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After 1968

Radicalism | The elites showered applause on a young radical in 1970, but the kudos prompted only resentment

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued last month ("The Resentment Strategy") that the "R" in Republican stands for "resentment . . . the Republican Party, now more than ever, is firmly in the hands of the angry right, which has always been much bigger, much more influential and much angrier than its counterpart on the other side."

Really? Surely there's plenty of resentment to go around in every political grouping. Krugman, though, indicted the GOP for purportedly embracing "the pure politics of resentment; you're supposed to vote Republican to stick it to an elite that thinks it's better than you. Or to put it another way, the GOP is still the party of Nixon."

Krugman then time-machined us back to Nixonland: That's the title of a new book by Rick Perlstein, who argues that Richard Nixon's political career grew out of resentment against members of the social elite who looked down on him. But Perlstein, unlike Krugman, spots such resentment on the left as well as on the right: "By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States."

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That's an exaggeration, but it does bring us to the dramatic center of Perlstein's book: the year 1970, when students resentful of a murky "establishment" burned down ROTC buildings on many campuses, and hundreds of colleges shut down for several weeks to facilitate protests. In turn, resentful New York construction workers beat up demonstrators they saw as ingrates. When one protest escalated at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen shot to death four young people.

It was hard to read Perlstein's accounts of 1970 without memories beginning to swirl in my head. That year 5,000 students at Northwestern University voted to secede from the United States, and I, then at Yale, was intellectually seceding as well. In May 500,000 students descended on Washington to wade in the Reflecting Pool and listen to anti-war speeches from pediatrician Dr. Spock, witless Shirley MacLaine, and braless Jane Fonda-and I was one of those 500,000.

Lots of subscribers who read my memories of 1968 and 1969 in our Aug. 9 issue asked me to continue the story, so here goes-and I will return to columnist Krugman's resentment after I describe my own.

Resentment of what? For a student a scholarship to Yale should be like a ticket to the Garden of Eden. Classy libraries and living conditions. Classy professors insinuating that students will learn so much about good and evil that "you shall be as gods." Part of my resentment was about class, as I mentioned in August, the resentment of a kid from a relatively poor and "unimportant" family background confronting affluence and status, wanting all that but not wanting it. That poisonous plant needed fertilizer to grow.

The fertilizer came in the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker, the newspaper and weekly magazine I read religiously. I read them at first because they conformed to the Adlai Stevenson liberalism I had absorbed from my father. But their constantly stated support for the poor conflicted in my mind with their ads for the affluent, and after a time I started sneering at the combination.

The fertilizer came in my classes, where professors evenhandedly laid out two sets of solutions to the problems of America, liberal and radical-and liberalism increasingly seemed flaccid to me. But a lot of fertilizer came from the encouragement of radicalism-without-consequences in 1970. In a way, life was play: We could take stands and engage in activities that in other eras might be resumé-killers, but in 1970 garnered applause.

Take just one month of that year, merry May. On the first weekend about 10,000 radicals came to New Haven in support of the Black Panthers, whose leader was on trial for murder in the courthouse just off campus: Serious business, but Yippee leader Abbie Hoffman had great fun leading chants involving barnyard epithets. When the National Guard responded to rock-throwing with tear gas that swirled through the night air, we ran through the streets, mouths covered with handkerchiefs, as poet Alan Ginsburg sat sedately chanting "Aum." More fun, we thought-for the Kent State shootings were still to come.

The following weekend was the massive demonstration in Washington. I wasn't one of the early morning protesters at the Lincoln Memorial with whom Richard Nixon chatted, nor did I run into Attorney General John Mitchell who also mingled with the crowd-but a former Yale Daily News editor who had become a presidential assistant gave my revolutionary roommates and me an evening tour of the White House. Security was much less then than now, and we had come to expect open invitations to the halls of power.

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