The 2008 Campaign Offers the Sixties Generation a Shot at Redemption

The political pollster Peter D. Hart probably didn’t mean to send shivers up the spines of baby boomers when he told NBC this month that the current Democratic presidential frontrunner “Hillary Clinton really is Richard Nixon, circa 1968.” Hart, whose decades-long client list includes former vice president Hubert Humphrey (the Democrat that Nixon defeated for the White House), could have added that Senator Clinton is Nixon on steroids. The junior senator of New York has made a creepy science out of the control-freak politics that Nixon pioneered: the paranoia, the doubletalk, the situational ethics and the bellicose consequences of one ego’s embattled insecurity on US policy from Vietnam to Iraq.

Clinton’s Nixonian instincts flew into public view during the October 30 Democratic presidential debate when she offered stammering and contradicting positions on both sides of whether to keep US troops in Iraq, on whether she has a plan to fix Social Security, and on whether undocumented workers ought to have drivers’ licenses. But as Ronald Reagan demonstrated, a candidate can win the presidency of the United States holding many positions that are at odds with public opinion, as long as he or she is forthright about declaring where he and she stand. Waffling provokes distrust much more than unpopular views, and the jig is almost up on the media-fed presumption that Clinton has the Democratic nomination in the bag.

The crack in the Clinton façade widened after her surrogates–including former president Bill Clinton–invoked post-debate victimhood and complained about “the politics of pile on” after her rivals questioned her honesty. The frontrunner slid in most national polls since then, and more dramatically in the first-in-the-nation caucus and primary states: Iowa and New Hampshire, which will kick off the voting less than two months from now. What the feigning pundits of the corporate news media had insisted for most of this year had been Clinton’s “flawless” procession to power is now a rough-and-tumble street fight. Game on: it’s a bona fide contest, kicking, screaming and elbow-jabbing up a greased poll toward the Democratic nomination.

That Nixon ran for president eight years after his vice presidency is only one of the historic parallels between him and Senator Clinton in 2008. To hear Clinton speak, she gained vast “experience” in the Clinton White House that ended that many years ago: she was the virtual vice president (much to Al Gore’s chagrin) of Bill Clinton’s administration. Nixon’s denouement began with Vietnam just as Clinton’s did with her authorization of the war in Iraq. Nixon, in 1968, campaigned as peace candidate against the war, airing a national TV advertisement titled “Vietnam” in which the candidate narrated over gruesome images of war:

NIXON: “Never has so much military, economic and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively as in Vietnam. If after all of this time and all of this sacrifice and all of this support there is still no end in sight, then I say the time has come for the American people to turn to new leadership I pledge to you we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”

Peace With Honor?

Nixon inherited that unpopular war from the opposing party, just as any Democratic president, if elected in 2008, will face, but he ramped up the war in Vietnam while expanding the battlefield with a secret bombing campaign, then an invasion of Cambodia, and dragged US military intervention into nearby Laos too.

Iran is the new Cambodia: Clinton, in 2007, has tried to distance herself from her 2002 vote in the US Senate to authorize the Iraq war but her September 27 vote in support of the saber-rattling Kyl-Lieberman Amendment–which the Bush administration may take as Congressional authorization to expand today’s war into Iran–sets her far to the hawkish right of each of her Democratic rivals for the Oval Office, all of whom oppose the maneuver.

One of the defining moments of the ‘o8 campaign came last July 23 and demonstrated that, when it comes to US foreign policy, Clinton today is in fact less progressive than was Nixon, who held historic face-to-face meetings with China’s Mao Tse Tung and the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev. During a CNN-YouTube debate that evening, citizen Stephen Sixta asked the candidates via video if in their first year as president they would be willing to conduct direct talks with the heads of state of Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria and Iran, “without preconditions.” Three candidates had the chance to respond: Senator Barack Obama answered yes. Clinton answered no. And former senator John Edwards did not offer anything clearer than a maybe.

“The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them–which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration–is ridiculous,” said Obama, lamenting the “disgrace that we have not spoken to them.”

Clinton responded in the negative: “I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.”

After the debate, Clinton’s chief strategist, pollster Mark Penn, took to the spin room floor to tag Obama’s response as a sign of inexperience. (Commercial media reports did not mention that Penn was consultant to the unsuccessful effort by Venezuelan oligarchs to recall President Hugo Chavez in 2004, a venture in which his firm was caught red-handed cooking a false exit poll: an example of how the private sector agendas of this consultant-for-hire have straightjacketed Clinton on real policies.) A day later Clinton, speaking to the Quad City Times in Iowa, ripped into Obama’s answer as “irresponsible and frankly naïve,” while sending surrogates such as former secretary of state Madeline Albright out to praise her own closed-mindedness as “sophisticated.” Undaunted, Obama, since then, has made his willingness to meet directly with the leaders of US-shunned nations a staple of his stump speeches.

The constant drumbeat by Clinton, 60, and her campaign to tag Obama, 46, as lacking the experience to be president has turned the ’08 campaign, on the Democratic primary side, into a generational war. Obama has fired back, relishing the role of enfant terrible. As the gap narrows between the two in public opinion surveys, members of Clinton’s baby boom generation will be confronted with their own, perhaps final, defining moment: Will 2008 mark the final sell-out in which they confirm that they are as pigheaded as they once believed their parents to be? Or will the presidential primaries bring a generational homecoming in which they willingly pass the torch that their own elders tried to withhold from them? For the sixties generation, it’s déjà vu time.
The New Generation Gap

The true fault line of next year’s Democratic nomination battle will not tremble because of Clinton’s gender or Obama’s pigmentation, both themes that the press obsesses upon. The demographic earthquake that quivers under the surface of the ’08 campaign is generational.

Already, some boomers are squirming defensively over Obama’s statements that a Clinton nomination will prolong the never-resolving, now calcified, arguments between right and left wings of the sixties generation and further stall authentic change. Some take umbrage at the suggestion that their generation–represented politically over the past 15 years by the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – should cede the reigns of power to the next.

Some former youths that once cheered our late friend Abbie Hoffman’s credo of “don’t trust anyone over 30,” now sound like their clueless parents of yore, scolding in response to the vocalization of today’s generation gap. “Obama can kiss my hippy ass,” snapped a Daily Kos diarist on November 9, offended by the junior senator of Illinois’ recent statement to Fox News that “I think there’s no doubt we represent the kind of change that Sen. Clinton can’t deliver on and part of it is generational. Senator Clinton and others, they’ve been fighting since the ’60s, and it makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done.”

Tom Hayden, SDS-founder-turned-politician, is wincing, too. He wrote an open letter to Obama last week in The Huffington Post, imploring, “What I cannot understand is your apparent attempt to sever, or at least distance yourself, from the Sixties generation, though we remain your single greatest supporting constituency.”

Among Hayden’s gripes is that Obama isn’t running a campaign based on identity politics: “[T]he deepest rationale for your running for president is the one that you dare not mention very much, which is that you are an African-American with the possibility of becoming president.” Omigod! Obama is black? Why he didn’t tell us? We had no idea!

Those with historic memory know that Abbie considered Tom to be out-of-step with generational politics back then when they were quarreling young co-defendants in the Chicago 8 case. But even Hayden seems pulled in two directions, lecturing Obama: “[Y]ou could change America’s dismal role in the world. Because of what you so eloquently represent, you could convince the world to give America a new hearing, even a new respect.”

Neocon-turned-war-critic Andrew Sullivan made a similar generational argument for Obama in a cover story for the latest issue of The Atlantic. But the focus on “rebranding” America misses the rationale for Obama’s candidacy altogether: It’s not the colored face that Obama would put on the USA brand, but his (and for many of us, our) generations’ differing perception that a deeply flawed “product” has to be fixed rather than merely dressed up in new artificial packaging.

This generational fault line will shake more forcefully as the January 3 Iowa caucuses and subsequent primaries approach. Still, a great many boomers of conscience share the younger generations’ disappointment in how their own hopes were dashed. They may find Obama’s generational challenge to signal not the defeat of their original ideals but, rather, their fulfillment, or at least a catalyst to reopen the path.

The disillusion that so many of us under 50 have experienced crystallized with the failure of the first Clinton White House to make good on its own generational pitch after 1992. Many of us watched our elders drift from preaching peace and love and anti-capitalism to obsessing with consumerism, escapist spiritual fads and hedge funds. We kept as our own many of the counter-cultural pleasures that were won in the sixties (every generation since then has embraced sexual liberation and marijuana, among other so-called vices), the distrust and mockery of authority, the worry over the natural environment, and the strong distaste for war and discrimination that are among the proud legacies of the sixties youth movements. But many, probably most of us, deeply resent that we find ourselves trapped in a very limited set of political choices calcified by the boomer generation–Republican and Democrat – now in power.
The Politics of Sanctimony

Senator Clinton, on the merits, would not be a poster gal for her generation except for the corporate media’s sustenance of such mythology. Her insider experience is at odds with–not part of–the best political and cultural yearnings of her generation. Forty-two years ago, as a Wellesley frosh, Clinton wrote to a pen pal in goody-two-shoes tones about a student that had been denounced for sleeping at her boyfriend’s home. She defended the student’s “right to do as she pleases” while also huffing, “I don’t condone her actions.” That, according to New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich’s July parsing of a pile of letters Clinton penned to an old high school buddy. As a sophomore, Clinton wrote to her friend about the “miserable weekend” she spent arguing with a peer against his LSD use and scoffing at his claim that “expanding my conscience” (sic) “is the way.”

Clinton entered Wellesley from the Chicago suburbs as young Republican–a “Goldwater girl” who had campaigned for the GOP in 1964–and in college gravitated toward the Democrats. But the letters demonstrate that Clinton, even in the midst of the countercultural tumult of the times, had a sanctimonious way about her then as now. One of the paradoxes of the 2008 campaign is that her electoral base is considered to be fellow and sister members of the sixties generation and yet–like her spouse who “did not inhale” (it’s one of the few statements that Bubba has made that I tend to believe; who else would fake smoking a joint?)–Clinton’s path bypassed the pleasure politics that bonded so many of her peers, and, significantly, most of us that came afterwards.

So when a reporter asked Obama last year if he had ever done illegal drugs and the senator answered, “I inhaled frequently. That was the point,” and he further volunteered that he had tried cocaine (an admission he had made previously in his autobiography) his lack of shame reminded us of our selves. In contrast, the Clintons have repeatedly shown condescension and hostility toward younger Americans. A recent example came in Iowa when, as has been widely reported, the Clinton campaign planted a question with a young supporter: “As a young person, I’m worried about the long-term effects of global warming. How does your plan combat climate change.”

More telling than the embarrassment of getting caught planting questions was Clinton’s canned answer to the youth (who, it can now be seen on YouTube, winked toward a Clinton staff member upon termination of her spoonfed script): “Well, you should be worried. You know, I find as I travel around Iowa that it’s usually young people that ask me about global warming.”

Clinton thus offered a caricature of “young people” and stuffed them into a pollster’s box: You are young and therefore your “issue” is “global warming.” How lame is that? After all, if it were true that young people “usually ask about global warming,” there would be no need to plant the question, right? (A Clinton aide then claimed that the campaign had never planted a question before and that it wouldn’t happen again, but quickly a similar incident resurfaced from press reports last April about another event in which the Clinton staff tried to plant a question at a campaign event, and then followed the same revelation from her 2000 US Senate campaign.)
“They Look Like Facebook”

On Saturday, November 10, the Obama campaign turned out 3,000 supporters at the Iowa Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, one-third of the entire crowd, a demonstration of grassroots muscle in the first caucus state that was noted by virtually every political reporter covering the event. Clinton’s top campaign spinners disparaged the Obama crowd for its youth. The pollster Penn, crestfallen by the visible depth of Obama’s Iowa field organization, sniped, “Only a few of their people look like they could vote in any state.” And consultant Mandy Grunwald said, “Our people look like caucus-goers and his people look like they are 18. Penn said they look like Facebook.” Many members of the elder generations that pitch was aimed to impress won’t get the reference, unaware that Facebook is a website and, at that, is the seventh most visited on earth. Lo and behold: Nixon–who signed the law granting suffrage to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds–turns out to have been more comfortable with young American voters than the boomers that run Clinton’s campaign today.

A 2004 Edison/Mitofsky poll of Iowa caucus participants found that 21,000 young voters, ages 17 (anyone that will turn 18 by the November election is allowed to caucus) to 29, turned out, making for 17 per cent of caucus-goers, “a four-fold increase in youth participation since 2000.” That trend continued to rise in the 2006 elections. Throughout 2007 Obama has drawn hordes of young voters and significant numbers of their elders, too, to big campaign rallies. If the Clinton campaign is really gambling ­- as do many survey research companies that are under-polling the under-30 vote in their samples,based on the yarn that young people don’t vote — it may well be in for a rude awakening when the real voting begins in January.

Following the Iowa and New Hampshire contests comes the South Carolina Democratic primary in late January, a state where African-Americans will constitute at least fifty percent of the voting pool. US Rep. James Clyburn of the Palmetto State, the House Majority Whip, and the most powerful black member of Congress who is neutral in the presidential primary, has said that an Obama victory in Iowa (or, by extension, in New Hampshire) would erase the fear among black voters that whites are not ready for a black president. “He does that,” Clyburn has commented, and, “nobody beats him in South Carolina.”

This is not to say that the senator from Illinois is a savior. He is not promising to end capitalism. Nor does this analysis reject the populist positions that other presidential candidates like Edwards and Dennis Kucinich have taken. Nor does your correspondent contest that history is usually better made outside of the snake pit of electoral politics and there are important sectors of the left that reject the two-party system in the US or that do not vote at all. They, too, are to be respected. But a larger swathe does tend to vote in presidential elections, and the upcoming Democratic primaries present the most interesting challenge to baby boomers that their juniors have ever witnessed.

We, their younger brothers and sisters (and in many cases their children), are at the edges of our seats, waiting to see how this chapter goes.

With the opportunity presented to reject a “Nixon on steroids” in the 2008 Democratic primaries, the sixties generation is being offered a shot a redemption, a chance to prevent a paranoid curse from striking the same country twice in a lifetime. And it is becoming increasingly evident that the only candidate positioned to derail the Clinton juggernaut–organizationally, financially (thanks to half-a-million small contributions), and riding this generational wave–is Obama. The most recent polls indicate that Clinton is losing support–she dropped ten percentage points in the first week of November in New Hampshire – most rapidly from boomers and older Democratic primary voters: signs that a critical mass may well be experiencing some buyer’s remorse of what was sold to them as “their” generation of politicians. Maybe, just maybe, their original ideals still beat somewhere inside so many of those broken hearts.

When I published, in September, in The Boston Phoenix, my prediction that Obama will overtake Clinton’s “inevitable” candidacy in the Democratic primaries, a lot of my elder colleagues laughed aloud. But the spin room has suddenly quieted to a hush. Yeah, we look like Facebook, whatever that is.

AL GIORDANO, the founder of Narco News, has lived in and reported from Latin America for the past decade. His opinions expressed in this column do not reflect those of Narco News nor of The Fund for Authentic Journalism, which supports his work. Al encourages commentary, critique, additional analysis and news tips for his continued coverage of the US presidential campaign to be sent to his email address: