Clearing the air in the Ginsburg aftermath

The tumult has rumbled away. But the strange case of Douglas H. Ginsburg - the nine-day wonder whose nomination for Supreme Court justice rose and set with startling speed - has left behind an unsettling aroma. It's not merely the smell of smoked pot - although the spark that finally blew Judge Ginsburg away was his admission that he used marijuana ``once as a college student in the '60s and then on a few occasions in the '70s'' while he was a law professor at Harvard. No, the scent here is far more disturbing. It has arisen in the last several weeks from the fashionable condemnation, by those in and out of the news media, of an entire slice of the American populace: the so-called ``lost generation'' of the '60s, of whom Mr. Ginsburg is suddenly the prime example. It's a condemnation as damaging as it is unworthy. Like most stenches, it deserves a good airing.

If that sounds too strong, forgive me. I'm very nearly part of that same Vietnam-battered generation myself. I can't write it off so glibly. Had Ginsburg and I attended the same schools, we might have been in classes together - and gone to the same fraternity parties.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not in the least condoning the use of illegal drugs (never having tried them myself). Nor am I suggesting that Ginsburg should have been appointed to the Supreme Court despite his past. One wants, for such a post, an individual who understands that people in public positions - even at the modest level of university professor - are seen as mentors and must (if they care about the example they're setting) be inordinately careful to avoid illegality.

``But'' (say those who see Ginsburg as the hapless offspring of the Age of Aquarius) ``wasn't everybody smoking pot in the late '60s? Wasn't Ginsburg just going blamelessly along with the flow?''

No, and no. The surveys usually cited to buttress the first question say that about half of those in the '60s generation tried marijuana at least once. That leaves '60s-bashers to account for an uncomfortably large number of people (the other 50 percent) who didn't - as well as for the unknown percentage who gave up after one round. Those nonusers had the self-assurance to refuse - a quietly heroic act at the time, considering the sometimes ferocious peer pressure.

Ginsburg evidently succumbed to that pressure. That's no guarantee, of course, that as a justice he would also have buckled under to pressure. The point is simply that there are plenty of potential candidates in that generation for whom the issue doesn't arise with such force. I know. I saw them going into the library when, during the turbulent days on the Columbia University campus in the late '60s, surprisingly small groups of well-televised radicals were busy tearing up the gray hexagonal paving stones.

Well, so what? So we've reduced the problem area of the ``'60s generation'' to, say, one-third its original size. Can we write off the rest? Is the use of drugs the only important measure to watch? What gives older generations (sometimes oppressed by alcohol, another addictive substance) the right to point the finger at their successors? And what about the sexual license that swept into view in the late '60s? On all these points, should potential public servants of that generation be thought guilty until proved innocent?

Hardly. Take a look around at what that generation has already contributed - in politics, in entrepreneurial spirit, in business acumen, in academic and artistic depth. And look, too, at those in that generation who still carry the badges of their upbringing - living among acoustic guitars and organic foods and deeply felt affections, providing simple ballast in a sometimes frenetic world. There's just too much there to write off.

What has the Ginsburg case taught us, then? Maybe that we're too quick to generalize. That we're long on condemnation. That we're a bit short on understanding. And that, above all, we need a national readiness to forgive those whose lives are on an upward trajectory.

That forgiveness is essential, if only because one thing is sure: In the future, we're going to need all the leadership that the '60s generation can provide.

A Monday column

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