“What is it about the decade of the 1960s that makes it age so badly?” wondered Hedy Weiss last Sunday, beginning her Sun-Times review of Sweet Charity, a Broadway hit in 1966 but a dud today. Revivals of Hair don’t work either, even as nostalgia. The 60s are an era Americans haven’t figured out how to remember.
There’s still no consensus about the Vietnam war, and the upper hand seems to favor a half-baked idea about the “movement” launched against it. It was the pipe dream of the spoiled, the unworldly, and the nihilistic. It was a drug-warped culture that consumed the weak and indulged the strong, who later found other outlets for their ambitions and today drive BMWs to the fund-raising galas of worthy causes. The decade’s given the country two presidents, one liberal, one conservative, neither much of an advertisement for his generation. Draft dodgers with little moral authority, they knew how to speak to and flatter the country but not how to ask anything of it–except, in George Bush’s case, to trust him with another war, which we have. In their time an idea took hold that once there’d been a golden age and a “greatest generation.” The 60s became the abyss separating that age from ours.
It’s easy now to think of the 60s as the maw into which coherent American history vanished soon after JFK was shot, to reemerge maimed and twisted as Nixon resigned and Saigon surrendered. Some sort of incalculable harm was done the country in the interim.
In awe of this “Great Backlash,” Thomas Frank writes: “It matters not at all that the forces that triggered the original ‘silent majority’ back in Nixon’s day have long since disappeared; the backlash roars on undiminished, its rage carrying easily across the decades. The confident liberals who led America in those days are a dying species. The New Left, with its gleeful obscenities and contempt for the flag, is extinct altogether.”
Frank’s project, he explains, is to examine the astonishing backlash “by focusing on a place where the political shift has been dramatic: my home state of Kansas, a reliable hotbed of leftist reform movements a hundred years ago that today ranks among the nation’s most eager audiences for bearers of backlash buncombe.”
In the last of the family chronicles that the friends of Michael Lefkow will ever receive from him at Christmas, he described a drive to Chicago from Portland, Oregon. “Joan, the Kansan . . . read aloud with fascination Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which tolled the recent demise of that State’s great progressive tradition.” The Lefkows were talking about the book the last time I had dinner at their house, when the guest of honor was their friend Jacqueline Schmitt, the assistant priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal in Evanston, who was leaving to become a Harvard chaplain. As always, when dinner began we linked our fingers around the table and said grace.
The line of mourners that crept forward into St. Luke’s last Saturday morning was slowed by the determination of Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow at its distant end to greet everyone who arrived. But the morning wasn’t too cold to bear, and the spectacle outside the church was somehow awesome: barricaded streets, a phalanx of squad cars, a wall of TV cameras, dozens of swivel-necked plainclothes agents, a charter bus pulling up to disgorge a delegation of federal judges.
Michael would have approved. And not simply because his murder, and the murder of his mother-in-law, Donna Humphrey, five days before in the Lefkow home bore all the earmarks of an assassination intended to cow the American judiciary. Michael, who dressed with panache and greeted no one as a stranger, didn’t lack in self-regard.
“November 1 and 2,” he wrote in his last Christmas letter, “found Michael in Kenosha, Wisconsin, working with America Votes 2004 to get out the vote. Out on a rural route, he handed importance-of-voting literature to postal worker-voter Lyle Kenagla who was sweeping out his garage. Lyle told him the Kenosha Post Office was knee-deep in undeliverable political campaign material and that campaigns wasted big money by not getting current addresses cheap from the Postal Service (Michael’s former employer and plentiful source of clients). In a trice Michael and Lyle discovered that they had both grown up in Wheaton, Du Page County, where Lyle’s father owned a local teen hang out, ‘The Willow Snack,’ and there Michael had learned to value socializing above Latin and chess clubs.”
Though none of us knows for sure, we all suspect that Michael Lefkow and Donna Humphrey were murdered by the followers or ideological kin of neo-Nazi Matthew Hale, now awaiting sentencing for ordering a hit on Judge Lefkow. Such killers are comprehensible, if barely, in the America described by Frank. He writes at length about “malign anti-intellectualism,” notes the defeat of a moderate Senate candidate with a famous Kansas name a few years ago after voters began getting mysterious phone calls telling them that “Docking is a Jew,” and nods at the national “God Hates Fags” crusade of the Reverend Fred Phelps of Topeka.
In the nation we’re encouraged to think of as divided between sybaritic secularists and fundamentalist ecstatics, it’s people like Joan and Michael who don’t obviously fit in. This is a time when “humanism” is always “secular” and somehow pejorative, and when Protestant passion means the faithful packing their bags for the Rapture. “We know there is another religious tradition,” Jacqueline Schmitt wrote last November at Harvard, “which offers a substantial hope to the believer about God’s saving action in the world, which inspires all of us, the people of God, to participate in that action.” Michael and Joan were inspired, and they participated. They believed God intends the world to spin a good long time and had asked them to make his work their own. The boy from Wheaton with the wild, frizzy hair who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and the small-town girl from Kansas he met when she was a student at Wheaton College entered law believing that justice was something to be accomplished here on earth.
“When Michael stood up for the rights of workers,” Jacqueline Schmitt said in her homily last Saturday, “of women on welfare, of people who needed education, who were wrongfully dismissed from their workplaces, Michael did so as an agent of the kingdom of God.”
Daniel Merchan, a client of Michael’s I didn’t know, wrote me after he died. “He gave me the kind of feeling that I was taken care of that one would only hope to get from close family,” said the letter, which ran in the Tribune on Monday. “I still have his most recent cheerful voicemail on my cellphone, called in from the emergency room where he’d gone with a ruptured tendon. He was telling me what to do on three legal fronts and reassuring me firmly that things would be okay. From the hospital he was calling me to let me know how my cases were! I cannot understand this. I cannot imagine how his family must feel. What the hell is this world coming to? My heart is broken.”
With a bit of luck the generation of the 60s will be remembered after it’s vanished as a generation rich in practical idealists. Last Saturday one of them left St. Luke’s Church walking behind the casket of another out into that wall of cameras.
Later I wandered the halls of the Monadnock Building, where Michael Lefkow had hung his shingle. It’s a wonderful building I’ve thought of for a long time as a place the 60s went off to live in. I wrote down some of the names on the doors: Amnesty International USA, the Trust for Public Land, Women in Franchising, the Partnership to End Homelessness, the Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly, Chicago Rehab Network, the Wetlands Initiative. This was an attack on the country, I’d told myself at St. Luke’s, but not only because Joan is a federal judge. This was an attack on American decency.