NEW YORK - The year 1968: Was it groovy? A bummer?
"I think 1968 was probably the worst year in this nation's history," says conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon who coined the term "silent majority."
"It was a lot of fun," says Michelle Phillips, the sylphlike former member of the Mamas and the Papas.
Even 40 years later, there is no consensus on 1968 - nor does Tom Brokaw seek one in his new documentary, "1968 with Tom Brokaw."
Airing 9 p.m. Sunday on the History Channel, it's a two-hour flashback to a year so laden with events and messages "we're still working our way through it," as Brokaw summed up during a recent interview.
The year began with the Tet Offensive, a major Vietcong assault against South Vietnam that shattered many Americans' faith that the war could ever be "won." The year ended, mercifully, with the Apollo 8 mission that sent three Americans orbiting around the moon and inspired a nation that badly needed it.
In between: the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy; riots in cities and uprisings on campuses, plus the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; a peace movement flourishing while the war claimed the lives of 16,500 U.S. military (almost twice as many as the previous year); Nixon narrowly winning the presidency, sealing a remarkable political comeback. Plus sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
"I remember thinking that I was living in so many Americas," said Brokaw, marveling that when his journalism career had brought him to Los Angeles' KNBC two years earlier, "I saw Reagan get elected [governor] on the one hand, the counterculture rising on the other hand."
Now 67, the former NBC News anchorman covered many of the major events of that decade, while experiencing them as a member of the generation at their core: baby boomers. He stayed busy.
"I've led a pretty fast-paced life. I've not taken a lot of time to be contemplative," Brokaw said. "But this was an opportunity that was forced on me to be that."
The opportunity was writing his recently published history-memoir, "Boom! Voices of the Sixties" - and his documentary, which narrows the focus to the year that epitomized the boomer revolution.
In the film, Brokaw revisits the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, where the counterculture flowered. He recalls the loss of a close friend in the Vietnam war, a fighter pilot killed in 1968 at age 30, and makes a pilgrimage to the grave site in South Dakota.
Not only is the documentary filled with images from the '60s, but also period music. Emblematic songs including Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth," Jimi Hendrix with "All Along the Watchtower," the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" and Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" are all heard.
As humorist-TV host Jon Stewart tells Brokaw, if there were a draft today, "this would be a whole different game. And they [the government] know that, and that's why there is no draft."
It's not the only time in the film where parallels are drawn between 1968 and 2007. But that's part of the power of that long-ago year: to tap into the present, and renew old questions.
"This is a pretty resilient country," Brokaw said, but it's one with "lots of vexing hangover issues. The world is not as black and white as some people would have you believe."
Not then. Not now. *