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Monday, December 04, 2006

The Silent Generation, R.I.P.

For weeks the Baker-Hamilton Commission has performed an essential function--taking up acres of column-inches in the nation's newspapers. Its recommendations, to judge from reports, have been watered down to the point where the Bush Administration can at least pretend to be taking them seriously, and it hasn't been able to come up with a recipe for success, but it has diverted attention from the rapidly descending spiral in Iraq. (If for instance any mainstream outlet has reported the substantial increase in US casualties during the last quarter of this year, as I did a couple of weeks ago, I haven't seen it.) The Commission will have virtually no impact, but it is a kind of monument to the generation to which every one of its members now belong, the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1942.
According to the generational scheme worked out by my friends William Strauss and Neil Howe, the Silent generation is the only American generation never to have produced a president. This is only half true; while technically from the GI generation, Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) was still at the Naval Academy when the Second World War came to an end, and therefore missed the defining experience of his elders, combat, and his approach to governing was more characteristic of the younger generation. John McCain, moreover, has every intention of correcting that omission in 2008. But in 1993, after rejecting Silents Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, we jumped directly from GI George Bush to Boomer Bill Clinton. A year later Boomers became the most numerous generation in Congress, and Washington hasn't been the same since.
The defining moment for Silents was their childhood, lived out in the shadow of the Second World War. Because they had to look after their worried parents, they became empathizers, mediators, and conciliators. Because they did not get the opportunity to help solve a worldwide conflict through force of arms, they preferred more intellectual approaches to problems, and tried to avoid nasty confrontations. They were young adults during the 1950s, and although many of them (especially women) abandoned the social mores of that era in the late 1960s and 1970s--their divorce rates were the highest of any generation, and they had by far the most divorces with children still in the house--they retain a commitment to the political consensus of that era. Confronted with a problem like the Vietnam War, they generally began not by questioning its moral rectitude, but by pointing out that it was not working and trying to fix it. They could not, however, get their GI elders to listen to them.
The bipartisan Presidential commission is a quintessentially Silent institution, devoted to the idea that calm. unideological study will eventually yield the right solution to a problem. Silents are good at crossing party lines, and two of them, Phil Gramm and Warren Rudman, actually made a big dent in the federal deficit in the late 1980s. Silents (or *Silents like Jimmy Carter) are also excellent diplomats, and James Baker, who settled the civil war in El Salvador, successfully promoted the reunification of Germany, and put together the coalition against Iraq, was a s good as any. They also have a sense of how fragile success can be, and Baker, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney (in an earlier incarnation) wisely decided not to go to Baghdad in 1991. Baker and company find themselves in the ironic position of trying to end a war that they never would have begun in the first place.
Boomers, on the other hand--at least those who have come to dominate the political arena--care about only two things: being on the right side, and preserving the myth of their own omniscience. Silent Paul O'Neill was driven out of the Bush Administration because he wanted actually to understand the nuts and bolts of economic problems instead of staying "relentlessly on message," as Boomer Karen Hughes told him to do Colin Powell, another Silent, was simply ignored by President Bush and his fellow Boomers. (No theory can explain all human behavior, and Donald Rumsfeld is hardly a typical Silent--he strikes me, like the young Clint Eastwood, as a would-be GI, determined to show he can out-John Wayne John Wayne, yet oddly Boomer-like in his inability to take responsibility for any mistakes.) I have said more than enough about my own generation's catastrophic impact to have to go into it any further today.
The first Silent Presidential candidate was Robert Kennedy, and it is not coincidental that, in early 1968, he tried to solve the Vietnam problem in the same way that Hamilton and Baker are trying to deal with Iraq. Essentially, RFK told LBJ that he would not run against him for President (which, as an Establishment figure, he had grave reservations about doing) if Johnson would appoint an independent commission and accept its recommendations about Vietnam. LBJ refused. Kennedy's campaign, interrupted by his assassination, was very Silent in nature. While he deplored the impact of the Vietnam War, he never promised to end it--indeed, during his campaign against Eugene McCarthy, who frankly favored a coalition government, he promised to "clean up" the Saigon government, a hardy perennial if ever there was one. He preached reconciliation and peace, coming across, as my son put it two weeks ago after seeing the film Bobby, like the "American Gandhi." (Incidentally, I enormously enjoyed the film as an excellent portrait of a particular moment in American history, and I am sorry it isn't doing better.)
The recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission, alas, are virtually certain to suffer the fate of the Crittenden compromise of 1860-1. John Crittenden belonged to the Compromiser generation. Born in 1787, just a few years after Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, he made a last-ditch effort to compromise the split between the North and South and prevent the Civil War during "the great secession winter," as Henry Adams called it, by enshrining the principles of the Missouri and California compromises in the Constitution. But younger men in both the North and South would have none of it. Baker and his cohort worked hard during the last thirty years or so to live with the Middle East as it was, and maintained an American foothold there despite rising fundamentalism and anti-Americanism. Bush and company have swept all that away. They have no interest in restoring it, and it is not clear if they could. There is no going back to the 1980s and 1990s. The future, for the time being, belongs to the Boomers, and since the Bush Administration's vision has failed, we must come up with something completely different.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd argue otherwise - the silent generation was the most important generation of the 20th century, much more key than the WWII generation or their Boomer children.

Firstly Martin Luther King Jr. (1929) was a member of that generation and he may be more important to this nation than anyone sitting in the White House since Truman.

Centuries from now every American President of the 20th will be a just a name in a book, yet the first man to step on the moon, Buzz Aldrin (1930) will be remembered along with Columbus in terms of changing world history.

In terms of culture all four Beatles and Elvis (1935) were members of the silent generation too, yet people will be hearing their music for decades to come. It was rock music and blue jeans that won the cold war as much as anybody sitting in the White House.

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Roger Albin said...

Overpraising Baker. Its true that he (and Bush 1) had the sense to realize what was really going on in Central America and endorse the Arias peace plan, as well as negotiate with the Soviets over this issue. Both actions were bitterly criticized by neocon fantasists. But, negotiating the end of the civil war in El Salvador? The Bush 1 administration generously supported the Salvadoran Army and its allied death squads. The relevant section of LeFeber's Inevitable Revolutions hardly mentions Baker in the context of El Salvador.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous JFKeeler said...

I agree, too that the Silent Generation were one of the most important, intellectually and morally in the 20th century. The list of leaders is amazing. They inspired and led the Boomers. Everyone from Gloria Steinem, to Martin Luther King to the Beatles to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky and the list goes on and on. They created the cultural revolution of the 50's and 60's and 70's. Even if they couldn't get the GI Generation to listen to them the Boomers heard them and provided the mass impetus for cultural change rarely seen before.

7:41 PM  
Anonymous classof 58 said...

Elvis Presley was also a member of that generation. I don't believe anyone would label his impact on the music world as "silent."

11:09 AM  
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9:45 PM  

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