For the past thirteen years, since I first encountered generational theory myself, I have managed to introduce several hundred students to it, become a major part of a network discussing it, and passed it along, with very mixed results, to family and old friends. I think perhaps now, for the first time, people are going to have to take it seriously. With the selections of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, we find ourselves at an interesting historical juncture: for the first time in 24 years, since 1984, there will be no Boomer on either national ticket. I do not think that that is an accident.
Theodore White, the author of The Making of the President series, observed the Boom’s entry onto the national scene in 1968. Largely because White was himself such a typical GI and so committed to the values of his own youth, he saw what was happening, and put it in historical perspective, far more clearly than most people either then or since. Here, for instance, is how he described first-wave Boomer Sam Brown, Eugene McCarthy’s chief organizer in the New Hampshire primary.
“Such young people as Sam Brown are throwbacks—they come from a strain of American life that goes back probably to the Abolitionists, explosive with morality. [The abolitionists, of course, were Prophets like the Boomers, members of the Transcendental generation, born in the early constitutional era.] Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, twenty-three years earlier, Sam came of what anyone in Council Bluffs would consider a ‘best family.’ . . Sam had gone to Redlands University in Southern California, where first he was president of the Young Republicans, then president of the student body. His first reflex of rebellion had come when the university had banned Communist speakers from the campus and Sam, protesting the ban, was branded a Communist by the trustees. That summer—1964—Sam became involved in the National Students Association, thus meeting Al Lowenstein and becoming alert to politics. [White did not mention that the NSA had also turned out to be a CIA front in 1967.] The summer of 1964 was also the summer of the student crusade in Mississippi and Sam felt the Democratic convention in Atlantic City that year sold out the students’ cause by its compromise on seating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.” Later Brown—ironically, like David Stockman—had spent several months at the Harvard Divinity School before joining the McCarthy campaign to stop the war. He did not go so far as Barack Obama’s notorious acquaintance William Ayers, however, and decide that the war was so immoral, and American society so corrupt, that anything could be justified as long as it helped bring the war to a close.
In another part, White described quite accurately the technique of student campus rebellion that had so far reached only two major campuses, but which in 1969 and 1970 would surface at literally hundreds of them.
“Democracy is a phoney word to be sneered at unless carefully modified by such phrases as democracy of the streets, democracy of direct action or participatory democracy. Otherwise, democracy is a trick played on the people by the establishment. Establishment is, of course, one of the most fashionable words in American politics today, and was to be heard as frequently from Barry Goldwater’s thinkers as from the Students for a Democratic Society. [White in his 1964 book had been smart enough not to write off Barry Goldwater as a fluke, but had grasped that Goldwater represented something authentic and powerful—exactly how powerful White himself did not live to see.] . . .The glossary becomes operational when it moves on to its action words. Action opens by insistence on dialogue. A dialogue is begun (usually be a self-appointed delegation meeting with an official) when demands (non-negotiable demands) are presented and communications channels opened. The best ambiance for communications is something called creative tension, which is designed to reveal buried hates and unspoken prejudice. The rhythm of dialogue, creative tension, and communications in what is called confrontation, a riot condition.” (I must stop here, but White continues in the same vein on pp. 213-4.)
Now when the Vietnam War came to an end the student movement died with it, and during the 1970s and 1980s Boomers struggled with inflation, began having children, and became Yuppies. But in the 1990s they came into power throughout our society, and the style of their youth began to dominate large areas of American life. The media is now almost completely dominated by the language of confrontation, invective, and rigid ideological camps. Economic institutions have adopted a take-no-prisoners attitude as well. And White never imagined, I suspect, as he described the confrontations on campus of the late 1960s, that 35 years later a Boomer President would bring exactly the same approach—non-negotiable demands, confrontation, war, and even torture—to the conduct of international affairs. But that is what happened.
Prophet generations have historically produced politicians whose belief in their own righteousness far outweighed their ability to get anything done—including Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs of the South, William Lloyd Garrison, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner in the North, and later, Herbert Hoover. (The Missionary generation of post-civil war Prophets was more rationalist than the Transcendentals or the Boom, and the country and the world benefited.) The exceptions, of course, were those two great politicians who became our greatest Presidents, Abraham Lincoln (who rose to prominence very late in life) and Franklin Roosevelt. Strauss and Howe always expected Boomers to produce some one similar. It seems that that is not going to happen.
The most successful Boomer politicians have tended to rely on a mixture of ideological rigidity and family connections. Bill Clinton was in a way the Lincoln of his generation—a self-made man with considerable political skill—but he came to office in relatively peaceful times and did as little as he could to rock the boat. George W. Bush combined family advantages and ideology; so did Hillary Rodham Clinton. But her sense of entitlement turned off too many voters this year. (Both Clintons in my opinion, however, did rise nobly to the occasion at the Democratic convention, for which I thank them. I expect them both to be major assets in the campaign.) As for the Republican Boomers—led by Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee—they were either too obviously self-centered (Giuliani and Romney) or too ideologically bizarre (Huckabee. Even in 2008, one can perhaps reject either evolution or the income tax—but not both.) John McCain won the Republican nomination, in my opinion, because he was the only Silent Republican with the stomach to have stuck around this long, and because his personality has broad appeal. He has now—wisely—decided not to elevate any of his Boomer adversaries to the Vice Presidency. (This could change if Sarah Palin’s state trooper scandal turns out to be serious in the next few days, but McCain’s decision seems to have been made.)
As for Barack Obama, he won because he is a terrific natural politician with an inspiring life story who appealed, above all, to young people—people who have seen Boomers close at hand, as parents. As he made clear the other night in his fine acceptance speech, he wants to move beyond the climate Boomers have created. He picked a Silent, Joe Biden, who in contrast to Sam Nunn, Warren Rudman, Alan Simpson, and other contemporaries decided, like McCain, to stick it out in Washington—and who has really improved with age. I wish Obama well but this is going to be extremely difficult—especially when he actually takes office. Democrats may be ready for this; Republicans, and the media, are not. Panic that they may not in fact be the wave of the future is driving Boomer Republicans crazy. David Brooks’s appalling column Friday, in which he tries to ridicule Obama with half a dozen factual inaccuracies, is a case in point.
The older generation’s cliché about Boomers 40 years ago was, I regret to say, true. We never had to earn everything; we thought everything was ours by right—including the right to rule the world. Such generations are above all destructive, and some one should write a book about the actual impact of the Boom on our national life. It is more important now, however, to move forward. McCain cannot—his Presidency would resemble James Buchanan’s and would probably lead to another war. Obama might. A series of events, beginning with the Vietnam War, has combined to throw American politics off the track for the last four decades. It is now time to find out whether Bismarck was right, and whether the “special Providence” he identified still looks after fools, drunks—and the United States of America.