The standard bearers


July 14, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

NEW YORK — New York--I ONCE wrote a column called "Life in the 30s." The title, a reference to my age, was a problem. Some readers thought it referred to the Depression and some thought it referred to the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. But the worst part was that it was exclusionary: Readers who were over 40 felt disinvited from the audience, which is the last thing any writer wants.

It is the last thing any candidate wants, but disinvitation was what concerned me as I watched Bill Clinton, 45, escort Al Gore, 44, onto the veranda of the governor's mansion in Little Rock to introduce him as his running mate.

"A new generation in American politics," the commentators kept saying of these two big handsome guys, who looked like the co-captains of a college football team.

Between them they represented much of what our generation has wrestled with, from Governor Clinton's agonizing over Vietnam and his ups-and-downs marriage to a smart woman to Mr. Gore's tour in Vietnam and his expertise on global warming and the ozone layer.

Two guys who smoked dope, one who inhaled, one who didn't. Like a cannon volley came the imagined sound: baby boom Boom BOOM.

What a long strange trip it's been; anyone who predicts with confidence what November will bring is stupid or arrogant.

The politics of psychic exclusion has been the rule, from out-of-work Republicans who feel the president has not paid attention to the economy, to conservative Democrats who think their party remains too liberal, to women who like abortion rights and fidelity in a man.

The ruling principle has been disenfranchisement, whether expressed in anger, Jerry Brown or Ross Perot.

Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore are members of a group founded to move the Democratic Party toward more centrist positions. And it shows.

Mr. Clinton went home earlier this year for the execution of a convicted murderer whose plea for clemency he denied.

Mr. Gore broke with his Democratic colleagues to authorize the president to wage war in the Persian Gulf. But the Clinton camp probably has lost little sleep over the loss of hard-core liberals. We are as likely to shift to the Bush/Quayle ticket as we are to hobnob with alien life forms.

It is the moderates they will seek, a word that is frequently used to describe Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore.

The only ones who cast them as flaming liberals are the Republicans, who are positioned so unrelentingly to the right that when Laurance Rockefeller, of the Rockefeller Republican Rockefellers, entered the primary for Al D'Amato's Senate seat in New York last week, it was immediately said that he must really be a Democrat.

These two hunky postwar babies should remember that around half the voters out there are older than they are. And they are shopping. A poll released last week by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press showed that Americans over the age of 50 overwhelmingly see a need for new leaders in Washington.

But if those new leaders appear to be representative only of a baby boom generation which has been televised, analyzed and chronicled to the point of parody, older Americans may feel disinvited from the party.

Crossed Volvos with a briefcase rampant on a field of ambition is not the coat of arms for a winning race, not with the shadow of the go-go '80s a blight upon the land.

The political landscape has changed since John F. Kennedy's age was a major issue. At 43, he became the youngest man ever elected president; today we have a ticket on which both spots are filled by men nearly the same age.

Experience is not an issue; both are seasoned and respected elected officials. Fitness is not an issue either. Every candidate on Clinton's short list was more qualified to be both vice president and, if need be, president, than the current occupant of the office.

The danger in being standard bearers for a new generation is that you must be most careful not to shut older generations out, as Hillary Clinton learned to her sorrow when she seemed to be denigrating cookie baking and elevating career.

The folks who brought us FDR and JFK may indeed feel there is a need for new blood.

And if Bill Clinton and Al Gore are seen as two men with the energy and ideas to make a tired old system new, they could win over both their own generation and that of their parents.

If they are seen as the first hungry yuppie ticket, looking for

career advancement at the polls, they are in big trouble.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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