Sunday, July 04, 2004

July 4, 2004 Not Feeling Groovy .... Maureen Dowd

July 4, 2004
Not Feeling Groovy

ASHINGTON — I didn't appreciate the 60's in high school.

I spurned the unisex style of dirty jeans. I was more under the influence of nuns than bongs. And I was frightened of the cost of free love.

But as other decades passed — the bland, polyester 70's; the greedy, padded-shoulder 80's; the materialistic, designer 90's; the bullying, Botox 00's — I've become nostalgic for the idealistic passion of the 60's.

It's amazing, given how far we've come from the spirit of the 60's — with Bob Dylan hawking Victoria's Secret and Hillary Clinton a hawk — how obsessed conservatives still are with pulverizing that decade.

Their disgust with the 60's spurs oxymoronic — and moronic — behavior, as anti-big-government types conjure up audacious social engineering schemes to turn back the clock.

The day after his re-election to the House in 1994, the future speaker, Newt Gingrich, jubilantly told me he intended to bury any remnants of the "Great Society, counterculture, McGovernik" legacy represented by the morally lax Clintons and return America to a more black-and-white view of right and wrong.

He said America had slid into "a situation-ethics morality, in which your immediate concern about your personal needs outweighs any obligation to others."

A decade later, after it came out that Mr. Gingrich had his own affair with a young Washington political aide, and he divorced and embarked on his third marriage, he would be a top adviser to Donald Rumsfeld when Rummy and Dick Cheney decided they wanted to bring back a black-and-white view of right and wrong. The old cold warriors thought they could improve the national character by invading Iraq — in that way banishing post-Vietnam ambivalence about using force and toughening up what they saw as the Clintonesque 60's mentality — a weak, pinprick-bombing, if-it-feels-good-do-it attitude. Their new motto was: If it makes someone else feel bad, do it.

W., who had tuned out during the 60's, preferring frat parties to war moratoriums and civil rights marches, and George Jones to "psychedelic" Beatles albums, was on board with his regents' retro concerns, like Star Wars and Saddam, and outdated cold-war assumptions, like the idea that terrorists could thrive only if sponsored by a state.

In his book tour, Bill Clinton has been defending the 60's, noting that the polarization of American politics began with the civil rights, women's rights, gay rights and abortion rights struggles of the 60's and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. "If you look back on the 60's and on balance, you think there was more good than harm, then you're probably a Democrat," he told a Chicago audience. "If you think there was more harm than good, you're probably a Republican."

Mr. Clinton told another audience that Republicans had had success portraying Democrats as "weak elitists who couldn't be trusted to defend their country, couldn't be trusted with tax money, didn't believe in work, wanted to give all the money to poor people and people of color."

He said the "antigovernment, values crowd" wanted to make sure "the right people were in power."

Once they returned to power, the Bush II team, dripping with contempt for Bill Clinton and oozing with "we know best" cockiness, thought they could use the sacking of Saddam to change the way Americans saw themselves and the way America was seen in the world.

Their swaggering determination to expunge the ghosts of Vietnam and embark on a post-cold-war triumphalism has backfired, leaving the military depleted and drawn into a de facto draft, and once more leaving America bogged down halfway around the world in a hostile nation.

The Bushes and Republicans recoiled at Mr. Clinton's moral relativism about Monica, but this administration indulged in a far more dangerous relativism when it misled the American public about Iraq's W.M.D., and links between Saddam and Al Qaeda.

Instead of Americans' changing their view of themselves, many have changed their view of Mr. Bush — fearing, with the sanctioning of pre-emptive invasions, torture and restricting civil liberties, he has gone too far in distorting the principles the country was founded on.

The president did end up changing America's image in the world. Just not for the better.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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