Clinton Crosses the Gap

ELLEN GOODMAN

June 23, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- By the end of 90 minutes, the rock 'n' ''town hall'' forum accomplished one thing for Bill Clinton. It made him look like the older generation. But then, MTV can do that to a baby boomer.

First there is the music. This crowd of 18-to-24-year-olds only listens to the Rolling Stones in elevators. When Mr. Clinton cited Elvis as his rock mentor, there was polite silence. Sure, Pops.

Then there is the dress code. Not even Bill's favorite flowered tie could change the image. He was the suit. They were the T-shirt generation.

And the language. The governor speaks policy-wonk. The 19-year-old in the audience said that her peers are apolitical because much of what's said is ''not in my space.''

Admittedly, the audience that usually tunes in to this channel has an average attention span of some 12 minutes for MTV programs. Considering the normal fare, that's probably good. The age group assembled for this ''Choose or Lose'' event, 18-to-24-year-olds, has had a voting record in the 20 percent bracket. Which considering the state of democracy, is decidedly bad.

But watching the MTV forum with two young voters of my own intimate acquaintance, I saw this campaign in a different light. The youngest of the candidates for president was middle-aging. The ex-Wunderkind, the boyish governor, was telling this audience to vote because what happened in this election was even more important to them than to him, because ''you will be around longer.''

It seemed to be another indication that the baby boom generation is getting older without taking over. Every four years, we hear that this time the largest demographic group in America will send a leader from its generation to the White House. They will vote for their own. But it doesn't happen.

At 68, George Bush is literally old enough to be an MTV grandfather. At 62, Ross Perot isn't much younger. At 45, the age of Bush's oldest son, Bill Clinton isn't winning points for his demographic status, he is taking hits for it.

In some ways, Mr. Bush's generation was blessed, at least with certainty and unity. When he went to war, the country was unified behind the ''good war.'' When Barbara Bush left Smith to follow her man, everyone knew it was the right thing for a woman to do. The World War II generation even agreed on their drugs: martinis and Camels.

But all the things that united one generation divided the next. One was forged in the '40s and other was sundered by the '60s. The baby-boom war was Vietnam. Its domestic battle was over gender roles. Its drug was marijuana.

If President Bush is the candidate of a generation at ease with itself, then Governor Clinton is the candidate of a generation still at odds with itself. He has all the hot buttons in his biography to prove it. His encounter with the draft. His wife's station in the mommy wars. Inhaling or not.

Mr. Clinton told the young audience that he wished they'd grown as he had, when presidents like JFK provided a model for public and political life. But in his adulthood, politics went straight downhill from public service to public cynicism.

It has proved enormously difficult to ''pass the torch'' from JFK's generation to the next one. The generation that was famous for revolutions and liberations may not see themselves as what they fought against: authority figures.

More likely, every time a candidate who emerges scathed from the great conflicts of his age comes into public view, he becomes a reminder of old arguments, lingering divisions. If we keep turning away from that sight, we will become like the old Soviet Union -- so unable to pick a leader from the next generation that they propped up one man after another well into their 80s.

On MTV someone asked Mr. Clinton his astrological sign and someone asked him about growing up with an alcoholic stepfather, but nobody asked him what it was like to be a baby boomer. For all the issues, this election may turn on whether the huge middle generation can make peace with itself, can sign an intragenerational truce, trust one of its own.

After all, as 90 minutes of MTV can prove, none of us is getting

any younger.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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