The Boomer-in-Chief Nears a Milestone: The Big 6-0
June 25, 2006 | By Peter Baker
He talks about the March of Freedom around the world, but it’s the March of Time at home that’s on President Bush’s mind lately. No matter how fast he pedals that mountain bike, no matter how much he towel-snaps foreign leaders, the Yale-by-way-of-Texas frat boy is facing the big 6-0 next week.
The idea no doubt will shock many fellow baby boomers, accustomed as they are to the mantle of youth in American society. And it certainly seems to have shocked the president, who regularly mentions the approaching milestone to audiences and jokingly blames his graying hair on his mother.
“Getting older by the minute,” he sighed during a speech at a college in Omaha a few weeks ago. “I know I’m not supposed to talk about myself, but in a month I’m turning 60. For you youngsters, I want to tell you something. When I was your age, I thought 60 was really old. It’s all in your mind. It’s not that old. Really isn’t.”
But if his generation likes to obsess about the broader meaning of it all, its most powerful member seems content to let others decide. What does it mean that the generation of revolution has become the establishment? What does it mean that the generation of idealism has been tempered by reality? What does it mean that the generation of vigor and optimism now begins to peer over the hill at mortality? If Bush has any thoughts on that, he’s keeping them to himself.
“He’s by nature a nostalgic guy, and he reflects about experiences and friends and things he’s loved. I’m sure he’ll look at this as a marker in his life,” said Mark McKinnon, the president’s friend and political consultant. But not publicly. “It’s just not in his nature. He’s not a public navel-gazer.”
Born in New Haven, Conn., on July 6, 1946, 10 months after the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri, Bush represents the first wave of the postwar generation to reach its seventh decade. Others turning 60 this year include Cher, Reggie Jackson, Diane Keaton, Liza Minnelli, Dolly Parton, Susan Sarandon, Suzanne Somers, Steven Spielberg, Kenneth W. Starr and Donald Trump, not to mention Bush’s wife, Laura, and his predecessor, Bill Clinton.
Baby boomers, generally defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, now dominate the halls of power. As of last year, they controlled 41 of the nation’s 50 governorships, exactly half of the 100 Senate seats and 275 of the 435 House seats. With the ascension of John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., they have even begun to crack that last bastion of the Silent Generation, the Supreme Court, where with Clarence Thomas they now have three of nine seats.
“After 60, you can’t pretend you’re any longer a young Turk. You’re now at best a senior statesman, a graybeard,” said former labor secretary Robert B. Reich, speaking from a Cape Cod weekend celebrating his own 60th birthday. “I would never think of myself as part of the establishment, but yes, from the perspective of people 20 years younger, you are by definition the establishment.”
That’s a long way from 1988, when Dan Quayle became the first boomer elected to national office after a campaign in which he was mocked as a callow youth and tried to defend himself with an ill-fated comparison to John F. Kennedy. Clinton came along four years later and capitalized on youth by playing the saxophone and picking Al Gore, while fending off the hangovers of his generation—marijuana experimentation, avoidance of the draft and participation in the sexual revolution.
When he arrived on the scene, Bush tried to turn that on its head, positioning himself as the opposite side of the same generational coin, the backlash to the excesses of the 1960s as seemingly represented by Clinton’s affair with an intern. “Our current president,” Bush told the Republican convention in 2000, “embodied the potential of a generation—so many talents, so much charm, such great skill. But in the end, to what end? So much promise to no great purpose.”
Never mind that, by his own admission, Bush didn’t really grow up until 40, when he quit drinking, or that he had his own history of sidestepping Vietnam. Bush’s message was: Our generation has a more sober, responsible side. As if to emphasize the point, he chose for his vice president a man identified with a previous generation, Richard B. Cheney.
The first great geopolitical challenge for the boomer leadership arrived on Sept. 11, 2001, and Bush now regularly compares the threat of terrorism and the war in Iraq to the trials of his father’s World War II generation. Some see Bush’s aggressive approach in historical terms. “A core lesson in history is the generation born in the immediate aftermath of a great crisis is the one that tends to push society and those who follow into the next great crisis of history,” said William Strauss, co-author of the seminal book “Generations.”
At home, Bush’s presidency has been dominated by the generational issues of Medicare and Social Security. He pushed through the biggest expansion of Medicare but failed to revamp Social Security to give younger workers the choice of investing payroll taxes. Now when he mentions his birthday, he often does so in the context of fixing entitlement programs.
“This year the first of about 78 million baby boomers turn 60, including two of my dad’s favorite people—me and President Clinton,” Bush told Congress in his State of the Union address in January. “This milestone is more than a personal crisis. It is a national challenge.”
As he notes, boomers will live longer than their parents did, with fewer workers paying into the system to support them. “There’s a lot of folks like me being promised greater benefits, who are living longer,” he told a West Virginia audience in March. “I don’t know how the other 60-year-olds—how long they plan to live. I plan on kind of stretching her out, you know?”
Boomer birthdays will keep the issue in the forefront. “That plays into politics because you’ve got this whole generation that has not really thought about a lot of these issues until now,” said John Rother, policy director at AARP, a third of whose 35 million members are younger than 60. “The more people you have hitting 60, you’ll see more discussion of retirement, health care, that sort of thing.”
On a personal level, Bush has spent much of his presidency fighting the advance of age with discipline. He wakes at 5:30 a.m., arrives at the Oval Office around 7 and calls it a day around 5:30 or 6 p.m. when he’s in Washington. He exercises ferociously with a mountain bike, treadmill and free-weight resistance training. Yesterday, he biked for 2 1/2 hours at a Secret Service training facility in Beltsville. With a resting pulse rate of 47 beats per minute, a cholesterol count of 178 and a body fat percentage of 15.79, he remains in “superior” shape, according to his latest medical checkup.
The approach of Bush’s big day has been met with none of the hoopla that surrounded his predecessor’s 50th birthday, an earlier mile marker in the boomer generation’s passage through life. When Bill Clinton reached the half-century mark in 1996, he was feted at a Radio City Music Hall gala broadcast by satellite to more than 80 locations, complete with performances by Jon Bon Jovi, Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon and master of ceremonies Whoopi Goldberg, among others.
Not to be outdone,Hillary Rodham Clinton’s friends a year later celebrated her 50th with a surprise party 50 days before the actual day, followed by gag gifts each successive day. All that culminated with a hometown bus tour, a panel discussion and a swank fete in Chicago with a 300-pound, 6-foot-high pumpkin spice cake.
If Bush’s friends are planning anything that extravagant, they are keeping it secret better than a trip to Baghdad. “Really?” asked Bradford M. Freeman, a longtime Bush friend, when told the president’s 60th birthday was approaching. “I should do something. Get a card or something.”
Cheney was asked at a ceremony last week what he planned to give Bush for his birthday. “Maybe a shotgun?” someone in the audience suggested, provoking laughter.
“He’s got one already,” Cheney replied. But the vice president didn’t seem to have anything else in mind.
“We usually don’t exchange birthday presents. We exchange Christmas presents. And I’d have to give serious thought. It’s probably—it’s one of those things that need to be secret.”
Aides said Bush will celebrate as he usually does, with a party in the White House on the Fourth of July attended by old friends and close aides. “They’re just real low-key,” said Susan Whitson, the first lady’s spokeswoman. “They’re just going to be with some close friends.”
Still, he has a fun boomer outing this week before the big day. He plans to take Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, an avid Elvis Presley fan, to visit Graceland.