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After the Ginsburg Debacle, a Chronicler of the Sixties Ponders the New Politics of Pot

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The admission by Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, 41, that he had smoked marijuana while a student and later as a professor at Harvard cost him his nomination this month to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the wake of Ginsburg’s withdrawal, a number of political figures on both sides of the partisan divide stepped forward to confess that they too had tried the drug at one time or another. Either because they feared the secret couldn’t be kept or because they were offended by the piety of Ginsburg’s critics, two Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee and former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, confessed that they and the weed were not strangers.

That such a shopworn issue from the ’60s should rise again in the ’80s comes as no surprise to Todd Gitlin, whose account of a tumultuous decade, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam, $19.95), was published this month. A former leader of Students for a Democratic Society, he is now a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. Gitlin, 44, spoke with correspondent Maria Wilhelm about the aftershocks of that rebellious era in which so many Americans came of age.

How have attitudes toward marijuana changed in the past 20 years?

In the ’60s part of what made it so attractive to young people was that everybody got so worked up about it. You felt as though you were an outlaw as soon as you took a puff. Now opinion polls show that whether a candidate smoked marijuana or not is of little interest to most of the public.

So why has past drug use suddenly become front-page news again?

Marijuana isn’t the real issue here. It could have been abortion, unorthodox sex experiences or any number of things. The more significant issue is what we believe morally, spiritually and culturally. The marijuana revelations were only the occasion for the renewal of the cultural civil war that broke out in the ’60s.

Setting aside any other questions about his qualifications, do you think Judge Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court could have survived the drug flap?

No. Ginsburg was typical of his generation. I personally know very few people who smoke marijuana now, but I knew very few who didn’t smoke it then. The Reagan Administration didn’t understand generational politics and, consequently, blew it. For seven years they have been trying to seize the moralistic high ground, and now they are hoist by their own petard.

Do you think public figures of a certain age, like Gore and Babbitt, can admit past drug use without sustaining any permanent political damage?

Maybe they’ll pick up more points for honesty than they lose for iniquity. It’s possible that most of their supporters know that you can’t apply the moral means tests of the ’50s to the generation that came of age in the ’60s. If you are going to bar from public life anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with marijuana, abortion, with cohabitation or with sexual experimentation, then just whom are you going to have in leadership roles?

Is this preoccupation with the private lives of public figures also a legacy of the ’60s?

The women’s movement popularized the idea that personal conduct had political consequences. In some ways, that has been carried to a degree that I think would horrify many who endorsed that idea. But a lot of journalists grew up believing that they had to puncture the hypocrisy of people in power. That’s not to say that Gary Hart or Joe Biden didn’t ask for what they got. I make a distinction, however, between possible deception on the one hand and youthful indulgence in controlled substances on the other.

Do you think that members of the generation that indulged ha ve changed their attitudes toward drugs in their own lives?

Yes. It’s one thing to have smoked grass casually when you were 20, but quite another to have your 12-year-old flirting with it. The fact that someone smoked dope doesn’t disqualify him or her from being able to say to a kid, “I know it can mess up your head.” But we’re still caught up in it. The cultural civil war runs right through us. We want to think of ourselves as God-fearing and disciplined, and at the same time we believe in making every person a happy little island of commodities—applianced up, stereoed up, juiced up. We don’t know whether to hunker down or let the good times roll.

What does the current marijuana debate say about politics today?

When you step back a moment and consider what truly significant things the world is going to expect from an American President, the whole thing is both hilarious and rather sad. We have a political system that is not geared to straightforward political debate. We’re an entertainment culture. It’s more interesting to talk about all this jazz than about someone’s position on arms control.