On the fourth anniversary of the war in late March, the Dems held an event called “Number the Lives” out on the college walk, and they covered yards and yards of butcher paper with tally marks as a way of numbering the dead. They’d only gotten to 45,000. Those grim hatch marks taped up on the stone walls were one of the few public signs during the time I visited the school that anyone seemed to care about what was going on in Iraq.
Jess Blakemore, wearing big turquoise Ralph Lauren sunglasses, buttonholed students to ask them to call their congressmen. Congress was the place to stop the war. The radicals think placing so much faith in politics is misguided. They don't get excited about Obama or Clinton or Edwards. David Catalinotto walked by, and walked away, dismayed by the “rivalry” between the coalition he was in and the Dems.
The ’68ers were able to win over 1,000 or more mainstream Democrats, who came out for strikes and takeovers. They did so by showing the mainstream students that the liberal Establishment was implicated in the war. “Vietnam was a liberal war,” Rudd explains. “Well-meaning liberals got the nature of reality wrong. They said the Vietnam War was a well-intentioned error. No, we said, it was a policy of aggression, imperialism.”
Another reason mainstream students joined up was visceral: the draft. When Bob Feldman knocked on doors at night, kids invited him in to smoke dope and talk about the war because they were afraid. After Vietnam, the government acted to make sure that that Ivy League conversation wouldn’t happen again. According to veterans’ advocate Tod Ensign, the Defense Department’s switch to an all-volunteer army was propelled partly by an argument from conservative economist Milton Friedman that elites must be able to attend college and train for professions without the fear of doing military service. “The bulk of the anti-Vietnam protest was driven by the draft, it was true self-interest,” Ensign says. By ending the draft, the government ended elite “divisiveness.”
It also ended the radicals’ sense of cataclysmic drama. “We didn’t think we were going to live past our twenties,” says Feldman. “I assumed there was going to be a revolution in the seventies. I overestimated the ease with which American society could be changed. Because it was so easy to shut down Columbia.” Feldman and his friends paid a price for their commitment. His former roommate Ted Gold died in an explosion at the Weathermen’s Greenwich Village safe house in 1970. His old Columbia friend David Gilbert is still in prison for the famous Brinks robbery, which resulted in the deaths of two policemen.
And yet, I heard young Columbia radicals using the word revolution. I asked David Judd what that meant.
“I don’t think it’s impossible for there to be a revolution in the United States. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near one,” he said. “In the sixties and seventies, they were vastly deluded about that, and now people make a similar mistake. Because it’s demanded of us, ethically it is what needs to happen, therefore it can. It’s a perspective that leads you to make all kinds of mistakes.”
Would you ever put your college career, or life, on the line? I asked. David splayed his fingers and grimaced as he thought it over. “It’s hard to answer that question without sounding tepid or silly. It’s too abstract. Ask me whether I’m willing to lay down my life for a cause when there’s a realistic chance of that and I will give you an answer. I would hope that I would give you a positive answer. I could manage to ruin my career and get myself expelled from Columbia, but I can’t conceive of a realistic situation where that is going to be productive. I am willing to accept a minuscule risk of expulsion for what I’m going to do.” (A week or two after our conversation, the Spectator published the results of the Minuteman investigation: Among eight students disciplined by the university, Karina had been censured, and David had gotten a warning.)
Hanging out with the College Dems at their rally, I heard lots of career talk. Who worked for Hillary, who worked for Spitzer, who’s at the school’s think tank, the Roosevelt Institution. When a poised former president of the College Dems stopped by the table, Jess Blakemore cooed, “Twenty years from now I’m going to quit a lucrative job to work on Seth’s campaign for president.”
Olivia explained to me that career anxiety is the biggest impediment to anyone’s taking over buildings this time around. “I don’t see that [takeover] as a possibility for my generation, and not just because of the draft thing,” she said. “We have just been so brainwashed on the importance of college, and of a prestige college, and we pay so much for college. The idea of skipping out on an entire semester or risking expulsion—I don’t think we’d be capable of it.”