Demonizing The Sixties

Politicians, especially Republicans, like to link their opponents to a villain. But Willie Horton is history and Saddam Hussein soon may be. Where to turn? Running against the media is dicey. Calling your foe "unpatriotic" is unseemly, especially if you skipped military service yourself or voted to sell Saddam grain before he invaded Kuwait. So the GOP has found a new all-purpose enemy: the '60s. Democrats who voted against the president on the gulf war, intoned GOP Sen. Phil Gramm last week, were "lost in the '60s." Other Republicans echoed the line.

It's a political Golden Oldie. The critique is that in a mad, "permissive" decade the nation threw away its will, its discipline, its faith in the family and the military, in moral absolutes and rightful authority. That view, and a strategy of selling it, helped bring conservatism to power and elect Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Wielding "values wedges" first honed in the 1960s, the GOP sliced middle-class Democrats from their ancient New Deal moorings. "The Republicans have made these values wedges their stock in trade," said Democratic polltaker Geoffrey Garin. "The 1960s were a time when traditional values lost their dominance in American life, and that's the image they're trying to emphasize."

Operation Desert Storm, Republicans think, could be the ultimate anti-'60s values wedge. Americans were shown an admirable vision of themselves that obliterated ghosts of the '60s, Vietnam and doubts that followed. They saw avuncular, Ike-like generals, can-do troops eager for orders, and total technological superiority. The flower children, Republicans chortled, were relegated to the middle rows of press seats in the Pentagon briefing room.

In the new anti-'60s strategy, Desert Storm is more than a military triumph. It is a victory for the very notion of authority. The Democrats' hesitancy to authorize the war, Republicans charge, is evidence of a deeper reluctance to impose standards of conduct, by force if needed. The GOP now tries to press the point with the crime issue. Bush delivered his first postwar domestic-policy speech to a gathering of 650 law-enforcement officials. The topic: his crime bill and its death-penalty provisions. Bush and his generals supposedly embody a renewal of authority: the war, in one sense, is a lost episode of "Father Knows Best." "This is the first time since Eisenhower that an authority figure has successfully imposed his will," says GOP Rep. Newt Gingrich.

The GOP attack coincides with a new cultural re-examination of the '60s - much of it negative. In the movie "The Doors," director Oliver Stone depicts the grandeur, but also the devastation, of the era's rock-band life. Critics of America's elite universities dwell on the damage that politically correct professors, many of them '60s-era survivors, allegedly have done to scholarship and to reverence for the Great Works. Baby boomers, as they rear children, show a new respect for traditional religion. "The whole country increasingly is repudiating the '60s as an experience," Gingrich insists. "The Democrats are becoming an aberrant party."

Polls show that Americans agree with some of the GOP's historical analysis, a fact Democrats ignore at their peril. But the Republican strategy could prove to be dangerous, for both the GOP and the nation. The triumphant talk of an "aberrant" opposing party smacks of self-satisfied gloating - or worse, of an ayatollah-like intolerance. Americans have embraced, not repudiated, the Sixties' insistence on social tolerance and private freedoms. The GOP risks its political gains if it denies that part of the decade's legacy.

Bush risks a backlash - and misses a historic opportunity - if he doesn't use his enhanced authority for other tasks of American renewal. If he can move beyond the politics that helped elect him, he could redeem another broken promise of the '60s: Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign pledge to "Bring Us Together." The Bush administration took a step in that direction last week, ordering a national investigation of police brutality. It was a very '60s thing to do.