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By Tom Robotham
We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969 – The Eagles
In July, 1979, President Carter went on national television to deliver what came to known as his “malaise speech.” At the heart of the address was Carter’s assertion that the country was suffering from “the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
Many critics subsequently called the speech “tone deaf.” But Carter was right. The country had lost a sense of purpose—and we have yet to regain it. This sorry state of affairs is all the more evident as we approach the 50th anniversary of three major events in our nation’s history: The Stonewall uprising, the Apollo moon landing, and Woodstock.
In saying this, I certainly don’t mean to imply that there was unity of purpose in 1969. On the contrary, the country was torn apart by clashes over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Moreover, a year earlier, the Democratic Party had been cracked to the core over disagreements about its platform and direction—disagreements that make today’s fractures within the party seem like a sandbox squabble.
But back then, at least, there was a spirit of aspiration abroad in the land. Today, while we have a president who campaigned under the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” I see no signs of such a spirit. On the contrary, President Trump’s principal strategy has been to make America fearful again—to build walls, to sow the seeds of xenophobia, to degrade our public discourse, and to widen the gap between rich and poor.
Democrats, over the last few decades, have hardly done better. Indeed, the party’s acceptance of mediocrity might be summed up in a hashtag I’ll call Meh Too. Take President Clinton’s approach to gay rights, for example—an issue on which he campaigned but ended up abandoning with the pathetic policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
It was a sad retreat from the spirit of the Stonewall uprising, which began in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.
The uprising—which is widely regarded today as the beginning of the gay rights movement in America—is named after the bar where it erupted: The Stonewall Inn, in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
For several years prior, the Stonewall had catered to gay clientele—and as a result, police raids at the bar had been routine. They were also largely as a charade: The cops on the scene would take kickbacks from the bar’s owners—several Mafioso—then leave. On June 28, however, nothing went as planned. This time, the patrons pushed back.
As police brutally beat one patron and threw her into the back of a police wagon, tensions boiled over and violence broke out. By the end of the night, many customers and several officers had been injured, and 13 people had been arrested. But the story wasn’t over. The following day, word of the clash spread throughout the Village, and over the next few days, riots erupted again.
In the wake of the uprising, gay-rights activists became galvanized—and on the one-year anniversary, the first gay-pride marches in U.S. history took place, not only in New York but also in Chicago and Los Angeles.
THE SIGNIFICANCE of this event cannot be overstated. It took nearly another half a century before the Supreme Court would rule that gay marriage is a Constitutional right, but the events at the Stonewall catalyzed the movement that eventually made this happen. Indeed, many activists refer to the uprising as the “Rosa Parks moment” of the gay-rights movement.
Most Americans, of course, were largely unaware of the uprising at the time. It certainly wasn’t on my radar. Although I was living in New York City, I was only 13, and I had other things on my mind: in particular, my crush on a girl named Debbie, and my devotion to the New York Mets—a subject to which I will return in a moment.
Three weeks after the riots, however, the entire nation was captivated by something else: Neil Armstrong’s first steps onto the surface of the moon—“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” In that moment, anything seemed possible. Just nine years earlier, after all, President Kennedy had pledged that the country would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And so we did.
Three weeks later, yet another miracle took place. The organizers of the Woodstock music festival had anticipated a crowd of about 50,000. Nearly 10 times that many people showed up. When I talked with my students earlier this year about this—on the eve of the Something in the Water Festival—I noted that Something in the Water would likely draw big crowds, but that Woodstock was roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Virginia Beach descending on one farm in upstate New York. In spite of the crowds, the heat, the rain and other hardships, there was no violence. There were just half a million people—not to mention an astonishing assemblage of music superstars—gathering in harmony.
Meanwhile, back in the city, yet another miracle was about to unfold. On August 15, the first day of the Woodstock festival, the New York Mets were 10 games out of first—a fact that surprised no one. The Mets held the unenviable distinction of losing 120 games in their first season—a modern-baseball record—and subsequently had never finished higher than ninth place. Then, all of a sudden, they began to surge. By the end of the season, they had racked up 100 wins and had a solid grip on first place. Still, few people expected them to go all the way—but on Oct. 16, having already won three of the first four games against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, they became world champions.
I’m not sure there’s a connection between the Miracle Mets and these other miraculous events. But for me, at 13, the team’s astonishing feat reinforced the feeling that anything was possible. And that seems to me to be a good way to sum up the spirit of ’69 in general.
Alas, in the years that followed the spirit began to dissipate, notably with the disillusionment of Watergate. Some might argue that it was revived when President Reagan declared that it was “morning in America” again. But that was a lie. The spirit that Reagan ushered in was one of greed and arrogance—the latter reflected in everything from Iran-Contra to his removal of the solar panels that President Carter had installed on the White House roof. It’s worth remembering, as well, that it was Reagan who amped up the destructive “war on drugs” while also demonizing “welfare queens.”
Reflecting on this, I’m reminded of the great speech given by Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, in the television show Newsroom.
“America is not the greatest country in the world,” he said, but “it sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars….We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed… by great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”
On the surface, that last line seems to dovetail with Trump’s campaign slogan—and I will admit that it does stand at odds with Hillary Clinton’s claim that “America is already great.” That’s why I could never muster any enthusiasm for her campaign. She was the candidate of the status quo, her gender notwithstanding.
That said, she would have been a thousand times better than Trump because his vision of “greatness” is Reagan’s on steroids—one of greed, arrogance, anti-intellectualism and vilification of the poor.
Ultimately, however, none of this can be blamed on our leaders. Somewhere along the line, large numbers of Baby Boomers tossed aside the ringing idealism of the 1960s in favor of conservatism—either that of the hardcore variety or that of “neo-liberalism,” which is simply conservatism in disguise.
One thing is clear: We no longer reach for the stars. Instead, as Tom Petty sang in “The Last DJ,” we, as a nation, celebrate mediocrity. Until that changes, we’re not likely to see another summer of miracles anytime soon.