Fifty years out of college and finally (almost) normal

Over the weekend of June 2-5 I’ll be attending my Yale Class of 1966 50th reunion in New Haven, Conn. These occasions are an opportunity to take stock, refresh old friendships and perhaps create some new ones, remember some classmates we’ve lost, and most important, see who still has any hair left!

This will be only my second attendance at a Yale reunion. Ten years ago, in 2006, I attended our 40th and I approached that with some trepidation. I’d been a moody “pre-gay” (and pre-Stonewall) adolescent who didn’t enjoy a lot of warm friendships at college – these had not been my best and brightest years! But the biblical 40 years (of wandering in the desert of real life) had passed, and I couldn’t help noting from the alumni journal that there were already by then fewer class notes preceding ours than after ours! I had always resisted going back to a reunion because I never followed the “Goldman Sachs” model of success in life, and wondered how I’d measure up to my classmates. But hey, 40 years out, are people judging any more? And don’t I have my own life achievements to be proud of?

Aside from several specific alumni class-related programs, one of the lectures open to the whole Yale community that year was an assessment of the George W. Bush presidency (2001-2009) by Prof. Gaddis Smith, who bent over backwards to put the most charitable spin on Dubya’s régime. His basic thesis was that the Bush doctrine was to spread democracy around the world. In the Q&A I openly challenged him. I didn’t agree that was Bush’s doctrine at all: For starters, how about stolen elections here at home? His presidency was rather all about the wholesale transfer of wealth from the bottom and middle up to the topmost 1 percent of Americans. Upon which the audience burst into a cacophony of wild applause mixed with hoots and catcalls (the latter from the 1-percenters in the crowd, no doubt). I reveled in playing my usual provocative role in such a toney milieu. For the rest of the weekend strangers stopped me on the street to congratulate me for telling the truth about George III.

The 2006 elections that November seemed to vindicate my opinion of Mr. Bush (Class of 1968), resulting in a sweeping Democratic victory: They captured the House, the Senate, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures from the Republicans. That’s what Americans thought of the Bush doctrine.

The class survey

With that personal coup of self-confidence behind me I now face 2016 and my 50th with greater ease. Our class went all out this year to produce a two-volume magnum opus that arrived on my doorstep a few days ago. Volume I features a series of essays by prominent members of our class comparing the world today with the one we graduated into in 1966. Our most distinguished class member (by some standards) is Secretary of State John Kerry, whose substantial appreciation of “America and the World, Then and Now” conspicuously omits both his stint in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and his courageous leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War upon his return. “On campus,” he writes magisterially, “we debated the rights and wrongs of war even as we weighed our post-gradation choices.” I was one of those who debated Kerry often in those years, and made the choice to demonstrate against the war in the first national action in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 1965. If Kerry had listened to me his life would have taken a very different turn! There’s a long section of memoirs about “National Service,” as so many of our classmates wound up in Vietnam or government work; 36 percent of our class served in the military.

Volume I also includes an 11-page summary of findings from a class survey in which 369 respondents participated – over a third of our surviving class members (about 160 have died). Volume II is mostly the class directory, in which I openly discussed aspects of my personal life I would never have dreamed in 1966 that I would be making public. Anyone who reads my essay will find out that I joined the Communist Party in 2009, am feelin’ the Bern, and now write for People’s World.

Focusing on the class survey, if I felt kind of freakish for a healthy portion of my life, it appears that the Yale alumni pool has in great part caught up with me. “Forty-eight percent say they consider themselves Democrats, 23 percent consider themselves Republicans, and 26 percent consider themselves independent. Thirty-five percent say that in their adult lives they have moved to the left, while 20 percent say they have moved to the right. In the 2012 election 67 percent voted for Obama and 32 percent for Romney.” Interestingly, our parents’ politics leaned pretty much the other way: 48 percent GOP and 34 percent Democratic.

In assessing who was the best U.S. president since 1960, Reagan got the single most votes (102 out of 356), but was followed by Clinton, Obama, Johnson and Kennedy. The total of Democrats was 229, with only 127 for the Republicans. Prof. Gaddis Smith’s lover-boy “W” received exactly one vote, ranking him at 0.3 percent. In the survey asking if “President Obama is doing a good job,” my class responded with 57 percent agreement, significantly surpassing national polling.

Sixty-nine percent did not believe that “current U.S. immigration trends pose a threat to traditional American values.” I suspect that the general worldliness of my college-educated generation – travel and living abroad, experience in the corporate and professional world, intermarriage – has contributed to this positive view of immigrants in our society. Greater exposure to the world has also greatly reduced participation in religious activity for most of us: Religion is “very” important to only 20 percent of us.

On the big wedge issues the results are even more dramatically consistent with my views:

Pro-choice on abortion: 83 percent

Same-gender marriage: 85 percent

Stricter gun laws: 84 percent

Limits on amounts spent in federal elections: 84 percent

Limits on amounts spent on political campaigns by corporations and unions: 88 percent.

“Seventy-three percent feel the increase in the earth’s temperature has primarily resulted from pollution caused by human activities,” yet only 35 percent worry about it. Possibly because at our age we won’t be suffering its effects for too much longer!

Only 4 percent of our class never married. On that scale I am still pretty abnormal. I’m also in the minority (13 percent) who have gained “a lot more than” 10 pounds over my graduation weight – but I’ll bet dollars to donuts a lot of folks didn’t answer that question! And I’m among the 24 percent who wear a necktie as seldom as a couple of times a month (in my case almost exclusively when I perform civil marriages for Los Angeles County, which is, I admit, kind of weird for a guy who never got hitched).

Thanks to Greg Weiss, who edited the class survey, I realize once again that old piece of wisdom, that so often the great conflicts that tear countries and generations apart do soften over time as other issues come to the fore, memories (like hairlines) recede, and we gain the perspective of grace on our lives. Oh, yes, I still nurture a few old grudges in life, but overall I’m pretty OK with how my life has turned out. Though when I get onto that campus again I swear I’m going to find out who was that one classmate who voted for “W” as best president!

Photo: Bingham Hall, Yale University, New Haven, Conn., where the author lived freshman year.

 


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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