Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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'Boom' needs more Boomers: Tom Brokaw's look at the '60s misses the generational mark

BOOM! VOICES OF THE SIXTIES. By Tom Brokaw. Random House. 662 pages. $28.95

With the publication of Boom!, veteran NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw moves from his extensive chronicling of the World War II generation to the more contentious, controversial world of the Baby Boomers, the Greatest Generation's kids who were born from 1946 to 1964.

Using a format familiar to readers of his previous books, Brokaw presents some 90 individuals, complete with then-and-now photos, dividing the book into three main sections: Something's Happening Here; Aftershocks: Consequences, Intended and Otherwise, and Reflections: Seeing What Connects, followed by a time-line of major events.

Listing the important dates might have been more useful at the beginning, especially because the stories are not presented in chronological order, but instead move back and forth and back again between 1963 and 1974.

As a card-carrying Boomer, I was curious to see how Brokaw, having exhausted the Greatest Generation, would tackle the Worst, a quip he indeed repeats in the book's first paragraph. And while the author takes great pains to explain that he doesn't think the Boomers represent the worst, he adds, "I didn't think many of them were as great as they thought they were." Ouch.

That sort of finger-wagging runs through Boom! as many of those interviewed are encouraged to disavow their long-ago drug use and support for leftist (read: destructive) political positions. Readers who manage to get through the 600-plus pages will discover something peculiar about Boom! - of the 90 or so people interviewed or discussed, fewer than 30 are actual Boomers, and of those, only five were born in 1950 or later, despite the fact that Boomers continued to arrive in huge numbers for 14 more years. We never hear from anyone who was 10 years old in 1968, but find many comments from those who were 30 or older in that most cataclysmic year.

The voices in Boom! are actually those of people in positions of power or authority, to varying degrees, during the '60s, offering their reflections on the decade and its attendant chaos, crisis, and creativity. It is much more the story of Brokaw's generation, those who grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s, and who, he admits, often were bewildered by what was happening around them.

As Brokaw says about his first bemused encounters with several of the teenagers who flocked to San Francisco in 1967, "my ambitions were counter to the counterculture."

He grants only four pages to Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, a publication that altered the American music business and provided an open platform for a new journalism and writers. On the other hand, the interview of Dick Cheney, hardly a name that springs quickly to mind when discussing the '60s, goes on for 15 pages. Cheney, safe with his five draft deferments, spent the decade dropping out of Yale twice, and doing odd jobs in Wyoming before returning to college at the end of the decade, a pre-Boomer, married man not involved in the turmoil of the times.

In fact, many of the people interviewed have little to say about the decade in question, often falling back on the "there were some good ideas/events/accomplishments, but way too many people went way too far and did a lot of bad things along the way" truism that provides a safe, neutral interpretation of their previous actions.

More space is given to what the subjects think about the 2008 elections, the Iraq War, and the Internet. Andrew Young, an important leader in the civil rights movement but 14 years older than the oldest Boomer, discussed Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, but then rambles on about hip-hop fashion and complains that Tiger Woods doesn't have "any idea who I am."

Brokaw and his intrepid band of researchers and assistants make a mighty effort to discuss just about every issue of the '60s. There are sections on the women's movement, Vietnam, civil rights, music, and politics. Glaringly absent, however, is any discussion of the nascent gay-rights movement, even though the Stonewall riots took place in New York City in 1969.

Where Boom! does shine is in its interviews with the non-famous people who were participants, not just observers, and often had to deal with the actual pain of the period. Some are still suffering decades later.

In a particularly moving section, Brokaw interviews Charlene Stimley Priester, a teenager in Georgetown, Miss., and a student at a segregated high school where Ouida Barnett Atkins, the daughter of segregationist Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, years later would find her place as a teacher. Equally touching are the stories of Tom and Nellie Coakley, both veterans of Vietnam who've managed to work through the war's wounds, and Ron Armella, a U.S. Marine officer in Vietnam who came home to personal trauma after trauma, finally finding a small bit of peace, 40 years on.

If the civil rights movement sections are the strongest, those devoted to the music of the '60s are the weakest. Brokaw suggests, "Close your eyes for a moment and think: 'The Sixties.' The soundtrack of your mind is a rich mix of the voices of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young, and Paul Simon and James Taylor.•.•." But does anyone who was between 10 and 21 in 1968 really think first of Carole King and James Taylor?

There are no interviews with Dylan, nor Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr, both of whom are press-friendly and seemingly would be accessible to someone with Brokaw's clout. There is no mention of the Rolling Stones, either, other than that Brokaw saw their limo in Omaha in 1964. No Who, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane.•.•. no, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" baby?

Boom! is Brokaw's book, and we do learn an awful lot about him by the time the decade comes to a close. We know about his broadcasting jobs, his 1962 marriage to his high school sweetheart, their three girls and their eventual husbands and children, and how various '60s events impacted his life. The book is handicapped by his intent to be all-inclusive, a goal that leads to fragmented looks at too many topics, several of which are scattered in several different sections.

By the end, the sheer number of interviews and observations begin to run together in a cacophony of platitudes, happy reflections, disdain, and anguished memories. Which may be the truest reflection of the '60s the book has to offer.

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