When I first heard that President Obama was considering nominating John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, I figured, oh great, we get to re-litigate the Swift Boat controversy again.
But then a surprising thing happened: Kerry was nominated, and the issue didn’t come up. Kerry was confirmed by the Senate by a lopsided 94-3 margin, following a confirmation hearing in which the issue was discussed only tangentially. Not only that, but Fox News and other conservative media barely touched the issue, and even the Swift Boat Veterans themselves sat this one out. In fact, only one major media organization brought up the Swift Boat issue the week of Kerry’s confirmation. But because it was the Onion, the piece probably didn’t change many minds.
Why didn’t the question about Kerry’s Vietnam service derail his confirmation? Was it because the allegations were false from the very beginning and there was no reason to keep up the charade after Kerry lost the presidential election? Yes. Was the whole campaign in 2004 driven by shady donors who weren’t interested in re-upping this time? That too. Was Kerry confirmed by a group of senators who nearly all know him and have served with him, and are perfectly aware that he’s neither a fraudulent war hero nor a traitor? Yes to that as well.
But the lack of a Swift Boat reprise had another component too: The Vietnam War has been over for a really, really long time. And the ’60s have been over for even longer. Enough time has passed that more and more Americans—including politicians and media members—don’t have any recollection or attachment to either, and certainly don’t base their political worldview on those terms. And the influence of the Baby Boom generation, which ruled the roost for a very long time, is finally beginning to lose its hold.
Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how much American politics and culture were dominated, for a very long time, by boomers and nostalgia for the 1960s. In politics, liberals have long tried to harness the energy of the ’60s, while conservatives, starting with Nixon and his “silent majority,” have repeatedly tapped the resentments of those who really, really hate hippies. The nadir of this may have been that 2004 election, way too much of which hinged on questions of Bush’s National Guard service and what Kerry did or didn’t do during his tour in Vietnam.
But the Kennedy assassination was 50 years ago this year. If you were at Woodstock, you’re probably old enough to be eligible for Social Security, or will be in the next few years. Bob Dylan is now in his 70s. And at this point, when we think about long, tragic, less-than-successful American wars, we think first not of Vietnam, but of Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, anyone younger than 50 has a whole set of formative experiences that have nothing to do with the 1960s or Vietnam.
For a while, ’60s nostalgia was strong among young people, but that’s no longer the case. I went to college in the late ’90s and I’m just the right age in which my parents and most of the parents of my classmates were in college in the late ’60s. And while for many, the ’60s generation was all about rebelling against their parents, a mantra I heard all the time in college was actually jealousy that our boomer parents, and long-ago alumni at our school, had been part of the action while we weren’t. “They protested for civil rights and against Vietnam, and invented great music and the sexual revolution—what did we ever do?
Then again, the truth didn’t occur to most of us until later on: That the ’60s were actually a volatile, nerve-wracking time for a lot of people—especially those without student deferments for Vietnam—that those legendary Weatherman types had their revolutionary dreams fail, and many of them spent the better part of the ’70s either in jail, as fugitives, or dead.
Now, it’s a different century, and I can’t imagine most people in college these days have parents with fond formative memories of the summer of ’68. We know Barack Obama doesn’t; he was six years old that year, and went on to become the first post-boomer president.
In a December 2007 essay in The Atlantic called “Goodbye to All That,” Andrew Sullivan pointed out the significance of the possible election of a president who was 13 years old when the Vietnam War ended and who was therefore disconnected from the boomer culture war proxy battles of the previous 30 years, which often seemed to dominate the Clinton and Bush eras.
The culture wars, of course, haven’t been ended by Obama’s presidency. But we’re no longer fighting them on boomer terms. One reason tying Obama to Bill Ayers never got any political traction is because most people these days don’t have particularly strong feelings about the Weather Underground. And meanwhile, the Obama era has given birth to a brand of proud, unabashed, victorious liberalism of the kind we haven’t seen in years—one that looks very different from the ’60s version.
“What the fuck does Vietnam have to do with anything?,” The Dude once famously asked. All these changes, including John Kerry’s easy confirmation, show that at last, the answer to that question is “nothing at all.”