Yesterday I finished David Paul Kuhn’s important new book “The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution.” The book is about the lead up to, the clash, and aftermath of the brutal confrontation that took place between blue collar construction workers and Vietnam War protesters in downtown Manhattan on May 8, 1970. Most of the hardhats were men currently working on the construction of the Twin Towers a few blocks west and north of Federal Hall, where the incident began before moving northward to City Hall and Pace University. (Federal Hall itself was closed for renovation.) The event took place four days after the shootings at Kent State and the same day as Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, which the Knicks famously won when Willis Reed limped out of the locker room and gave the hometown team just enough to defeat Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers. I cannot recommend “The Hardhat Riot” strongly enough, especially for anyone who wants at better understanding of our current historical moment. Events and people are complicated. Individuals can be both perpetrators and victims, worthy of sympathy and censure simultaneously. Kuhn shows us that complexity. I cannot imagine the work that went into reconstructing the riot into a narrative, though the author gives us some idea in the bibliographic essay in the back matter. It is all the more extraordinary because even half a century on there were people trying to keep him from records and details that could help that story.
It was thus a little serendipitous then when yesterday evening–Christmas Night–a friend sent this article written by White House staffer Dwight Chapin explaining how he facilitated the December 1970 White House encounter between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. I won’t go into the details because Chapin has already done that so well. The short explanation is that Elvis wanted to help Nixon bridge the Generation Gap, especially in the fight on drugs. (Oh, the irony). Presley saw himself as a figure who could bridge the generational chasm, and in a way was suited to do so. I have a good friend, a baby boomer born in 1956 who grew up in typical boomer fashion: suburbia, multiple siblings, stay-at-home mother, WW2 veteran father, the whole works. He explained to me more than once that Elvis Presley was within the consciousness and paradigms of his parents and their friends in a way that the Beatles could never be—and never were. There was something within Elvis to which even full-fledged adults—people who had grown up during the Depression and had gone through the Second World War—could relate. I suspect a large reason for that is because The King was so deeply rooted in the blues, country, and gospel traditions and was working within frameworks recognizable even to adults of the 1950s. That would not be the case when the Beatles came to America in February 1964. Though my own father was not of the World War 2 generation I know that he could never relate to The Beatles, and even got a little angry and upset when my brother and I listened to them in later years when we ourselves were coming up. By the time The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show my parents already had two kids.
To Baby Boomers themselves though, Elvis must have been something from the Remote Past in the waning Age of Aquarius. In December 1970 at the time of his White House visit he was less than three weeks shy of his thirty-sixth birthday. For those not inclined to trust anyone over thirty, he was ancient. Elvis was in the middle of his comeback—his post-1968 output is my personal favorite—but culturally the world was moving on. By December 1970 The Beatles had already been broken up for six months. Black Sabbath’s first album had come out that February. In October Jimmy Page and his bandmates released “Led Zeppelin III.” That was the historical moment when Elvis walked in to the White House for his thirty-five minute audience with President Nixon fifty years ago this week.