The Battle Over the Sixties

Although we're rapidly approaching the 2004 presidential election, it often seems that we're still shadowboxing over the 1960s.

Whoever becomes the Democratic presidential candidate will be drawn into a political and cultural fray over racial equality, abortion, gay rights, environmental sustainability and economic justice -- all issues that galvanized a generation during that tumultuous decade of 1963-1973.

The two leading candidates, in addition to the president, are Baby Boomers. Yet, the experience of that generation has affected them differently.

George W. Bush basically skipped the 1960s. He drank, rather than inhaled. He played fraternity pranks while others boogied to the Stones. He was a cheerleader while his classmates protested official lies. He didn't fight in -- or against -- the war in Vietnam. He never joined movements that promoted first-class citizenship for racial minorities, women or gays and lesbians. He never fought for new protections for the environment.

Nor was he part of the Silent Majority of Baby Boomers who avoided the chaos of the era, led sober, responsible lives and went on to join the workforce and raise families.

Bush, instead, was a privileged son who took for granted his eventuall entitlement to power. He did some sporadic time in the Texas Air National Guard while others worked in the Peace Corps or fought in the war against poverty. He worked, off and on, at businesses his father gave him to run, while many of his classmates carved out careers dedicated to changing society.

Truth be told, he didn't really become a responsible man until he was forty.

Call him the anti-'60s president. His views on abortion, same-sex marriage, waging war and social and economic justice were not forged during his youth. They were hatched as part of a middle-aged quest to pursue his family's dynastic political power. His views are far more conservative than most of the huge generation that embraced greater tolerance and liberal social attitudes.

Whoever wins the Democratic nomination must be able to demonstrate that Bush's views are outside the mainstream of American society and that he has shown precious little of the "character" or compassionate conservatism on which he based his 2000 campaign.

Fortunately, we have two Democratic candidates superbly prepared for the battle that lies ahead.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) clearly grasps the changes that have transformed our society. He embraces racial and gender equality, as well as gay civil rights. He understands the critical necessity for environmental protection and energy independence. He comprehends, at a visceral level, the daily struggle waged by the working poor for economic dignity. He instinctively knows why our national security requires that the rest of the world respect -- not resent -- the United States.

A charismatic and charming campaigner, Edwards has helped remind many Americans of their core principles and values. Unlike the president, who works hard to manipulate our fears, Edwards appeals to our hopes for greater fairness and a safer future.

With a few minor exceptions, the views and positions of Sen. John Kerry (D- Mass.) closely mirror those of his younger rival. Kerry is also a forceful and articulate campaigner who has proven his ability to respond to political attacks with a rapid and powerful response.

Like Bush, Kerry was also a privileged son. But the choices Kerry made tested his character and gave him a well-deserved reputation as a man of courage and conscience.

Unlike Bush, Kerry was a bona fide member of the Vietnam generation who fought both in and against the war. As a decorated veteran and distinguished anti-war activist, Kerry has been able to appeal to large segments of his generation, particularly Vietnam veterans, who previously remained fairly detached from the electoral politics.

Bush never expected that a former Green Beret would stand on a Des Moines stage and tell an audience how John Kerry saved his life in Vietnam. As Robert Poe recently wrote in, "By the time he was finished, something remarkable had happened: A presidential challenger had, as the world watched, grown larger than the incumbent president."

Afterward, the 2004 presidential election suddenly morphed into a referendum on character.

Kerry's engagement on both sides of the Vietnam War -- in addition to his decades of experience in the Senate and expertise in national security -- is the major advantage he brings to the cultural wars still at the center of American politics.

Ruth Rosen is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.


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