“We were children of the Sixties,” Viola liked to say in later years, as if that in itself made her interesting. — Kate Atkinson, “A God in Ruins”
SAN FRANCISCO — In the summer of 1965, Sonny and Cher’s “I’ve Got You Babe” and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” were released, the Beatles’ film “Help!” played in theaters, the Medicaid and Medicare acts and the Voting Rights bill were signed into law, the Vietnam War was escalated, the Watts riot occurred and Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game.
And right here, in San Francisco, Jefferson Airplane debuted at the Matrix.
These were very crowded hours, and the inevitable 50-year commemorations this summer prompt us to wonder about the meaning of that year and decade. And the more we wonder about it, the more we may conclude that the legacy of the 1960s might not be what we thought it was.
Entire books and full-credit courses at leading colleges have been devoted to the 1960s, perhaps because it was such a compelling collage of images, rendered unforgettable by color television to those who lived in the period and often examined in pitiless black-and-white by those who followed.
If history were a kaleidoscope, the loose rotating fragments would contain images of John F. Kennedy at Berlin and Dallas; of Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma and Memphis; of the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo astronauts in sub-orbital flights and in lunar descent; and of the California of Richard Nixon and of Ronald Reagan. There would be the conservatives founding the Young Americans for Freedom at William F. Buckley Jr.’s home in Sharon, Conn., at the beginning of the decade and the revelers at Max Yasgur’s farm in Woodstock, N.Y., at the end of the decade.
There were lots of children of the Sixties, as Viola said in the new Kate Atkinson novel, published last month. A few pages later appears this paragraph:
“I heard they take drugs and dance naked in the moonlight,” the farmer said. (True, although it wasn’t as interesting as it sounded.)
We are just completing the presidential administration of Barack Obama, a man born in the 1960s but not much affected by them. Just last week Jeb Bush announced his presidential candidacy; he passed his prep-school years in the 1960s aimlessly; he was, in his own words, “a cynical little turd.”
But make no mistake. The 1960s shaped the Bush family — and Mr. Bush’s main Democratic rival in 2016.
It was in the 1960s that Mr. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, assumed the chairmanship of the Republican Party in Harris County, Texas, at a time when there were basically no Republicans in Houston. In that decade he won a House seat and began the flowering of the Republican Party in the Lone Star State, which was dominated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s but which has voted Republican in the last nine presidential elections and has had Republican governors for 28 of the past 36 years. Today, both senators and 25 of the 36 House members are Republicans, while Republicans hold majorities of about two-to-one in both chambers of the state legislature.
It was also in that decade that George W. Bush — cheerleader and fraternity president — had a devastating conversation with a leading liberal at Yale, the chaplain William Sloan Coffin, that marked him for life and confirmed his conservative impulses.
Meanwhile, 120 miles away, students at Wellesley College pressed the college president, Ruth M. Adams, to permit a student for the first time to speak at commencement. Miss Adams spoke of this at the 1969 graduation ceremonies, saying, “There was no debate so far as I could ascertain as to who their spokesman was to be: Miss Hillary Rodham.” The onetime Goldwater Girl from the quiet Chicago suburbs, shaped by the Vietnam War and the beginnings of the feminist movement, delivered a speech that her classmates remember with stunning vividness even now, 46 years later.
We are still defining the 1960s, still seeking its meaning, though we must acknowledge two elements of consensus: The first is that the Civil Rights movement changed the country, inalterably and favorably. The second is that there were as many 1960s as there were people who lived in the decade, some of whom were molded by its new freedoms and its sense of rebellion, some of whom merely, as the Doobie Brothers would croon shortly thereafter, listened to the music. Less than 0.01 percent danced naked in the moonlight.
But while the popular vision of the period is one of rights and rebellion, it also was one of icons and ideology — and the icons and ideology of the right may be as powerful in our national life today as the icons and ideology of the left that have been far more celebrated in our national folklore.
For the period began with the chivalric heroism of Mr. Kennedy, but the figure who may be as important — no, not his rival and the president who ended the decade, Richard Nixon — was the man elected governor of California in 1966. The period following the 1960s was pockmarked by Watergate but it’s really been a struggle between the Kennedy vision and the Ronald Reagan vision.
Leave aside for a moment the notion that until 1963 — when in two remarkable June addresses Mr. Kennedy confronted the tragedy of America’s racial history and the futility of the Cold War — JFK was something of a conservative. The notes of the Kennedy trumpet that summoned us to idealism and national purpose are today often played on the Victrola of nostalgia. The soundtrack of Reaganism is played through Spotify.
This struggle among the various 1960s continues today. And while Texas is a reliably red state, Mr. Reagan’s California is devoutly blue, having voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections and almost certainly going Democratic in 2016. Both of this state’s senators are Democrats, as is the governor, Edmund G. Brown Jr.
Mr. Brown, 77, is in his 13th year as California’s chief executive. It was in the 1960s that he left the Jesuit novitiate and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. And while many things can be said about him, no one disputes that Jerry Brown is a child of the 1960s, and that that in itself makes him interesting.