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'The '60s': Neither Groovy Nor Accurate

If NBC's recent four-hour miniseries "The '60s" was intended merely to provide boomers with a soothing soak in the bathtub of nostalgia, I suppose it succeeded. But assessed as a history of the time, it was pretty insubstantial.

"The '60s" touches on the civil-rights movement and subsequent black militancy but centers on a middle-class, white, Catholic Chicago family, the Herlihys. The father, Bill, is a barber and an old-style Democrat of the type that later voted in large numbers for Ronald Reagan; the mother, Mary, is (what else?) a housewife. Their oldest son, Brian, joins the Marines out of high school and eventually is sent to Vietnam; Brian's brother, Michael, works "within the system" to end the war, notably as a volunteer for Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. The youngest sibling, Katie, impregnated by a smooth-talking rock singer and as a result ostracized by her father, heads for San Francisco to spend several years in that city's hippie community while she raises her son, Michael Rainbow. Like Forrest Gump, one or more of the Herlihy children shows up at several major '60s happenings, including the '67 march on the Pentagon, the '68 Democratic convention, and - you didn't think they'd forget this one, did you? - Woodstock.

The miniseries' pivotal moment comes when war vet Brian, having been discharged from the military, returns to his parents' house sullen, alienated, prone to nightmares, and looking remarkably like Ron Kovic, the antiwar vet played by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July." The change in Brian leads the father to see the wisdom of Michael's views, so much so that when Michael appears before the panel that will review his application for conscientious-objector status, Bill makes a dramatic, last-minute entrance and speaks emotionally on his son's behalf. In the closing scene, the happily reunited Herlihys are having a cookout and playing touch football on the front lawn.

My guess is that baby boom liberals enjoyed "The '60s." One of those liberals is the project's forty-eight-year-old producer, Lynda Obst, a mover and shaker in the movie business ("Contact"; "Sleepless in Seattle"). In an essay posted on the NBC web site, Obst writes that she's been "waiting for the '60s to come back since December 31, 1969," and that "by reliving the '60s now, we can, like Graham Nash says, 'Teach Our Children' the joy of living undeadened, without diminished ideals or dulled expectations."

But those to the left of, say, Paul Wellstone should have been appalled by the miniseries' depiction of radicals, exemplified by Kenny, a Columbia SDS firebrand who, proverbially, cares about "the people" but has little use for actual human beings. Kenny is killed when he accidentally sets off the bomb that he intended to use against God knows what bastion of the capitalist, imperialist Establishment.

(Those far-leftists presumably also wouldn't be wild about the '60s-themed merchandise advertised on the NBC web site: a lava lamp, which sells for $89.95; a peace-sign-shaped clock, $29.95; and a watch with a photo of Jim Morrison on the face, $79.95.)

"The '60s" presents its handful of conservatives and others in opposition to the Zeitgeist as stock figures and straw men. Bill Herlihy doesn't emerge as a fully formed character until he supports Michael at his C.O. hearing. Likewise, Brian, an impulsive, vaguely patriotic teen before going to Vietnam, comes back a contemplative (and, of course, antiwar) adult. As they say, he's "grown." And as for policemen, their primary function here is to club young, idealistic protesters.

This is what is making the '60s the decade of myth and legend. In the real '60s, all the liberals, leftists, and far-leftists combined didn't constitute a hint of a majority of public opinion of Americans. You'd barely know from this miniseries that Richard Nixon, the whipping boy for all things '60s, won the White House in 1968 and was re-elected in 1972 in a landslide over the ideological incarnation of Obst's '60s, George McGovern. Nothing, moreover, is said of Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. Although Goldwater lost, his efforts and those of his followers laid the groundwork for the election of Reagan, whose historical contributions will forever dwarf the likes of Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman or any other '60s blowhard you might name.

It's not surprising, then, that Reagan - himself a leftist bete noir towards the end of the decade as governor of California - also was left out of "The '60s." His values simply don't fit the ideological worldview of a creative community wishing instead to rehash yet again the events which shaped, and which doubtless still evoke cherished memories for, that draft-dodging non-inhaler, Bill Clinton. Power to the people, and blah, blah, blah.