Shushing the Baby Boomers
January 21, 2007 | By John M. Broder
The time has come, Senator Barack Obama says, for the baby boomers to get over themselves.
In taking the first steps toward a presidential candidacy last week, Mr. Obama, who was born in 1961 and considers himself a member of the post-boomer generation, said Americans hungered for “a different kind of politics,” one that moved beyond the tired ideological battles of the 1960s.
To make his point, Mr. Obama, a Democrat from Illinois in his first term in the Senate, announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee in a video streamed on his Web site. He is tieless and relaxed and oh so cool.
Mr. Obama calculates that Americans of all ages are sick of the feuding boomers and ready to turn to the generation that came of age after Vietnam, after the campus culture wars between freaks and straights, and after young people had given up on what uberboomer Hillary Rodham Clinton (who made her own announcement on the Web yesterday) called in a 1969 commencement address a search for “a more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living.”
In his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Mr. Obama is critical of the style and the politics of the 60s, when the psyches of most of his potential rivals for the White House were formed. He writes that the politics of that era were highly personal, burrowing into every interaction between youth and authority and among peers. The battles moved to Washington in the 1990s and endure today, he says.
“In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004,” he writes, “I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage.”
Mr. Obama says he recognizes that the flashpoints of the 60s—war, racism, inequality, the relations between the sexes—still animate American politics and society and remain largely unresolved. And he acknowledges, as a child of a white Kansan mother and black Kenyan father, that his own prominence and prospects would have been impossible without the struggles of those who marched in Selma and Washington. But he argues that America faces new challenges that require a new political paradigm.
Mr. Obama may be on to something. Surveys—and the stock market—show that the founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both 36, are among the most admired entrepreneurs in America. And no less an establishment institution than the Ford Foundation has indicated that it will look for a leader in his or her 40’s when Susan V. Berresford, the foundation’s president since 1996, retires next year at age 65.
Plenty of self-loathing boomers agree that their cohort ought to take a “Big Chill” pill and head for that vegan commune in Oregon they have dreamed of. “We baby boomers have been dreadful in the public arena,” the Time columnist Joe Klein wrote in a blog last week.
On the other hand, Mr. Brin and Mr. Page recruited a tech-industry veteran, Eric E. Schmidt, born in 1955, to run Google’s day-to-day business while they come up with ways to make their brainchild pay.
And despite the supposed hunger for a new generation of leaders, voters recently elected what is probably the oldest Congress in American history, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The question most Americans are asking, said Paul B. Costello, 54, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale, is not “When were you born?” but “What have you got?”
Mr. Costello, director of communications at Stanford’s medical school, said: “I look at these two candidates, Hillary is the star student and Obama is a transfer student and everyone’s saying, ‘Who’s that guy? Oh, cool, wow.’ But yet nobody knows much about him and everybody knows Hillary’s going to be the valedictorian.” He added: “I don’t know that voters really care about these issues of the baby boomers versus Generation X. It’s a nice sort of branding, a marketing thing when you’re trying to create yourself from nothing.”
Modern presidential campaigns are essentially character tests, and for 20 years or longer the cultural and political divides of the 60s served as presumed signposts to a candidate’s character. Did he protest the war, trip to Hendrix, march in solidarity with women? Or enroll in R.O.T.C., rush a fraternity, join a church? As a young man, Mr. Obama did not have to make many of those choices, and he now has an opportunity to define himself on his own terms and not be instantly caricatured based on personal decisions he made four decades ago. (He has, of course, acknowledged some marijuana and cocaine use in his youth; that does not seem to have dimmed his prospects.)
“Where you were on these issues really told people who you were,” said Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House official who is now a political consultant in California. “But 2008 will represent a hinge moment in generational politics, not just because of the prominence of a post-boomer candidate but because this will be the first cycle when a whole new range of issues as big, if not bigger, than the big issues that defined the boomers will be front and center: Iraq, the war on terror, global warming, energy, technology and globalization.”
While the Obama-Clinton generational dynamic will mostly play out in the primaries, Republican voters will be weighing the candidacy of one of the oldest men ever to seek the presidency, John McCain, 70, the only member of the likely field born before the baby boom’s unofficial start in 1943. (There is disagreement over what birth years define the baby boom; some say 1946 to 1964, but the sociologists Neil Howe and William Strauss consider the boomer bulge to have begun in 1943 and ended in 1960.)
John F. Kennedy noted in his Inaugural Address in 1961 that a torch had passed to a new generation of Americans, “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” Kennedy’s cohort, known as the G.I. Generation and born between 1901 and 1924, occupied the White House continuously until Bill Clinton wrested it from George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992. Mr. Clinton turned it over to another boomer, George W. Bush.
But some say that after 14 years of personal and political self-indulgence in Washington and a grinding war, it’s time to say goodbye to the solipsistic generation.
“Thank you, here’s your gold watch, it’s time for the personal style and political framework of the 1960’s to get out of the way,” said Eric Liu, 38, a speechwriter and policy aide in the Clinton White House who now runs a mentoring program in Seattle.
And yet Mr. Obama has not demonstrated his leadership beyond eight years in the Illinois Senate and two in Washington. His early opposition to the Iraq war has pleased many Democratic voters, but it is not wholly clear how he would manage an end to the war and deal with global terrorism and other foreign policy challenges.
The historian and Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said Mr. Obama had to offer more than a repudiation of the previous generation’s actions. “It depends on what the policies are,” Mr. Schlesinger said. “The New Frontier was the development of the insights of the New Deal.”
Todd Harris, 35, a Republican political consultant, said he worked in 1999 for the short-lived presidential campaign of Representative John Kasich of Ohio, who was born in 1952. “He was young and new and fresh and we listened to the same music,” Mr. Harris said. “But I’m not sure that works when your country is at war. I think that most people I know in my generation will place a far greater premium on someone’s leadership skills and their ability to guide the nation through turbulent times than they do on what generation that politician came from or what that person recently downloaded from iTunes.”
Mr. Obama would be foolish to run solely as the anti-boomer, Mr. Lehane said, if for no other reason than that the baby boomers are the largest generation in American history, and they vote.