Policy, Politics, and the Costly Embrace of Disappointment

1967 was quite the year. The Vietnam War was headed toward full swing. We were a generation of college age kids, just getting used to the experience of adulthood. We were also discovering ourselves one failing grade away from the draft. Even that buffer was not available to those who could not afford post-secondary school. Rebellion became a lifestyle.

Straight cut Beatles bangs became a cultural statement. Someone close to me was arrested while hitchhiking through St. Louis County in Missouri. Before being charged, he was taken to a backroom and beaten. Small town police didn’t much care for his cultural statement. While not commonplace, the beating was not an unheard of occurrence.

That year, the Beatles came out with a new album unlike anything before. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band doesn’t strike the same chord now. Mimicry and time combine to cloud the impact. But it created a splash in those days.

Brian Wilson, the genius behind the sound of the Beach Boys, listened to the new album and went into a trauma induced psychological binge of musical self-destruction. He had been working obsessively for over a year on a new sound, unlike anything the Beach Boys had ever produced. Earlier departures from their original style had gotten lukewarm popular response, but Wilson was committed. His raw enthusiasm and sheer effort carried the reluctant group. They worked with him on the major new sound.

His enthusiasm was contagious. The new direction would become legendary. It would be something so different, it would stun.

It would define him.
It would define the group.
It would define a generation of music.

He listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, went into a deep despair, and destroyed the entire effort. He trashed his own revolution after hearing another new sound he could not imagine himself matching. The thunder was gone.

Sad, really, how his sense of competition deprived him of a year of work. Sad for the world, in its own unknowing way.

Twenty years later, outtakes were somehow bootlegged and began circulating. Bits and pieces became underground hits among the small number of insiders who managed to hear them.

Those home recorded segments are only now being released in legitimate form.

The year after Brian Wilson trashed his new sound, I listened to a disillusioned presentation by an advocate for Senator Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy had run his campaign against the Vietnam War, had had the campaign co-opted by the more capable Bobby Kennedy, then lost to Hubert Humphrey after Bobby was assassinated. I don’t remember much about the discouraged lecture, except that Hubert Humphrey remained unacceptable.

Humphrey had finally come out in a convoluted sort of way for a renewal of peace talks. The glimmer of an end to the pointless military campaign seemed a possibility. And Humphrey was inching closer, within striking distance of the war hawk Richard Nixon. Humphrey might actually win.

The McCarthy follower was having none of it. “Nixon is amoral,” I remember him saying. “Humphrey is immoral.” That was the sum of his case for staying home or voting third party or whatever he wanted us to do. I remember the rationale more than the course of action he wanted us to follow.

Nixon, as new documentation confirms, had secretly contacted South Vietnamese officials and sabotaged peace talks while he was still a candidate. After becoming President he kept the war going. A few months before his reelection four years later, he announced a peace breakthrough. The breakthrough broke down soon after that campaign. It had been a national fake out. And the war continued until President Ford eventually ended it.

I wonder how many of my generation followed the instinctive reflex to partial loss, and stayed home on election day. They had, after all, lost two truly wonderful candidates in Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. I wondered if the anger toward the less perfect Hubert Humphrey had kept enough of them home to give the election to Nixon. If Humphrey had gotten one additional vote in each precinct that year, the election would have gone to him.

Would a different outcome have ended the Vietnam madness before thousands more had been claimed by the terrible, pointless, conflict?

But Humphrey was immoral. Nixon was merely amoral, and that was that.

It is, I suppose, a universal human trait, the destructive temptation to reject the merely superior when deprived of victorious perfection. The wrecking of a musical effort because it might not be the best. The sacrifice of a better campaign because of the loss of something approaching perfection.

By one measurement, Bernie Sanders has stood out as the single most progressive member of the United States Senate. All 99 of his Senate colleagues were more conservative than was he. One of those more conservative Senators during her tenure was Hillary Clinton. Only 88 Senators were more conservative than the Senator from New York.

The blessing of memory is often the curse of age. It doesn’t have to mean that we live in the past. But we sometimes do live twin lives, experiencing current times in parallel with what we remember of the past. We see today and think of what we may have learned from painful loss.

Humphrey was not McCarthy in 1968. Gore was not Nader in 2000.

Brian Wilson abandoned the best that he could have done because it was not the best the world had ever known.

Perhaps a similar temptation is to be avoided when so much more than a single year of artistic creativity is at stake.

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