how, but this will change us.” And of course it did.

It was November 22, 1963, and it was, in effect, the beginning of what we now call the Sixties. Kennedy’s death was stunning not just because he was president. He was such a young president, and his election just three years before had kindled the dreams and aspirations of the young generation he embodied and inspired. His death seemed to rob us of all that was youthful and elegant, cool and smart, hopeful and idealistic. Who now would stir our generation by suggesting we ask “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”?

No political pundit or opposition strategist could have anticipated how JFK’s death would be the beginning of the unraveling of the Democratic coalition that had been forged by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and had formed the party’s electoral base ever since. When Lyndon Johnson emerged from Air Force One as the new president after the flight back from Dallas and stood somberly in the glare of the television lights at Andrews Air Force Base, he was already a familiar figure to most Americans. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast to JFK than LBJ, the large, ambitious Texan with the thick drawl and the great thirst for whiskey, women, and power. Now he seemed humbled and earnest as he looked into the cameras and said, “I ask for your help—and God’s.”

With LBJ we were back to business as usual with the old backroom pols, the men who wore hats and had spreading waistlines. To be sure, there was a lot about Kennedy we had not known then or had ignored— such as his chronic illnesses, his reckless ways with women, his Cold Warrior inclinations toward Vietnam, and his temporizing approach to the civil rights struggle.

In June 2007, when the Central Intelligence Agency opened many of its files to the public—those known as “the family jewels”—there were pages devoted to JFK’s enthusiastic authorization of a CIA surveillance campaign against a well-known New York Times military affairs reporter who had published stories involving classified material. When Richard Nixon became president and authorized a similar leak-plugging operation, it was seen as the first step toward Watergate.

But in the wake of President Kennedy’s violent death, America was in a state of shock, and the flaws or failings that were known to us only seemed to make him more human and his loss more deeply felt.

He became the prince of Camelot who left behind a widow whose beauty could not be compromised by grief, a woman not yet forty years old who would remain a part of our lives, in admiration and controversy, until she died in the closing days of the century. And their children, Caroline and John, Jr., now belonged to the nation as surely as the offspring of royalty.

Slowly, the rest of us went back to our ordinary lives, trying to absorb and understand the deep wounds we had sustained and the unimaginable loss we had suffered—and blissfully unaware of all the tragedy and tumult that lay not far ahead. My wife, Meredith, finally found a job teaching English at Central High School in Omaha. We rented a better apartment; this one even had access to a swimming pool, which seemed to us the height of luxury. We watched The Dick Van Dyke Show and Gunsmoke on our new black-and-white television. We bought our first set of furniture—sofa and matching chair, coffee table, dining room table and chairs, and two lamps—for four hundred dollars.

In the summer of 1964, we drove east to visit Washington, D.C., and New York City on vacation, a couple of Midwesterners curious about life over the horizon from the Great Plains. In Washington, as luck would have it, we were in the press gallery when the House passed the historic Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination in jobs and public accommodations. Reporters were shouting into telephones and banging away at typewriters. We saw Roger Mudd, the CBS news correspondent who had been tracking the legislation nightly on the CBS Evening News, and Bob Abernethy of NBC News on the phone filing a radio report. I felt like a kid from the sticks who somehow managed to wander into Yankee Stadium while the World Series was under way.

We were thrilled, but a friend who worked for the congressman from Omaha was not; his boss had voted against the act. Another conservative friend from the Midwest insisted, “You can’t legislate morality.”

Huh? “What about murder?” I asked. “It’s immoral to kill someone. If I’m not mistaken, we’ve passed laws to deal with that.”
Tom Brokaw

About Tom Brokaw

Tom Brokaw - Boom!
Tom Brokaw is the author of five best sellers: The Greatest Generation, The Greatest Generation Speaks, An Album of Memories, A Long Way from Home, and BOOM! A native of South Dakota, he graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in political science. He began his journalism career in Omaha and Atlanta before joining NBC News in 1966. Brokaw was the White House correspondent for NBC News during Watergate, and from 1976 to 1981 he anchored Today on NBC. He was the sole anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw from 1983 to 2005. He continues to report for NBC News, producing long-form documentaries and providing expertise during breaking news events. Brokaw has won every major award in broadcast journalism, including two DuPonts, a Peabody Award, and several Emmys. He lives in New York and Montana.

Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

Discussion Guides

1. Boom! stages a virtual class reunion of the Sixties generation. As Tom Brokaw observes, "Reunions are funny things. Not everyone chooses to attend them" (xxiii). Some people turn up, some do not. Which voices in the book resonated deeply with your own experience? Who else might have been included in your version of a 1960s reunion?

2. Tom Brokaw believes we will not "crack the code" of the Sixties for some time. Why do you think this is true? What about the Sixties generation makes it a particularly enigmatic decade to figure out?

3. Representative John Lewis laments the permanence of race and poverty in American life and says: "There have been unbelievable changes for the better in politics and in the economy. But back in the Sixties, people had a sense of hope. I think we've lost that" (54). Do you agree that Americans, and specifically black Americans, are less hopeful than in decades past?

4. Consider activist and politician Tom Hayden's proposition: “There’s a big ‘what if’ over the Sixties. . . . Who knows what would have happened if King and Kennedy were alive?” (33) How might the country have been transformed? What would be different today?

5. In Boom!, former president Bill Clinton says: "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" (xvi). Do you agree? Could a similar statement be made of today's generation and political landscape, or would the opposite be true?

6. Tom Brokaw's first and most autobiographical chapter, "A Loss of Innocence," relates his personal journey through the 1960s. If you were writing a memoir of your own experience of this pivotal time, what title would your story have and why?

7. Some see the war in Iraq as a second Vietnam. Former Marine Ron Armella says, “Those of us who were in Vietnam know it’s the same damn scenario. For a time we thought we were never going to get out of Vietnam; now I don’t know if we’ll ever get out of Iraq. It is such a parallel” (469). Assess the similarities and differences between the two wars, generational politics, and the country's attitudes then and now. How much has changed? How much has remained the same? Have we embraced the lessons of the Vietnam War?

8. In "A Woman's Place," writer Nora Ephron comments that “there is no women’s movement today” (203). Do you agree? What advances did women make in the 1960s and what issues are yet to be resolved? Gloria Steinem admits that she didn't anticipate that "after decades, [gender equality] would still be unrealized" (207). With so much work left to do, who is a voice for women in today's culture, and what is at stake? Discuss also Senator Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign; is this evidence of a huge step forward for women, or of a long way still to go?

9. To some, the Sixties generation is synonymous with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. To others, it was a time of great patriotism and serious conflict. What did the 1960s mean for you, or for your parents?

10. Some of the most compelling stories in Boom! come from ordinary citizens far from the public spotlight, such as Tom and Nellie Coakley in "A Place Called Vietnam" or Charlene Priester and Ouida Atkins in "A Dream Fulfilled and a Dream Deferred." Discuss the everyday people or unsung heroes in Boom! whose stories echoed most strongly for you and why. How do their experiences compare or contrast with stereotypical perceptions of the time?

11. Tom Brokaw describes the 1965 Watt's Riots as a wake-up call for the nation that should have resolved many of the racial issues that still divided the country more than a century after the Civil War. As Brokaw notes, there has been so much progress, but still much despair. Why did America fail to heed the "wake-up call" of Watts? Fast-forwarding to 2005, consider the nation's response to Hurricane Katrina; how and when will the call be answered?

12. Do you agree with Stan Sanders when he says, "The state of black men in America is in free fall" (317)? Discuss this view in relation to today's political arena, the prison system, education, and the dissolution of the family. What changes still need to be made to realize Dr. Martin Luther King's American dream?

13. Boom! is also a story of how people can "do a one-eighty." Tom Turnipseed, once an aid to Georgia's Governor George Wallace, experienced a "conversion." How has he become an advocate for racial equality? Who else in the book experienced a personal revolution? Have you or someone you know had a similar sea change in your own views? What caused it?

14. General Wayne Downing notes that “It took ten or fifteen years before people were proud of serving in Vietnam” (446). Why do you think this is the case? Has America changed its attitude toward its serving men and women and the politics of war since the Sixties? Also, discuss Garry Trudeau's experience with his Doonesbury comic strip; do you think Americans appreciate strongly enough the idea that Iraq is not just a political matter, but a personal issue as well?

15. How were the 1960s a response to all that came before? Consider Senator Hillary Clinton's proposition: "…it's always struck me as curious that the Greatest Generation produced the Sixties generation. What were the sort of unmet aspirations, dreams, the frustrations that our parents had that led us to a period of ferment and rebellion and questioning of authority?" (404).

16. Regarding the war in Vietnam, Dr. Les Gelb remembers, "We were so busy in the Pentagon, we never watched the news–and the disconnect became greater and greater” (138). Decades later, during the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, the country experienced a similar disconnect between what politicians did and what the public believed. How did this happen? What lessons should have been learned from the country's experience in Vietnam?

17. What soundtrack comes to mind when you think "The Sixties"? Which songs, lyrics or voices do you hear, and why? What made the Sixties generation so supremely "cool"? Has any other generation come close? Why do you think many members of that generation still have such a strong connection with the culture of their past?

18. Discuss Pat Buchanan's assessment that “Nineteen sixty-eight was two sides of the same coin. Everything came apart for the Democrats and together for the Republicans” (32-33). How has party politics changed since then, and what future do you foresee for the Democratic and Republican parties of the decades to come?

19. Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner says that today, parents and children can share in popular culture. This was not the case in the 1960s, which saw a vast disparity between youth culture and adulthood. Now, he says, "there's no generation gap" (530). Do you agree? How does life for today's adolescents compare with the youths of those who came of age in the Sixties?

20. As Tom Brokaw notes, some of the twenty-first century's most successful and creative entrepreneurs emerged from Sixties culture. Who were some of these innovators and how were they influenced by the 1960s? Going further, how are today’s radio, film, internet and digital music an offspring of the mentality that emerged from the 1960s? Consider Tom Brokaw's statement: "Who could have guessed in the heady days of the Sixties that pocket electronics would become the realization of that popular but amorphous slogan 'Power to the people!"? (561).

21. Dr. Judith Rodin, the first female president of an Ivy League university, offers an interesting perspective: “I used to think you could have it all. Now I believe you can have it all, but not all at the same time. There are costs to every decision” (221). How is this view reflected in the choices women face today? Why do women today often feel it necessary to pit one's choices against the other?

22. On the official website for Boom! www.boom-brokaw.com, Tom Brokaw lists Billboard's top 10 songs (from "Tighten Up" to "Hey Jude") and Television's most popular shows (from "The Beverly Hillbillies" to "Laugh In.") Review these lists — what are your favorites? What memories do they spark?

23. As Tom Brokaw reports in Boom!, in an interview with New York magazine in 2006, Barack Obama gave the following critique of the Sixties generation: "To some degree…we have seen the psychodrama of the baby boom generation play out over the last forty years. When you watch Clinton versus Gingrich, or Gore versus Bush, or Kerry versus Bush, you feel like these are fights that were taking place back in dorm rooms in the Sixties." (346). What did Obama mean, and do you agree?

24. Tom Brokaw recognizes that "We are profoundly changed in so many ways and yet so much the same in so many others" (35). In what ways has America transformed itself since the 1960s, and how is the nation still the same? Evaluate the 2008 Presidential campaigns of John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama — are they proof that the country is ready to embrace much of what the 1960s stood for, or to the contrary, that there is still a long way to go?

25. Boom! ends with a photograph of the Earth as seen from the Apollo 8 mission of December 1968. Why do you think Tom Brokaw leaves us with this image of the "Whole Earth"? Discuss Stewart Brand's interpretation of the photo: it's about "seeing what connects rather than what divides" (611).

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