Tikkun Magazine, September/October 1994

Nixon and the Sixties: Mass Media and the Sanitized Past

By Edward P. Morgan

"A people or class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history."

John Berger

"How will history remember Richard Nixon?" asked the media pundits in the aftermath of the late president's death. The general consensus of sound-bite history seemed to be that Nixon was a "great statesman" plagued by personality flaws that led to his downfall in American domestic politics. Eventually, the Glasgow Herald (April 25) predicted, "American historians may judge the throwing out of office of a great statesman quite differently from the way it [sic] does now."

If historians rely on sources in the mass media, the Herald's prediction will probably come to pass. A London Sunday Times headline summed up the media response to Nixon's death: "America unites in grief for a statesman now seen as good." A closer look at America's public mourning for Nixon, however, reveals the standard mass media treatment. Dramatic media images from the past--the Watergate hearings, Nixon's trip to China--are recycled and served up as history. A relatively small circle of notables frame respectable opinion, ranging from the paeans of former President Ronald Reagan and Senator Bob Dole to the let-bygones-be-bygones recollections of Nixon's former presidential opponent George McGovern to the genuflection of President Bill Clinton. Independent journalists strive for "balance" between the Good Nixon of foreign policy fame and the Bad Nixon of Watergate.

Yet the newly revised Nixon was such a blatant fabrication that his posthumous appearance produced a backlash of angry letters to the editor and some outraged columns by journalists decrying the freshly sanitized history. As some critics recognized, the problem with the media coverage was not so much the relative eclipse of the abuses of Watergate and Nixon's historic resignation as it was the widespread acclaim for Nixon as "statesman."

By any moral measure, Nixon's worst crimes were committed in Indochina. Yet in the torrent of words unleashed by Nixon's death, these war crimes have disappeared down the black hole of history. The hundreds of thousands of civilians who died under the unprecedented American onslaught in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; the bitterness of American vets who were mere pawns in a Great Power game; the antiwar activists who were the targets of Teamster toughs, the FBI-CIA counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), and a White House plan for mass detention--these are the now-invisible victims of Nixon "statesmanship."

Furthermore, as H. R. Haldeman's recently published diaries remind us, the Nixon-Kissinger team consciously prolonged their criminal aggression against Vietnam for their own electoral advantage. Yet a computer search through more than 2,000 American news stories following Nixon's death yielded only one oblique reference to the words "war criminal," attributed to Nixon critics, while there were 360 references to "statesman." (In the interest of balance, it would seem, the word "crook" appeared 106 times).

We shouldn't be surprised that Nixon's crimes in Indochina were largely invisible, since the brutality of American aggression has been largely excised from public recollections of that war. Respectable opinion in the mass media ranges from the "we should have won" rhetoric of hawks to the "we made well-intended mistakes" position of doves. Recently, the prevailing controversy seems to be whether or not it's time for us to forgive Vietnam!

The recent spectacle of Nixon revisionism exposes our mass-mediated postmodern culture for what it is: a montage of images, symbols, and sound-bites that not only obscures reality but in some critical ways reverses it. The results of this sanitizing process are readily apparent in the Orwellian comments of people too young to remember the real, live Nixon. One high school senior in an Advanced Placement government class remarked, "What Nixon did wasn't so bad. It's not like he killed anybody." Another simply asserted, "He tried to bring some integrity back to the Presidency" (New York Times, April 27).

What can progressives do in the face of such a total rewriting of history? Elsewhere in this issue, ("Buying Power: Thoughts on the 'Crisis' of Commodification," p.63), David A. Smith argues that the commodified culture of the mass media might "actually serve the interest of a free society" because they subvert the reactionary efforts of the Right as well as the radical impulses of the Left. Smith's account finds a reassuring symmetry in the market's balanced absorption of extremes. In my view, however, this is myopic feel-goodism. Events such as Nixon's death reveal how the mass-mediated culture accommodates a range of opinion from the Right to the safely liberal center, bu squeezes out the more fundamental critiques of the Left.

Thus, I would suggest that progressives must first recognize the degree to which the commodified culture confronts us with a massive impediment to our efforts to mobilize large-scale movements for change. Our eyes must be fully open to the systemic as well as personal obstacles in our path. Consider, for example, the way the mass media have rewritten the history of Sixties movements.

The struggles of the 1960s posed a threat not only to elite politics-as-usual but ultimately, one might say, to business-as-usual. Nixonian rhetoric and media images aside, '60s movements didn't endanger "law and order" as much as they threatened to raise the ideological veil that obscures the dark side of America (and Western) corporate capitalism: oppressive poverty and exploitation (fueled by racism, sexism, and ethnic division), a materialistic ratrace, bureaucratic education, imperial wars, the erosion of community, and the progressive destruction of the ecosphere.

Activists confronted the system with demands for equality, personal empowerment morally defensible policy, and community. They were most persuasive when their actions reflected these values. One critical principle of effective democratic mobilization, recognized perhaps instinctively by early civil rights and antiwar activists, is that protesters must communicate their claims in ways that reach their prospective audience. For this to happen, the "audience" must come to feel psychologically closer to the protesters than they do to the target of protest (be it racism or a brutal war). Protesters are thus faced with fundamental strategic dilemmas: how to present themselves and how to reveal the ugliness of their targets. These dilemmas become far more problematic when protesters' own exposure to the brutality of racism, war, and oppression triggers powerful feelings of rage.

Much Sixties activism followed this principle; indeed, many observers have commented on the way in which '60s movements embodied an expression of democratic values that was compatible with efforts to transform society. This activism generated a sense of possibility, a belief that the oppressed could become full members of society, and that the system could be qualitatively transformed. With an important assist from the media (exposing in some cases th integrity or psychological proximity of protesters, in others the ugliness or "other-ness" of racism, oppression, and war), millions of Americans and Europeans came to believe that "the times they are a'changin."

Yet Sixties movements inevitably and repeatedly came up against those with a stake in the status quo. As the principles underlying Sixties protests shifted from consensually grounded constitutional values like equal rights to a more radical critique of economic inequality and American foreign policy, reaching a larger audience became far more problematic. This remains a structural impediment faced by progressive movements.

But '60s activists faced two more tangible obstacles. First, led by figures such as Richard Nixon, political elites sought to marginalize and, where necessary, crush political dissent. Second, mass media attention began to distort and undermine the very '60s activism it helped to spread. As sociologists such as Todd Gitlin and Jock Young have documented, mass media in the 1960s gravitated toward the expressive and dramatic extremes of political action. Not surprisingly, at least some demonstrators learned to play to the imperatives of commercial television (recall the NLF flags that adorned late antiwar demonstrations). And, also not surprisingly, the media discovered others more interested in making a statement than in reaching a larger audience--including provocateurs hired by the very elites that sought to discredit '60s activists.

As President Nixon recognized, these very media images provided the powerful with material they could use to marginalize progressive movements in the eyes of the audiences they needed to reach. As the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s subsided, Western elites sought to strengthen their grip on the wheels of power In concert with corporate efforts to change the terms of public dialogue, "Sixties-bashing" became respectable. Never was this more the case than during the Reagan era.

The process of rewriting history that has taken place since the Sixties is instructive, for it involves a combination of explicitly ideological Sixties-bashing and the implicitly ideological commodification of the era. Sixties-bashing has been almost formulaic in its use of propaganda techniques. First, the most excessive forms of mindless militancy, drugged euphoria, or narcissistic self-indulgence (and, as noted, these did exist) are detached from the lived histories that help to explain them historically or personally (a process helped by mass media accounts of the '60s). This is rather like seeing man in the street screaming and gesturing wildly, then ridiculing his behavior without noticing that behind him his house was burning down.

These images or selective personal memories are then held out as representative of "the Sixties." Only through such a process could Jonathan Yardley write in 1987 that the 1960s were "adolescent rebellion masquerading as a political movement," or Charles Krauthammer dismiss the '60s as "recreation mistaking itself for commitment," or Joseph Sobran dismiss the notion of New Left idealism as "malicious fanticizing." Such Sixties caricatures are subsequently blamed for a host of contemporary social ills from AIDS to the drug crisis to the decline of the university. That linkage is greatly assisted by a simplistic association of mass media images (drug use then, drug use now), sidestepping the need for any evidence that would support a causal connection. The most recent extensions of this '60s-bashing are the assault on multiculturalism and "political correctness," both similarly hyped by the Right.

In the tradition of classic propaganda, the primary purpose of '60s-bashing is to scapegoat the "threatening" progressivism of the decade and to divert attention from the real forces responsible for society's condition, many of which were themselves the targets of '60s movements.

In contrast to Smith's assertions about market "balance," ideological '60s-bashing gains instant credibility in the mass media. Reflecting areas wher right-wing and corporatist agendas converge, '60s-bashing provides an enduring framework for neutralizing the inflammatory images captured in the media. Rush Limbaugh will undoubtedly burn out from overexposure, but other voices of the Right will take his place and continue to bash progressive movements of the 1960s and their alleged heirs. Yet authentic voices of the Left are virtually nonexistent in the mainstream media.

Furthermore, the media's reduction of complex phenomena from context to story to image lends itself to both ideological propaganda and market commodification. A '60s-bashers recognize, the collection of images known as "the Sixties" can be used effectively to sell ideology. Framed somewhat more sympathetically, those same images can also be used to sell products, especially to a vast baby-boomer audience.

Marketing the Sixties began before that decade had ended, when Madison Avenue recognized the commercial value of hip packaging that appealed to the "youth market." With its rich repertoire of styles and offbeat expressions, the counterculture was prime fodder for advertisers. Young people were lured by advertisements suggesting they could "join the revolution" by playing Columbia Records or buying expensive stereos.

It is but a short step from Sixties advertising to post-'60s nostalgia marketing. Consider an ad for Frye Boots in which the following text appeared beneath a collage of typically dramatic '60s images:

A decade of enormous social change, political upheavals, and where the activities of the day ranged from the ridiculous (how many people could squeeze into a Volkswagen) to the sublime (meditating along with your favorite Maharishi). It was a decade that saw the first walk on the moon--and the New York Mets win their first World Series, a feat many saw as even more improbable

A decade in which four guys from England came west to the U.S. and changed music forever. And 400,000 people from all across America traveled north, to upstate New York, and a piece of history known simply as Woodstock.

Finally, it was a decade in which hemlines got shorter, ties got wider, and the official uniform was faded jeans, T-shirts, and a pair of Frye boots.

It was a uniform that symbolized a belief on the part of those who wore it (did anybody not?) in things that were simple, honest and enduring. So to the often-asked question 'these days, "Where can you find those values that were so important to us all back in the 60's?", we have our own answer. At any of the stores you see listed below. In men's sizes 7-13 and women's 5-10.

In addition to exaggerating the significance of its product, the Frye ad is completely devoid of political content except for its generalization about "political upheavals;" no Vietnam, no civil rights or Black power movements, no student rebellion, no women's movement--any of which might tarnish the image of the '60s for some, thus narrowing the market appeal of Frye boots.

Thus the meaning of '60s struggles is converted by mass marketing from democratic opposition and mobilization to one of mass consumption. The best-selling images of the '60s--a series of dated, empty, and often silly fragments--are presumably designed to evoke sentimental longing for youth. The '60s "revolution" is transformed by the use of the Beatles' song of that name into the purchase of expensive Nike sneakers. The '60s slogan, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," has been co-opted by industries eager to polish their tarnished public images; thus Dow Chemical's "paper recovery operation" demonstrates, in a Dow spokesperson's words, that "It's easy to move from being part of the problem to being part of the solution." Perhaps so, except for those die-hards who remember napalm and Agent Orange, among Dow's singular contributions to human suffering in Vietnam, now rendered invisible.

Advertising provides us with the purest example of the commodified culture. Yet note how the images retained by that culture are as empty and banal as those hyped by ideologically driven '60s-bashers; they have nothing to recommend them to contemporary audiences. Their only possible appeal is through nostalgia. Smith correctly refers to nostalgia as the "defining doctrine of reactionary thought," but it is also an effective vehicle for co-optation of progressive history into the corporate culture of capitalism.

Consider the case of a film like The Big Chill, a quintessential 1980s Hollywood view of the Sixties. The Big Chill captured its baby-boom audience through its play on that generation's nostalgia for lost youth and rebellious excitement. The reunion of old comrades for the funeral of their friend Alex (fittingly, the only character who remained true to his '60s values), lines like "I was at my best," or "there's no good music anymore," or "where did Alex's hope go?"--all reflect back on the audience its own sense of bereavement for a time gone by. The actual, oppositional 1960s are as invisible in The Big Chill as they are in the Frye Boots ad.

Where does The Big Chill take its nostalgia? Not toward political action that might revive a sense of hope, but toward political accommodation to the commodified culture of the 1980s. These aging boomers have become affluent yuppies, arriving in their high-priced cars, wearing pin-striped suits, and carrying attache cases. Investment opportunities vie with reminiscences as topics of conversation. In the end, with throw-away lines like "Who'd have thought we'd ever make so much bread. . . . It's a good thing it's not importan to us," the movie reassures its audience that selling out is okay.

The Big Chill thus goes a long way toward establishing one of the most pervasive mass-media myths about the 1960s: that young Sixties activists gave up on the values of their youth and sold out in their adult years. In the end, the presentation of '60s nostalgia helps to marginalize and isolate the oppositional forces that lie within the so-called "'60s generation? What better way to foste contempt among those who look on activism from the outside? What better way to nurture disillusionment and hopelessness among those who might carry on the struggle?

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the myth of selling out, or "yippie-turned-yuppie," dominates mass-media interpretations of the '60s. Thus a 1987 People magazine retrospective leads with, "For the Baby Boom generation, '60s rebels remain a kind of psychic barometer. We wonder how they are faring. Are they still carrying the torch? Or have they--and it burned out?" Not surprisingly, People focuses on the usual cast of media--anointed "stars" of th '60s: Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Toure), Ken Kesey, and Wavy Gravy. People readers are assured at the end that "most of your favorite radicals, hippies, and Yippies are still carrying the countercultural [sic] torch 20 years after."

Thus reassured about a few "'60s rebels," readers can turn to Newsweek for a retrospective glance back at what the mass media seem to view as one of the hig points of the 1960s: the 1967 "summer of love." Newsweek seems surprised to discover that "some people still cling to the values--and they're still called hippies." Most of the Newsweek article reveals glimpses into the lives of everyday people quietly living in ways that reflect '60s struggles ("rallying" around issues like apartheid, abortion rights, and nuclear power). But the story is framed in a manner that suggests that "clinging" to '60s values is something only a quaint aboriginal tribe might do. It begins:

The smell of incense still wafts down from Earth People's Park, outside Norton, Vt. From the mountains near Eugene, Ore., on a quiet night you can still hear the "White Album" being played. They cluster in remote communes from which they descend occasionally to sell some sandals or straighten out a problem with thei welfare checks [an important derogatory image]. Or they live in plant-laden Victorian houses in Cambridge or Boulder with $500 bikes in the halls and $200 cars in the driveway. They are hippies, survivors of that once vast band of romantics who imagined that the mighty river of American civilization [sic] could somehow be turned from its course by sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They await the call that may never come, to dance again on that verdant field of memory, joining hands no longer young, real grannies behind those glasses.

Newsweek ends the piece with the banal conclusion, "Someday no one will believe there was a time when young men and women tried to stop a war with music and bring down a president with flowers; or that they could have sex with dozens of strangers and run the risk of nothing more serious than body lice. It is time to move on, but not yet time to forget." Sixties-bashers couldn't have done it better.

Media efforts to make sense of 1960s struggles tend to focus on retrospective anniversaries or, occasionally, reunion gatherings of specific groups of activists such as veterans of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers, or selective college graduations. In virtually all these cases, the yippie-turned-yuppie theme is the leitmotif. In a New York Times story on a Columbia University reunion, radical historian Eric Foner was apparently provoked by a reporter's line of questioning to declare, "This is no The Big Chill," yet The Times nonetheless prominently featured the comments of former-rebel-turned-People-editor James Kunen--a direct echo of The Big Chill. Los Angeles Times account of a Berkeley seminar on "The Sixties" focused more on the "European luxury cars" in the parking lot and a "Sixties-style" dash over the seminar's admission price than it did on participants' current engagement i political activism. A Boston Globe account of the same event recalled the vacuous nostalgia of the Frye Boots ad or The Big Chill with its opening query, "What happened to all that energy and color and commitment? Can some of that ol spirit be, and should it be, stirred up again?"

In the media's retrospective treatments, Sixties struggles disappear into a hazy past that has little connection to the current time. Time magazine chose to frame its ten-page retrospective on the year 1968 with reference to 1811, a year in which aberrant natural events occurred: squirrels by the thousands drowned when they plunged into the Ohio River; earthquakes reversed the flow of the Mississippi River, and a double-tailed comet burned through the night sky. The Time account plays out this metaphor; events in 1968 happened inexplicably and then faded into snapshots of historical trivia. The Vietnam War, for example, "alienated the young from their elders," rather than revealing destructive characteristics of American culture and institutions. Presumably, now that the young have aged, they are no longer alienated.

In essence, the public record contains two versions of the 1960s. One is dark, destructive, and threatening; its very existence is used to justify a reactionary politics and market-driven retrenchment. The other is sentimental, ephemeral, and totally trivial. It's a closed chapter that only the most nostalgic among us would want to revisit. Thus is progressive history depoliticized and co-opted.

The Political Implications of the Commodified Culture

Smith's suggestion that the commodified culture serves the interests of a free society is incorrect in regard to mass media, 'at least if "free" means democratic. As the Nixon and Sixties cases demonstrate, the market-driven mass media produce history that is compatible with the ideological interests of elites. This is not to say that all media images or stories are compatible with elite interests; they obviously aren't. Some media accounts were quite instrumental in helping to spread '60s struggles in their early stages. But it would appear that much of the time elites, including those in the media, eventually succeed in framing the images and stories in a manner that is compatible with their interests and incompatible with the democratic struggles of '60s activists. By trivializing and co-opting oppositional struggles like the movements of the Sixties, the mass media denigrate them as effectively as any ideological '60s-basher could.

Furthermore, the very proliferation of a mass media culture also threatens to diminish the possibility for democratic mobilization. In the late 1960s, a media-based "politics of statement" came to prevail, providing a foil for reactionary leaders seeking public support and a ripe plum for a marketplace eager for commodities to sell. The inflammatory statements of the late 1960s an early '70s eventually gave way to the quieter base-building of local, grass-roots activism. Yet the media have continued to seek out and co-opt flamboyant political expression, thereby producing a veneer of expressive statements incapable of generating a popular movement that could force real political change on elites. The degree to which mass-mediated politics substitute "statements" for personal interaction and mobilization may represent the ultimate postmodern threat to democracy.

The media's revisionist treatment of Richard Nixon in death is one measure of how far we have passed down this road. Another is the heightened sophistication with which elites today manage the potentially subversive role of mass media. Compare, for instance, the handling of media during the Vietnam War to that of the Gulf War. Or compare officialdom's violent responses to 1960s protests--Bull Connor, Mayor Daley, or police called in by university administrators at Berkeley, Columbia, or Wisconsin--to the smooth public-relations operations of today's political, educational, and corporate managers. Actions by the former sparked the rapid growth of protest and mobilization; actions by the latter leave us muttering to ourselves or, at best, firing off a seemingly futile letter of protest.

What can progressives possibly do to counter the tendency of our commodified culture to eviscerate progressive challenges? At the current juncture, it's hard to feel optimistic about the prospects. After all, the powerful magnetism of leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired grass-roots, direct action on a global scale; their most visible counterpart today, Nelson Mandela, now adorns the T-shirts of our "progressive" youth. No doubt Richard Nixon would find this reassuring.

Yet as totalizing as the commodified culture may seem, it suffers from two vulnerabilities. First, it is not a closed system in the traditional totalitarian sense. Although usually marginalized, potentially revolutionary images and ideas can and do slip through the filters of the propaganda system.

News photographs of the largely spontaneous 1960 student sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina helped to galvanize a wave of student activism across the South (in turn, an important catalyst for the student movement that began to sweep across the nation's campuses). According to their own testimony, these photographs also swept Robert Moses and Rennie Davis, future leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society into the Movement. The visceral power inherent in televised and photographic images of the civil rights and antiwar movements' pivotal events--the civil rights marches in Birmingham and Selma, the antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon, the police brutality against demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the murders of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State--could not be neutralized by any official interpretation of their reality.

Second, no matter how managed or fabricated media images may be, the public's subjective reading of those images cannot be controlled. Millions of people worldwide experienced the inspirational power of the televised images of South Africa's first multiracial election. As long as these images penetrate public consciousness, they can go a long way toward countering the commodification of Nelson Mandela.

Progressives can, in fact, harness the power of the electronic media and use it to subvert the dominant media messages. In the case of the New, Revised Nixon, what if progressives had organized a "counter-funeral," a Nixon remembrance designed to keep alive public awareness of Nixon's deeds rather than to bury Nixon? With the right timing and a visually compelling setting (outside a federal prison?), such an event might have penetrated the veil of media revisionism, particularly if held in concert with related actions. Organizers would need to design the event in anticipation of media skittishness and the propaganda attack that would inevitably follow. There could have been no more effective antidote to the torrent of saccharine Nixon eulogizing than, for example, film footage of the Real Nixon lying about the invasion of Cambodia, juxtaposed with footage of the invasion's carnage (in much the same manner that The Haldeman Diaries reveal the Real Nixon on the printed page).

A concerted response of this sort to the Nixon revisionism might have helped to keep the Real Nixon alive in public memory, while raising consciousness about the systematic inadequacy of the mass media. Because those on the Left failed t respond in anything but a reactive way, however, the media were easily able to cast progressives' dismay over Nixon's posthumous rehabilitation as yet another example of our marginal status--shades of Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs of negativism" canard.

We should learn from our mistakes in this instance and take back the debate whe such an opportunity next arises. As part of its responsibility to provide an alternative vision for our troubled world, the Left must play an educative role continuously correcting the record compiled by the mass media and elite opinion-makers. In doing so, we can re-energize citizens who have been lulled into complacency or hopelessness by the officially sanctioned version of political reality and prepare a new generation to challenge authority effectively and constructively, all part of keeping the struggle alive for another day.

Edward P. Morgan is the author of The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons About Modern America (1991). He is a professor of government at Lehigh University.

Source Citation

Morgan, Edward P. 1994. Nixon and the Sixties: Mass Media and the Sanitized Past. Tikkun 9(5): 66.

tags: Media, US Politics  
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