Next week marks a much-overlooked anniversary: It will be 50 years since Lee Harvey Oswald, under the name A. Hidell, purchased the Italian surplus Carcano M91/38 rifle with which he would eight months later assassinate U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
Don’t worry: This isn’t another screed about gun control. In any event, the bolt-action rifle Oswald used wouldn’t be touched by any serious legislative proposal of the moment. My subject is the 1960s -- a decade, it is often said, that began with the Kennedy assassination and ended with Watergate. Thus the purchase of the gun seems as good a place as any to mark, let us say, the decade’s prologue.
Nostalgia for the 1960s is very much in vogue, from the popularity of the television drama “Mad Men” to frequent claims by pundits who are transfixed by the idea that politicians got along better then. The usual drill is to look with despair at the current budget battles in Washington, where neither of our elected branches is covering itself in glory, and then gaze rosily back on the era when politicians were able to meet in smoky back rooms and make deals over bourbon and poker.
The journalist E.J. Dionne, in his book “Why Americans Hate Politics,” argues that we have spent too much time refighting the battles of the ’60s. But perhaps a better way to think about our relationship to that era is that we have romanticized it to the point where our politics is constantly squeezed into its template.
If we want to resolve a moral issue, we reference the civil-rights movement. Same-sex marriage advocates insist that their struggle tracks the fight against anti-miscegenation laws. In the abortion battle, both sides claim, with some reason, to be heir to the civil-rights tradition -- one on behalf of women, the other on behalf of the unborn. It is as though we have lost the talent for public moral argument, and so we rely instead on the moral arguments made in those seemingly more serious days, with victory going to the one whose analogy is more apt.
Even our arguments over fiscal policy are fought with the 1960s in mind. Republicans look with fondness on Kennedy’s huge tax cut in 1963. Democrats cite in return the high marginal rates paid by top earners even after those cuts took effect. Arguing over which side is truer to Kennedy’s legacy is easier than debating among ourselves.
Liberals seeking to defend President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda often point to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs -- where, they note, Republicans worked with the White House to accomplish the larger goal of fighting poverty and discrimination. Conservatives respond that Johnson gave in on many key points, and that in any case the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, was only 70-odd pages long. Whichever side you take, the battle continues over which best embodies the ’60s ethos.
The romanticization of the ’60s has generated any number of legends -- an effort, in effect, to see the era as some sort of rearward extrusion of our own. Consider the Vietnam War. In popular myth, it was educated elites who first opposed the war, and over time they were joined in opposition by their less-informed fellow citizens. As the political scientist John E. Mueller demonstrated in his 1973 book, “War, Presidents, and Public Opinion,” however, the truth is exactly the reverse: It was the well-educated who strongly supported the war, and the less educated who opposed it.
Other myths turn out to be better founded. The Warren Court, for example, was indeed the most liberal in our history. Scholars have chosen a variety of different means over the years to sort the justices’ votes into liberal and conservative categories, but there is a commonality among the results: No matter which method one chooses, at least four and sometimes five of the court’s members rank as more liberal than any currently sitting justice.
But when we put the myths aside, there is a stark and simple distinction between the ’60s and today -- and a big reason, perhaps, that politicians and pundits constantly evoke the era. In the ’60s, America was optimistic and trust in government was high. Today, the nation is cynical, and trust in government has reached historic lows. Until 1966, more than 70 percent of Americans consistently told pollsters that they trusted the federal government to do the right thing at least most of the time. In the late ’60s, the numbers dipped a bit, but they remained well above 50 percent until Watergate brought us the end of optimism, the end of trust, and so the end of the 1960s. Today the figure is 26 percent -- and that’s actually an improvement over the past couple of years.
My point isn’t to place blame, and the causes of the loss of faith are complex. But the numbers make it easier to understand ’60s nostalgia: The high degree of trust in government in that era suggests a belief in America as a common project -- a belief, alas, that we no longer share.
My father, a lifelong Democratic activist, was of that fabled generation that came of age in the Great Depression and World War II. I came of age watching him and his friends gradually lose their idealism. He used to say that Kennedy was the last president he truly believed in. He hoped that one day my generation would have presidents who sparked in us a fresh confidence that America could accomplish anything. That was Kennedy to him.
But his belief in the president was also a belief in the era. A wearying weakness of contemporary politics is its cruel cynicism, the tendency to believe that issues have only one side and that therefore the opposition can’t possibly consist of decent people acting from the best of motives. My father’s generation, by contrast, felt respect and often affection for those with whom they did ferocious battle.
Let me confess that my own case of ’60s nostalgia is intense. The nation wasn’t better off -- racial oppression, to take one of a dozen issues, was rampant -- but the political leaders mostly acted like grownups. Part of what makes the slide from the bumptious but optimistic politics of those days to the adolescent name-calling of today so frustrating is the sense that we have somehow squandered the inheritance left to us by those giants.
There are countless theories on how we became so cynical and, in our politics, so small. But there is one cause we tend to forget, which is why this month’s anniversary matters.
My father used to say that they killed all the leaders he believed in. Maybe what really destroyed the nation’s optimism was less the churning of economic and cultural forces than the string of political assassinations that took two Kennedys and a King in five short years. Perhaps we still feel the scars of that horrific wave of violence. All of which is to say that there may indeed be reason to date our decline from the day in March 1963 when Oswald bought that gun.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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