Although Barack Obama likes to say that his campaign represents a break from the boomers' obsessive re-fighting of the battles of the Sixties, the McCain-Obama race represents the most clear-cut contrast of Vietnam era symbols since the last Vietnam era Presidential race, Nixon-McGovern in 1972.
The most obvious similarity between the two campaigns is that, like McGovern, Obama, a longtime opponent of the Iraq War, is running as a peace candidate, while McCain, like Nixon, is a war supporter who wants to fight to "victory" in Iraq. But there are other ways in which McCain and Obama remind us of the Age of Aquarius.
McCain is, of course, a Vietnam vet, a Navy pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam and held as a POW for 5 years. This aspect of his life is fraught with meaning to Americans who lived through the Vietnam disaster. To those of us who opposed the war, bomber pilots represented the most personally culpable of the American warriors fighting what we knew was an "immoral" war. They were volunteers, officers, "lifers" -- true believers in the American war who rained anonymous death on the Vietnamese peasants below them. (My ex-wife's freshman roommate, whose father was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, came back to their room crying after a fellow student told her that her father was a "murderer." The girl sobbed that she knew that most of her fellow students didn't agree with this assessment. My ex-wife tried to explain to her gently that, in fact, they did.)
From the standpoint of those Americans who supported the war, McCain's status as a POW plays into one of their major archetypes of the war, that of the American serviceman who, having given his all to win the war, was abandoned by the backstabbing anti-war movement on the home front. This right wing tendency operated for decades under the black POW-MIA flag, and, McCain, subliminally at least, evokes that trope.
Obama was a middle schooler when the Vietnam War ended in 1975, so he doesn't have the kind of personal history in the events of the era that McCain does. However, his life story clearly puts him on the counter-cultural side of the Sixties divide. First of all, of course, he's black, and whether it wants to remember it or not, the defining issue of the Sixties-era right was opposition to black liberation. Second, he's the son of an African, suggesting the Pan-African elements of the Black Nationalist movements of the era, as does the Black Liberation theology of his now infamous pastor, Jeremiah Wright. As an adult, Obama chose to work as a community organizer and a civil rights lawyer, both jobs that were essentially invented during the Sixties. No matter how mainstream his politics are, he reminds people of the old issues.
So how does this play out in this year's election? It's hard to tell. McCain's status as a Vietnam vet explains a good deal of the deference given him by boomer reporters who didn't serve and it also makes it more difficult for Obama to attack him personally. Obama's evocation of Sixties symbols explains, I think, much of the reason why he attracted the support of white educated upper-income Democrats, many of whom were part of the anti-war counter-culture and the opposition of working class white primary voters who were on the other side of that divide. But 2008 is not 1972. The end of the Cold War and the disastrous Iraq War have reduced the appeal of the bellicose right. And, of course, millions of Americans who will vote in this election were not yet born when the last American helicopter left the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon.