Back to the Future

The past is never over; it’s not even past.— William Faulkner

Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s new book on the life of James Baker, “The Man Who Ran Washington,” looks to be a definitive account of one of the central architects of 20th century conservatism that I look forward to reading. It brings to mind another magisterial work, “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein (2008), which captured the essence of America’s mid-century political convulsions as conservatives and liberals fought an epic battle for the commanding heights of American politics. Revisiting it, the parallels between then and now are astonishing and also a little heart-breaking — you read it and weep at America’s seeming inability to learn from the past and move forward. Consider these scenes recounted in “Nixonland” that could have been outtakes from “Back to the Future.”

Scene: A group of self-described “freaks” take over an area of a West Coast city, declare it an autonomous zone and invite kindred spirits to help build an urban oasis of sandboxes, a children’s playground and a “People’s Revolutionary Corn Garden.”

Seattle’s “CHOP Zone” in 2020? Nope, it was People’s Park in downtown Berkeley in 1969. The impromptu occupation of land slated to be developed into a soccer field for UC Berkeley students quickly devolved into a violent confrontation known as Bloody Thursday. “Students moved out to take downtown,” wrote Perlstein. “Sheriff’s deputies moved in with shotguns. A city car was overturned and set afire. Officers started shooting into the crowd with bird shot. Then they ran out of bird shot.” The National Guard was called in and the incident metastasized into a 17-day occupation in which 128 people were injured, including 25 police officers. A reporter challenged Gov. Ronald Reagan in a news conference, inferring that he should honor the wishes of the UC student body. Reagan replied: “All of (this) began the first time that some of you who know better let young people think that they have the right to choose the laws they can obey as long as they are doing it in the name of social protest.” Sound familiar?

Scene: In a major American city, police pull over a Black man on suspicion of drunk driving. A scuffle ensues, drawing a crowd that grows to several hundred people in a few hours. Riots, fires and looting become rampant and several days later, the National Guard is called in to maintain order. “The streets resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country,” said a police offer on the front lines. “It bore no resemblance to the United States of America.”

Minneapolis in the summer of 2020? Not even close. This was the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965. The event catalyzed a wave of urban riots (or uprisings, as revisionist history has christened them) through the latter half of the 60s, including the Chicago riots of 1968 that leveled 28 city blocks in fires and looting.

Scene: A presidential candidate is asked by a reporter about some of their proposed social policies. “Where are you going to get all the money for these federally subsidized programs you’re talking about?” Replied the candidate: “From you! You are the privileged ones. You sit here as white students while Black people carry the burden.”

Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren demonstrating how woke they are? Wrong. It was Bobby Kennedy in 1968, scrambling to overcome his law-and-order instincts and foreshadowing the white privilege consciousness of the American left in 2020.

Scene: Mainstream media outlets, traditionally objective and nonpartisan, increasingly demonize government policies and police actions against public protests in the streets of major American cities. “The truth was, these were our children in the streets and the police beat them up,” wrote one leading political commentator. “For the first time in my life it began to seem to me possible that some form of American fascism may actually happen here,” said another.

Frank Bruni of the Times and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC in 2020? In fact, the quotes are from Tom Wicker and Stu Alsop respectively in the aftermath of the Democratic convention in Chicago during the summer of 1968. And a shocking thing happened. It turned out a lot of Americans weren’t listening to the mainstream media. Major newspapers and TV stations were deluged with comments defending police actions against the protesters. “(The media) had been united, as rarely before, by their anger at (Chicago Mayor Richard Daley),” wrote the English journalist Godfrey Hodgson. “Now they learned that the great majority of Americans sided with Daley, and against them. It was not only the humiliation of discovering that they had been wrong; there was also alarm at the discovery of their new unpopularity. Bosses and cops, everyone knew, were hated; it seemed that newspapers and television were hated even more.”

Looking back at the 60s, through the prism of 2020, there is cause for both despair and hope.

Despair because we seem to replaying the same loop of polarization and violence that marred the 60s. We’ve had five decades to reflect and learn on those lessons, yet we seem to be playing out exactly the same dynamics, just dressed in new clothes and filtered through infinite layers of new media.

But there’s also a sense of hope that is occasionally visible, like the sun on a cloudy day; a sense that as bad as things are, they already feel like they’re beginning to change. The Minneapolis City Council, after voting unanimously to dissolve its Police Department, is now realizing maybe that’s not such a good idea. The Democratic Party decided that a pragmatic journeyman like Joe Biden might be a better nominee than Bernie Sanders. And regardless of individual beliefs, America came together last week for a brief moment to cross party lines and honor the commitment, intellect and humanity of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Most significantly, just to level up for minute, the velocity of change today is accelerating, driven by the ubiquity and speed of modern media. Things are bad now, there is no denying that; we’ll look back on 2020 as our annus insanus. But unlike the 60s, which created a political template that lasted for over a decade, I think we’ll sift through this moment much more quickly. We will move forward with the best lessons it has taught us — empathy and tolerance — and hopefully leave behind the grosser elements of division, pride and narcissism. One can only hope.

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