June 16, 2024
The eerie similarities between the political upheaval of 1973 and 2023 -- and what we can learn from it

“Every generation
Blames the one before,
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door.”
— Mike and the Mechanics, “The Living Years”

 

As you read this, I on my way to Walla Walla, Wash., for my 50th high school reunion.

It’s cause for reflection.

In 1973, as with previous generations, we were critical of those who went before us. The Greatest Generation may have won World War II, but they also gave us Vietnam and Watergate. You know there’s work to be done when your president, Richard Nixon, feels a compelling need to tell Americans, “I am not a crook.” And it subsequently becomes evident that he was not only a crook but also a liar.

In the midst of the 51-day, must-see Watergate hearings during my senior year at Walla Walla High School, I wrote an essay for Tim Corfield’s innovative “Social, Economic and Political Systems” class. It argued a theory that I still believe: The great thing about America, I wrote, is that we generally get it right in the end. It just takes longer — sometimes a lot longer — than it should. I cited slavery, World War I and World II as primary examples.

Mr. Corfield gave me an “A” on the paper but wrote a note saying he wanted to see me after class. Like all good teachers, he wanted to challenge me. How, he wondered, did I think America could successfully emerge from the deep divisions that were festering in 1973? And he reminded me that history would argue that someday the American experiment would likely end. Even the Roman Empire eventually fell, he said.

I stumbled and stuttered for a minute before realizing I didn’t really have a clue how to answer him. The best I could offer was a belief that the ideals held by my generation during the Vietnam War and Watergate would ultimately prevail. Mr. Corfield had a way of raising his eyebrows that signaled he had hoped I could do better. He argued that it took the civic involvement of all citizens to ensure our future. And as editor of the high school newspaper (yes, it’s where I got my start in journalism), he said I had an obligation to be more involved.

“Actions speak louder than words,” he admonished.

I largely failed in accepting his challenge that year. But in the years that followed, in my role at this newspaper and in my volunteer work, I did what I could.

But, oh my, the challenge.

I never thought I would live to see deeper political division in this country than I experienced as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Vietnam War. The abortion debate. “America, Love it or Leave It.” Massive racial and political unrest at college campuses across the nation. Smog-laden cities and polluted rivers. Martin Luther King’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations. Nixon’s enemies list. Watergate. Nixon’s resignation.

The parallels to today are eerie.

Ukraine. The abortion debate. Make America Great Again. George Floyd and the massive protests. Climate change. Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the election results. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Impeachment hearings. Multiple Trump indictments.

A good argument can be made that, despite our best efforts, my generation is leaving as big or an even bigger mess than we inherited.

It speaks to the warning offered by George Orwell long before the class of 1973 was born. “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”

If Mr. Corfield were with us today, he would have chuckled and nodded his head in agreement.

How I wish I could chat with him at my upcoming reunion. I can hear him asking, “Compare and contrast Richard Nixon and Donald Trump and their impact on America.”  Sadly, Mr. Corfield died in 2009. I can only hope that his replacement and high school teachers everywhere are challenging their students to fulfill their civic engagement obligations.

There is still much work to be done.

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