Tuesday, April 18, 2017

We Deserve Crappy Leaders

I recently read two books about the Sixties. Both by serious men who lived through those tumultuous times. Okay, one of them is Dave Barry, who, serious-wise, can’t hold a candle to the other, Tom Brokaw, but both, I believe, make salient points about this decade that Baby Boomers beat the rest of us to death with.

I think the saddest thing I read in Brokaw’s “Boom! Talking About the Sixties,” comes from Tommy Smothers:

In April 1969, Brokaw writes, CBS cancelled the [Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour], a decision that the Smothers Brothers challenged in court, where they were awarded $776,300 in damages. While the case was pending, the show won its first Emmy for writing. Tommy says, “In the end we won, but it didn’t matter. I lost my sense of humor."

I’ve long loved the Smothers Brothers. To hear Tommy Smothers say he’d lost his sense of humor is crushing.

Brokaw, however, doesn’t follow up on that. What did it mean, for such a performer to lose his sense of humor? We don’t know, reading this book.

And that problem seems endemic throughout the book, where its breadth of subject matter, character, and potential isn’t equally matched by a depth in bringing more meaning to a challenging decade. Brokaw succeeds at getting a lot of people to talk. Maybe he should have focused on fewer people, or at least allowed his readers to spend more time with them, something akin to Richard Rhodes’ or Studs Terkel’s writing.

Rhodes and Terkel show you can accomplish such depth without having to write an encyclopedia.

I grew up watching Brokaw as the anchor on NBC’s Nightly News, back when the three networks seemed big to my na├»ve eyes. Now it’s rare that I actually watch a news broadcast, instead getting my news as most everyone else does: In snatches from bits and bobs seen on social networks, or, on occasion, skimming the headlines the Internet barfs up. There are no serious news broadcasters anymore; books like Brokaw’s are now being written by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Neither Stewart nor Colbert can approach the depth of Rhodes or Terkel either. But we now live in a world that shuns depth.

The second saddest thing in Brokaw’s book? It comes in an anecdote from Carl Pope, then leader of The Sierra Club:

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara visited Harvard in 1967 for a closed, off-the-record forum on the war, and the [Students for a  Democratic Society] decided that if McNamara wouldn’t debate his policies publicly, the group would physically prevent him from leaving the campus.

McNamara declined the invitation, so about a thousand students filled the space around Quincy House (where the forum was being held), surrounding McNamara’s limousine.

When the official visit was over, McNamara could have slipped away, but he chose to confront the protestors. He was escorted to his limousine by a small posse of Harvard conservatives. As the crowd closed on him, yelling, “Debate the war, debate the war!” McNamara got testy and challenged the crowd. “Okay, let’s debate the war. Who wants to debate?”

Still incredulous at the memory, Pope says, “And we didn’t’ have anyone to debate him.” So McNamara’s car began to drive away. Pope quickly organized a lie-in, positioning students in front of the car so it couldn’t move. That they knew how to do. McNamara got out and left through the basement.

Who looked more stupid here?

Seems nobody really wanted depth back then, either.

On to Dave Barry who doe s a better job summing up the Sixties than Brokaw when he says this in his book “Dave Barry Turns 50”:

I learned of the [Martin Luther] King assassination while walking across the Haverford College campus. The guy who told me about it was one of our campus radicals; almost every campus had some, by 1968. These where guys (most of them were guys, anyway) who thought that capitalism was a terrible idea and all cops were “pigs” and Chairman Mao was a swell person. The campus radicals believed they spoke for, and thought for, The People. They were always talking about what The People wanted, and what The People needed, although it seemed as though the only actual people the campus radical spent any time with were other campus radicals. They had spent several whole semesters thinking about what was wrong with America and they had concluded that the only solution to our problems was for The People to rise up in violent revolt against The System, after which we would set up a new, better society, according to the wise principles laid down by campus radicals.

So anyway, this campus radical came up to me, very excited, and said: “Did you hear?”

“Hear what?” I asked.

"Martin Luther King was assassinated!” he said. He was smiling, He was happy about this.

“It’s gonna happen now!” he said. “The blacks are really gonna riot now!"

This is when it began to dawn on me that there was a serious competition going on in America to see who could be the biggest group of assholes: the right-wing assholes who thought that the Vietnam War was a good thing, as long as they personally did not have to go over Vietnam and get shot at; or the left-wing assholes who thought that what we really needed was for more people to shoot each other here at home.

It seemed as if both sets of assholes were winning in 1968.

And what goes around comes around. Lots of people marching for The People. Just not actually talking to them.

We’re still a nation of followers. No wonder we get such crappy leaders.

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