A HIGH State Department official faced an audience in the crowded common room, joined by editors from Time and ABC News. The topic was the administration's Gulf war, and how the media portrayed it. The debate was accusatory and intense.
It called to mind another day, when Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk faced audiences like this. But now the panelists and audience were from the same college class. At this prestigious Eastern college, the class of 1967 was holding its reunion, which meant resuming the debates that left off 25 years ago.
Reunions can bestir a maudlin line of thought. If you've been there then you know: searching faces for someone once known, visiting old haunts to find the smells and feelings of long ago. Could those parent-looking people really be us? "I never realized how young Dad was," one fellow wrote in the class report.
But there was relatively little nostalgia for the Class of '67. Though the faces looked different, the threads of values and discussion seemed remarkably intact. This suggests some unexpected implications for the decades ahead.
The Class of '67 represents the front end of the great demographic bulge - the Baby Boom - that is moving into positions of leadership in American life. By common account it's grown increasingly conservative, as in the image/reality ads of Rolling Stone magazine: Hippie to Yuppie with Big Chill in between. Yet that's only partly true. Many of my classmates have made uneasy truces with necessity; despite families and children, they've tried to follow paths of principle, in ways large and small.
Along with the corporate lawyers, for example, were farmers, publishers of small-town newspapers, antinuclear activists, teachers, a trail-builder for the Appalachian Mountain Club. The class survey found a high level of environmental concern: Close to three-quarters shop for environmentally friendly products and give money to environmental groups; almost 90 percent recycle.
Many who followed conventional careers have brought to them the values they supposedly left behind. A physician for the indigent wrote of the need for "dramatic reform" in the nation's medical system. "I learned to be a human being before I learned to be a doctor," said a cancer specialist from Washington, D.C. Even a Republican Congressman and Vietnam vet expressed a '60s distrust of the Pentagon bureaucracy: "As a former infantry soldier I'm always more concerned about the way they are treated than the
Vice President Dan Quayle may chastise the Eastern elite as morally bereft. Yet among these Ivy grads ("elite" is another question), spirituality and religion were recurring themes. In the survey, almost 40 percent said their interest in spiritual questions had increased since college. Many wrote of inner quests, from Zen devotees to ministers and priests.
CONCERN for family values was intense as well. There was sober reflection over the upheavals in social mores that the '60s helped to bring about. Only 7 percent of the class had grown up in broken homes; a much higher percentage of their children have. "The nuclear family has gone the way of the dinosaur," an educator from Maine said. "Do we have anything to put in its place?" One parent suggested an answer to media influence that Mr. Quayle has overlooked: junk the TV. "We have lots of time, and [the ki ds] are wonderful readers," this parent said.
This was the last class to enter college while JFK and his inspiration were still alive. Washington may be in disrepute, but many have nursed that flame: school board members, legislators, all manner of civic engagement. Maybe I'm just looking for reasons to be hopeful. But a lot of people are, and that starts a dynamic in itself. I couldn't help but think that as these people - and others like them - emerge from their parenting years, a new burst of activism may be ahead.
"America is awash in materialism and greed," one classmate wrote. "And yet history is full of surprises, of instances where the past was not prologue." I heard an investment banker from New York question the social worth of that occupation. Another banker said her colleagues increasingly wanted to work in the ghetto.
I came expecting to feel morose. But encounters like these gave me a little hope. The experience of the years, the disappointment and loss, had given us something the Ivy League couldn't: humility. The second wave of activism - if it comes - will have a wisdom and maturity that the first one often lacked.