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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Two and a half men from the 1960s

The second post I did on this blog, in the fall of 2004, was entitled "George W. Bush: Man of the sixties," and it got things off to a rollicking start. I pointed out, among other things, that the 1960s motto which Bush so often quoted disapprovingly--"if it feels good, do it"--described his own behavior in office perfectly. Indeed, he even admitted it--confronted with evidence, for instance, that Iraq might not be ready for democracy, he would appeal to "my instincts," which he trusted implicitly. Eight years have gone by, and three Republican candidates from the Boom generation are fighting to replace Gen Xer Barack Obama. Two of them, at least, are men of the 1960s--classic Boomers--as well.

Newt Gingrich was born on the cusp of the Boom generation in 1943. Strauss and Howe picked that date to begin it for logical reasons--no one born in 1943 would have real memories of the Second World War, and those born in that year were the first cohort who cold not simply use education to escape the Vietnam draft. In practice, however, I think everyone born in that year has to be looked at individually to determine their generation. If they were well launched into their life and career by 1965 or so--that is, by the time the Awakening began--they may well show more characteristics of the Silent generation. If they were not they are much more likely to have turned out as genuine Boomers. Gingrich--like Dick Cheney, who is several years older--falls into the latter category. He spent the 1960s in grad school. (He would have lost his grad school draft deferment in 1968, when such deferments were abolished, but by that time he had already been married for six years and may have had a child.) From the beginning of his political career in the 1970s he has shown the most noteworthy Boomer traits, an utter contempt for tradition and a certainty of his own righteousness. He did more than anyone else to turn Washington's relatively civil political climate into a struggle between good and evil, and he even described himself, in the wake of the Republicans' great Congressional victory in 1994, as "the real revolutionary" in contrast to Bill and Hillary Clinton, even though they were, according to him, "countercultural McGoverniks." He used everything he could to destroy his opponents--although he was frequently guilty of the same things himself. He still fancies himself a great intellectual who enjoys rewriting the past to suit his fantasies, but he really seems to be devoted to nothing but his own self-aggrandizement. It is extremely difficult to pick the most hypocritical of the three candidates, but Gingrich seems to have made more money out of the Washington power game that he so desperately attacks than anyone else.

Rick Santorum is a younger Boomer, born in 1958. A recent New York Times story revealed that he did not adopt the social views he holds today until his marriage, in 1990, and that they came in part from his father-in-law. In any case, he adopted militant conservative Catholicism with the same fervor that older Boomers embraced various forms of leftism 20 years earlier and he has never wavered from it since. Not only that, he has the Boomer belief that his ideas must be the best for everyone in spades, as his campaign is making clear. He, like Gingrich, is a hypocrite regarding the role of money in politics. He was a big part of the K Street Project in the 1990s, trying to force Washington lobbying firms to hire nothing but Republicans, and he was a zealous promoter of earmarks for Pennsylvania firms--a role which paid off after his defeat in 2006, since he went to work for some of the people he had helped. It is no accident that he has a particular hatred for John F. Kennedy, a fellow Catholic who, in the best GI fashion, put his civic duty ahead of his religion in 1960 and promised the country that he would not decide policy based upon religious belief. GIs understood that some decisions had to be made based upon consensus; Boomers tend to assume they must always be right.

Mitt Romney is exactly my age (b. 1947) and grew up in a distinguished, very high-achieving and somewhat religious household. His father was both an auto company president and a very successful politician, and there is no evidence that Mitt's own behavior was affected in the slightest by the emotional explosion of the 1960s or that he ever rebelled against authority in any way. Like the whole Silent generation, he grew up in the shadow of his GI parents, and he never really emerged from it. And thus his behavior seems far more typical of that older generation--he has never taken a particularly courageous stand about anything and has constantly modified his positions according to the constituency to which he has been trying to appeal. He was a genuine moderate Republican as governor of Massachusetts--how else could he have been elected? Faced with doubts about his religion in 2008, he specifically took issue with John F. Kennedy's approach as well in a futile effort to please conservative Republicans. Now, of course, he has repudiated his major legislative achievement, the Massachusetts health care reform. He had a great chance last week to re-establish his credentials as a moderate and a man of some integrity by blasting Rush Limbaugh's disgraceful comments about Sandra Fluke, but he did not dare take on his fellow Boomer Rush. While all this allows even Democrats like myself to hope that Romney, if elected, might show more sanity than either of his two main opponents, it ironically has made it impossible, it seems, for Romney to attract much truly enthusiastic support within his Boomer-dominated party.

Meanwhile, all three are showing the worst Boomer characteristic in public life: an inability to make any sacrifices for anything larger than themselves, including their political party. Neither Gingrich nor Santorum has a real chance of being nominated now, and their continued attacks upon Romney can only hurt Republican prospects at the polls, but they don't care. Modern campaign financing practices--which have now been enshrined into law by a Boomer-dominated Supreme Court--encourage this behavior: it only takes one or two billionaire angels like Sheldon Adelson to keep a campaign going for months. And I also find it highly significant that none of these three men has held elective office for quite a few years--a completely unprecedented situation in a major political party's presidential contest. Boomers have always been better at being than at doing, and they have shown much more talent for campaigning than governing. Holding office is a time-consuming distraction from the real business of self-promotion. In this respect, as in so many others, Boomers for 40 years have been living off their parents' legacy. It has now, sadly, run out.


Bozon said...


One of the delusions, it seems to me, is to look back at the era of WW II as some halcyon era in American politics.

My view is that that was not the case.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

This idea of somewhat flexible generations depending on parental influence I find interesting. There is a standard cut off date but it all depends doesn't it? My father was a WWII vet and I was born in 1965 when he was 41. So I have the birth date of an Xer but the parental influence of a boomer. One could have "hangover" boomer rebelliousness or have missed the boat entirely in own X generation? My father's father was about 46 when my father was born. So these things could be out of whack down many generations for some people leaving them completely out of the picture, isolated form their cohorts to some extent emotionally. Lots to ponder there on the general theory. Anyway good generational analysis of the candidates.

I am now reading a history of the US Civil War and Mcclellan is a frustrating military figure at best when compared to such genius as Lee. But as I see Mcclellan was born in 1826 so was gilded and not transcendental so less agressive (like Obama say). (besides his being a northern democrat so was more conciliatory to the South).

NxNW 74 said...

A most relevant point, Professor, in that none of the remaining candidates have recently held office. Except, of course, Dr. Paul.

I really think the good Doctor could form a wholly new political voting block. If he could just tweak his message
a bit and focus on anti-Wall St., anti-Fed, anti-Aggressive foreign intervention, anti government intrusiveness. I'd like to think the time or Libertarian doctrine is now, it just needs an effective spokesperson of the current generation. Perhaps his progeny?

It should not be lost that his message, in tempered form, could appeal simultaneously to Tea Partiers and OWS, north and south and Gen X and Millie.

I think Mittens is the sacrificial lamb until '16. Though probably a capable commander in Chief, he is in the wrong place at the wrong time