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Tom Brokaw tries to figure out the '60s in new book, 'Boom!'

  • Story Highlights
  • Journalist Tom Brokaw's new book is entitled "Boom!: Voices of the Sixties"
  • Voices include: Clintons, Rep. John Lewis, Pat Buchanan, Arlo Guthrie
  • Book concentrates on the civil rights movement, feminism and Vietnam
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Hillary Clinton had a question when Tom Brokaw told her he was working on a book on the 1960s.

Brokaw

Tom Brokaw's book on the '60s, "Boom!", includes interviews with a number of notable figures.

"Have you cracked the code yet?" she asked.

Such is the legacy of that exuberant, violent, messy decade, a time in which American social and political leaders were shot to death, youth did battle with adults literally and figuratively, and a war 6,000 miles away divided the country in ways that continue to resonate more than 40 years later.

It's so intractable, such a puzzle, that some believe there must be a solution, a way to knit together the social fabric torn asunder all those years ago -- or at least make sense of it all.

It's a question the former NBC anchorman wondered about while compiling and writing "Boom!: Voices of the Sixties" (Random House), a series of remembrances and reflections on the time. He tapped a diverse group of people for their thoughts, including famous names like Hillary and Bill Clinton, Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), conservative columnist Pat Buchanan, musician Arlo Guthrie and presidential adviser Karl Rove, as well as several ordinary people thrust into the decade's extraordinary situations. Video Watch Brokaw talk about being "the guy in the tie" »

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He says what made the '60s distinctive -- as opposed to other pivotal decades such as the post-World War I 1920s, for example -- is "that unique generation of the boomers ... the most prosperous in the history of any organized society anywhere." The boomers weren't just a large cohort, he observes, it engaged in revolutionary actions: "a convulsive rejection of so many values of their parents ... they rejected parental authority, they rejected institutional authority."

And, perhaps most divisively, the decade "was the beginning of deep cynicism about the U.S. government and what it would do to you as much it would it would do for you," Brokaw says.

Indeed, Buchanan, asked by Brokaw if anything good came out of the '60s, had a stark answer: "I don't think much."

Brokaw, looking dapper if a little tired during an Atlanta book tour stop at CNN Center, had an interesting perspective on the turmoil. The South Dakota-born anchorman was a little older than his baby boomer colleagues -- he was born in 1940, six years before the traditional start of the boomer generation -- and was already married and an Omaha, Nebraska, reporter when John F. Kennedy's assassination shook the country.

Within a couple years, he was reporting from Atlanta, the heart of the civil rights movement. In 1966, he was tapped by NBC to join its Los Angeles, California, bureau where he covered the counterculture, Robert Kennedy's assassination at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel and the rise of Ronald Reagan.

It makes for some good stories -- a few of which are sprinkled throughout "Boom!" -- but Brokaw was determined the book wasn't going to be a memoir.

"I think journalists who think they have fascinating stories [about themselves] are kind of boring," he says with a smile. "At first I was going to leave me out altogether, but it needed a sort of guide to take people through things."

Brokaw chose to concentrate on three areas -- the civil rights movement, feminism and Vietnam -- fully aware that he was only going to have so much space for pop culture, commercialism and decline of the cities. Video Watch Brokaw talk about how his granddaughter was shocked by the '60s »

But he did turn up a number of offbeat testimonies, including that of Jack Weinberg, the Berkeley grad student who coined the phrase, "Don't trust anyone over 30," and is still living an aggressively countercultural life.

"He's still quite radical, [though] he has a better perspective now on how life is lived," Brokaw says. "He makes very little money, the environment and social justice is his great cause. It was reassuring to find somebody who stayed the course, because so many of them were kind of 'sunshine soldiers' -- they were at the barricades for 24 hours and said, 'The '60s, yeah, I was there.' "

"Boom!" is timed to the 40th anniversary of the year Brokaw sees as the decade's hinge, 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, Martin Luther King's and Robert Kennedy's assassinations, Prague Spring and the political rebirth of Richard Nixon. Brokaw narrates a History Channel documentary, "1968," which airs this Wednesday and Saturday.

If that year ended with a small triumph -- the success of Apollo 8, with its Christmas Eve broadcast and stunning photograph of the Earth from space -- society is still dealing with the shards of glass left behind by the era's destructiveness.

"[Society] got atomized in part [because] what they learned in the '60s is how to organize ... around reasonably, or in some cases, dramatically narrow interests, and make that narrow interest the leitmotif of their life," he says. "And being a citizen means you get a wide range of interests and that you have to -- sometimes have to -- give a little bit on the left, or give a little bit on the right, so that can we all move ahead towards the center."

Though Brokaw firmly disagrees with Buchanan, noting that plenty of good came out of the '60s -- "If you're an African-American, your life is a lot different. If you're a woman, your life is a lot different" -- he laments that we're still paying for the rifts created during that time, particularly the distrust of civic institutions.

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"What I worry about is this generation of young people thinking they don't have to be a part of the political system ... because they've got the Internet. That's their universe. That's very unsettling, when you think about a democratic republic and how it moves forward, and how it's replenished -- renewed -- by generation after generation," he says.

And that, no doubt, will be a hard code to crack. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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