Television screens in California last week were filled with pictures that looked like finds from a time capsule. A McGovern poster. Peace signs. Woodstock-esque views of young people having fun doing who knows what. A war helicopter, vaguely reminiscent of the Vietnam era, arcing sharply as if to avoid fire.
It was not an ad for a documentary on the 1960s or some PBS show on the Vietnam War. It was an ad for Meg Whitman's campaign for governor.
On one level, the ad was meant to portray Democratic nominee Jerry Brown as a doddering has-been, the political equivalent of the almost-extinct machine it also pictured, the record turntable. On another level, however, it was dredging up the turbulent past in hopes of gaining political advantage.
Nothing in political ads is accidental. Two weeks before Whitman's commercial began airing, Republican John McCain sent out a fundraising plea for his "Country First" political action committee. It asked for money to help Republican candidates, including Whitman, who, it said, was up against "anti-Vietnam War activist Jerry Brown."
Not Gov. Moonbeam, or the Medfly combatant, or the three-times-failed presidential candidate or the Zen iconoclast. The anti-Vietnam War activist.
More than 40 years down the road, the '60s still reverberate politically and culturally. Whitman's effort is an echo of Richard Nixon's 1968 rallying of "forgotten Americans," the silent but "decent people" who didn't shout or protest but worked and saved and paid taxes while others were in the streets or on the dole. This year's forgotten Americans just happen to be the same sort of people, those who feel left behind at worst — or threatened at best — by an economic recovery that has seen institutions rebound while families founder.
The most heralded of them are the Republican-allied tea partiers, but if Whitman is to win in November she must also attract independents and Democrats worried about the state and nation's direction — and their own.
Republican attorney Ken Khachigian worked in the Nixon White House and sees sharp similarities between then and now.
"It's not much different today," he said. "Folks go to work, do their jobs … and it's all the others who seem to have the time to be cultural renegades." Whitman was smart, he said, to bring up Vietnam.
"What it does is it reminds people, A, of the chaotic nature of that time and, B, connects Jerry to it," he said. "For a certain demographic, it's going to probably raise up some anger."
Joel Rhodes, an associate professor of history who specializes in the Vietnam era, called Whitman's ad "a logical legacy of Nixon's strategy in the '60s."
"It's still money in the bank, as a political tool, to play on that polarization and fear," said Rhodes, who teaches at Southeast Missouri State University.
Although he did famously cavort with Linda Ronstadt, Brown back in the day always seemed more buttoned-up than rebellious. He did get his start in politics helping to create a "peace slate" and backing George McGovern's late-blooming presidential candidacy in 1968. Yet the next year he was considered mainstream enough to win election to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees.
"He never attended a war protest," Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said. A few years ago, Clifford said, Brown sat with McCain at a baseball game, chatting amiably with no mention of the war.
The imagery of the ad seems to go out of its way to connect Brown to the '60s. Pictures of hippies and the war helicopter appear as the narrator is describing Brown's ascent as governor, which didn't occur until 1975, weeks before the war ended. (The ad also altered a picture to make it look as if Brown was speaking before a banner touting his support of $7 billion in new taxes and concocted faux news headlines critical of him.)
Bob Mulholland, a longtime Democratic strategist, met Brown in 1970 and said he has no memory of Brown's speaking out against the war. He would likely remember: Mulholland served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, including a month in a hospital after being injured by a mortar 20 miles northwest of Saigon.
But he is not surprised that those times popped into this campaign. They did, after all, mark many recent political campaigns: the debate over Bill Clinton's draft status in 1992 and George W. Bush's National Guard activities in 2000, and the attempts to link Barack Obama with ' 60s antiwar activist William Ayers in 2008.
"I just think the ghosts of the Vietnam War will be with us until the last one of us is buried," he said. "All those tragedies that tore this country apart cannot go away."
Over time, Americans have embraced many of the arguments of the '60s activists. Racial equality has been enshrined to the point that Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul in Kentucky was blistered by members of his own party when he suggested that the Civil Rights Act overreached.