President Bush and the messianic Boomer imperative

February 6, 2005 | By Vicki Haddock

CLARIFICATION: In his State of the Union address on Wednesday, President Bush credited former President Franklin Roosevelt with saying, “Each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth. Our generation has dreams of its own…” The line was written by 19th century British poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy.

Contrary to superficial impressions, George W. Bush is the quintessential Baby Boomer. His State of the Union speech revealed him to be both a product of his generation and the embodiment of its peculiar personality.

Boomers often are mistakenly categorized as the liberal sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation, but the reality is more complex. They always have split somewhat evenly down the political spectrum—Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh, Howard Dean and George W. Bush. What unifies Boomers isn’t ideology; it’s temperament. This is a generation whose members long have felt a messianic moral imperative to challenge and change the world.

They can be accurately characterized as passionate, idealistic, spiritual. Also self-righteous, uncompromising, arrogant.

Boomers rarely consider their opponents merely misguided—they are “morally bankrupt.” Little wonder that with Boomers in control of the nation’s political levers, we are left polarized.

Bush—who detoured around campus activism in the 1960s—now belatedly effuses his own brand of radicalism. Feeling the winds of history at his back, he was flush with it during Wednesday’s State of the Union. Fresh from twin election victories—here and in Iraq—Bush touts freedom as the gospel America’s missionaries must spread to save the world’s souls from tyranny. He urges rescuing Social Security, which he labels “a great moral success of the 20th Century,” with the purgative tonic of partial privatization.

In the speech, Bush made more overt references to his generation than to terrorism. “So many of my generation, after a long journey, have come home to family and faith, and are determined to bring up responsible, moral children,” he said, segueing into a wish list that includes a ban on same-sex marriages.

Who would have predicted that Boomers, taking the reins of government, would become morals cops and lead us into war in the name of lofty principle?

Among the prescient prophets were two Bay Area natives, William Strauss and Neil Howe, who penned the 1991 book “Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069.” Strauss is a Harvard-educated former congressional counsel who directs the satirical troupe Capitol Steps; Howe has graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale and is a policy consultant whose clients include the Social Security Administration.

Their book laid out a theory of American history so unconventional that Al Gore gave a copy to every member of Congress and Newt Gingrich termed it “an intellectual tour de force.”

The authors identify four generational “personality types” that they say recur over and over, shaping history as history shapes them.

The four types cycle in an orderly pattern. A loyal “Civic” generation of can-do optimists (most recently, those who fought World War II and provided every president from Kennedy to Bush I) invariably is followed by a generation of pragmatic conciliators called “Adaptives” (American voters have skipped this entire “silent” generation when picking presidents). Next comes a crusading “Idealist” generation (the Boomers in an array of political permutations), followed by a more cynical, worldly-wise “Reactive” generation (nicknamed Generation X). The cycle repeats because the way each generation is raised influences how it parents the next.

In the view of “Generations,” Boomers echo previous “Idealists” such as Benjamin Franklin’s “Great Awakenings” generation and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalists. This leads to some bizarre linkage—equating the fervor of protesters marching to stop the bombing of North Vietnam to that of the Prohibitionists marching to outlaw booze.

“Boomers do not inherently dislike government: The idea of using the state to tell people what to do suits them just fine,” the book counter- intuitively notes, citing political correctness, anti-drug, anti-smoking and abstinence-only drives.

Eerily, given that it was published a decade before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, “Generations” imagines a scenario in which New York City is threatened with a terrorist nuclear attack. The book speculates that while a “Civic” generation would downplay the threat and manage the crisis with technological innovation, and an “Adaptive” generation would initiate multilateral negotiations and reconciliation, it would be a different story if Boomers were in charge:

“They would exaggerate the threat …and tie it to a larger sense of global crisis. These leaders would define the enemy broadly and demand its total defeat—regardless of the human and economic sacrifices required.…For better or for worse, Americans would be far more inclined than in other eras to risk catastrophe to achieve what its leaders would define as a just outcome.”

George W. Bush acknowledged the progression of generations when he concluded his State of the Union by quoting a member of the previous Idealist generation, Franklin Roosevelt: “Each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.” Then he added his own coda: “Our generation has dreams of its own …”

As Bush steers us into his second term, he glimpses in history’s rear view mirror the reflection of his own father, a “Civic” who served in the military under FDR’s direction in what has been dubbed the Greatest Generation. “Unlike their GI fathers, who excelled at overcoming crisis,” the book noted, “Boomers are attracted to the possibility of fomenting crisis.”

The nation’s first Boomer president, Bill Clinton, complained that fate never provided him a sufficient crisis in which to prove his capacity for greatness.

As the second Boomer to occupy the White House, George W. Bush, at least got his opportunity.