In 1966, Tom Brokaw moved to Los Angeles to work for NBC News. Born in 1940, "a child of the 1950s, with a foot in the '60s," he found himself face to face with the contradictory cultural forces that would shape the next four decades. At work he covered Ronald Reagan's campaign for governor; at night he was, as he writes in his new book, "Boom! Voices of the Sixties," still part of "the cocktail generation, but marijuana had started showing up around the edges of our circle." At a dinner at the house of a physician in West Los Angeles, pot was served for dessert. "One thing led to another, and before long the pool was full of naked swimmers, including a draft-resistance lawyer who came headfirst down the slide with a spliff the size of a Havana cigar clenched firmly in his toothy smile." On Monday morning, Brokaw was back in a coat and tie, reporting on the roots of what would become the Reagan Revolution.
The complexities of the era have long fascinated Brokaw, and helped give rise to his new book. One key question for him: if the Americans who fought World War II were, in his phrase, "The Greatest Generation," then are the boomers—often caricatured as self-indulgent and selfabsorbed—the worst? "No, no, no, I have never thought that," Brokaw said last week. "I think it's the 'Provocative Generation,' but it remains too early to give them a final mark."
We are happy to have an excerpt from "Boom!" in this week's issue as a key part of a special collection of essays, reporting and photography exploring the meaning of 1968 on the eve of the 40th anniversary of a year that began with Tet and ended with Apollo 8. The cover (created for us by Peter Max) is more than an exercise in nostalgia, however: as Jonathan Darman writes, the era shapes us still, in ways seen and unseen, and the legacy of the 1960s is a factor in the presidential race. (Even if candidates like Barack Obama are struggling, unsuccessfully, to persuade the country to get over the past; see Jon's piece for more on that.) "The running ideological gunfight we are still in—liberal versus conservative—has been going on since the Sixties, which was the birth of litmus tests for both parties, which have been very destructive to politics nationally," says Brokaw.
Along with a gallery of portraits by Nigel Parry (subjects range from Ethel Kennedy to Tom Wolfe), Evan Thomas, Ellis Cose, Barbara Kantrowitz, Sharon Begley, David Gates and Jerry Adler plumb this epic era. And Malcolm Jones remembers Norman Mailer, who died late last week.
Inside the magazine, we were struck by the emotional response to the 1968 project, which was edited by Debra Rosenberg, Julia Baird and Bret Begun. "I was 13 in '68, and media came alive for me for the first time that year," Johnnie Roberts recalled. "In particular, it was the network coverage of the Chicago Seven trial. It thrust the power of media to the forefront of my consciousness. Even more especially it was that artist rendering of the shackled and gagged Bobby Seale … I believe that drawing captured the Zeitgeist of the era—the youthful politicization/protest, anti-establishment rebellion and, most of all, the black consciousness movement."
And so Brokaw has once again started a big, broad conversation. "My own empirical evidence is that so many activists are wondering why they walked away," Brokaw says. "They are asking themselves, 'Why didn't we stay engaged?' " A perennial question.