When it comes to American politics I am, admittedly, very cynical and jaded. In this way I am very much a product, or perhaps a victim, of my times. The 1960s were a unique period of social and political change in America. (And that’s putting it mildly.) Plus, the advent of television brought the news into our homes like an uninvited guest who wouldn’t leave. We didn’t have 24-hour news channels yet (thank goodness) but for the first time we had a real window to the world. And what we were seeing was unbelievable. I think this caused me, and many of my generation, to lose faith in the institutions we were taught to believe in and the people we were told to trust.
Consider what was going on in the world when my generation first became aware of politics and the news. People my age will probably remember all of these events but I think it’s also important to put them in perspective and realize how they effected the rest of our lives. If you are too young to remember, try to imagine all of this happening over a single decade.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was my generation’s political awakening. I was six years old and it was the first news story I remember seeing on TV. I was too young to understand the significance of it, but there was no escaping it. I came home from school, turned on the TV, and saw a seemingly endless funeral. As I recall it, the coverage went on for days. Where were all my cartoon shows? How come Bozo the Clown wasn’t on? What was this boring show that was on every channel? (Of course, there were only eight channels back then.) And why was everybody around me so sad? I was a little confused and very annoyed. In those days, parents weren’t enlightened enough to shield their children from that kind of national tragedy and harsh reality. We were just left to witness history as it unfolded in front of us and then we had to sort it out for ourselves. So while nobody who experienced the Kennedy assassination will ever forget it, I believe it was the children who were most affected by it.
Making matters worse was the murder of the alleged lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. His assassination was followed by a never-ending supply of conspiracy theories that put our own government leaders under suspicion, along with the Russians, the Cubans, the Mafia, the CIA, Jaqueline Kennedy and, my personal favorite, aliens from outer space. The truth is out there.
Less than five years later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated. A mere two months after that, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated. These three men were the holy trinity of liberals and they were being picked off like targets in a shooting gallery. The loss of their shared values and common causes has been called the "death of the American conscience." It was one violent blow to the American psyche after another. But wait, there’s more…
At the same time, race riots were breaking out across the country — the 1965 Watts Riots, the 1967 Detroit Riots, and the 1968 Chicago Riots — each lasting several days, taking dozens of lives and burning down the cities around them. In 1965, Martin Luther King tried to lead a peaceful march to Selma, which led to what would become known as Bloody Sunday. Seeing all this from the comfort of our homes on our TV sets, was like watching a show set in the Wild West about lawless towns that were ruled by mobs and outlaws. And as if that weren’t enough …
America’s involvement in the Viet Nam War peaked in 1969 and the televised coverage brought it into our homes like never before. My family had a small black-and-white TV in the kitchen. It was always on during dinner, usually tuned to the news. Every day, while my mother was telling her kids to eat their vegetables, my father was watching horrific images of war in the background. I’m sure it never occurred to them that these images were being seared into the subconscious of our, as yet unformed, little brains.
The war sparked more protests across the country, most notably and frequently at colleges and universities. So, in addition to the images of war in a foreign land and riots in the streets, we were seeing footage of police battling students on our college campuses. These protests reached their crescendo with the Kent State shootings in 1970, where police killed four unarmed students and wounded nine others. This was the straw that broke the back of the '60s revolution era. Images of that tragedy were seen everywhere as the protests began to subside. It was as if everyone became exhausted from all the fighting and killing, all at the same time. But just when you thought it was safe to go back into the voting booth …
The Pentagon Papers came to light in 1971, revealing that the Johnson administration had lied to Congress and the public about the scope of America’s activities in the Vietnam War. These revelations were followed by the Watergate scandal in 1972. What started as a low-end burglary at a high-end hotel exposed crimes and cover-ups at the highest levels of government, eventually forcing Nixon to resign as President. This was such a resonant moment in history that it still serves as the suffix for any number of scandals today. From “Deflategate” (accusations that Tom Brady was having his footballs intentionally under inflated) to “Pussygate” (Donald Trump’s interview with Billy Bush about where he likes to grab women). Admittedly, the overuse of these hybrids over the years has diluted its original impact.
In 1973, when the Watergate hearings played like a daily soap opera on TV, I was 16 years old. In the same way that the Kennedy assassination was my generation’s introduction to the news, Watergate capped off a decade of explosive events and sealed my cynicism toward American politics. This was the first news story that I was old enough to follow and to be fascinated by. For the first time, I could understand most of the facts in the story and I cared about what was happening. Not that it was more important than being popular or losing my virginity, but it did manage to hold my interest.
By today’s standards, the scandals of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers seem quaint. It’s disturbing to see how desensitized and accepting we have become by the ever-increasing amount of corruption in our government. Our tolerance for dishonesty has risen so high that we’re numb to the lies we are regularly subjected to by our politicians. But at the time, these scandals shook our nation to its very foundation. The integrity and legitimacy of our elected leaders, our military, our police, even our security were called into question at the same time. It was one national loss of innocence after another.
For grown-ups, all of this must have seemed like the fall of Western civilization, like Rome was burning. Most older members of my generation were either drawn into the fight in Vietnam or the fight against it. They had to pick a side. To the younger members like me, this all seemed normal. Honestly, it was even exciting at times. Since we were watching it on TV, most of it played out like entertainment. It gave rise to the counterculture, which gave us some of the greatest music and movies of all time. It gave birth to politically and socially conscious shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and All In The Family and influenced countless others, even to this day. The heroes of the counterculture always fought the establishment and stood up to “The Man.” We were raised not to accept the status-quo but to speak out and rise up against injustice. We may have been too young to understand exactly what was going on around us but all of these events planted seeds in the subconscious of our brains that would later grow to become our skeptical and rebellious minds.
So if you are part of a generation that has been wired to be distrustful of America’s politicians, institutions and corporations, if you are accused of being a cynic because you don’t buy everything they’re trying to sell you, if you are made to feel like an old hippy because you believe in making love and not war, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. And you are not wrong. If you are part of the younger generation, try to understand where we’re coming from and everything we’ve been through. We really did try to change the world for the better. And we’re really sorry that we screwed it up so badly.