Clinton and a Generation's Unmet Promise

TIM RUTTEN

July 17, 1992|By TIM RUTTEN

"As a baby boomer yourself,'' my friend the English journalist asked, ''how do you feel about the Democrats nominating two men from your own generation?''

I don't often think in generational terms -- in part because, at 42, doing so reminds me that the gray in my beard no longer can be be called ''premature.'' And there's something a little silly about a bunch of middle-age people running around calling themselves baby anythings.

Still, my friend's question was more interesting than most obvious ones.

I once asked an accomplished political pollster something similar: What could he say for certain, I wondered, about the baby-boom generation?

''Well, uhh. . . . ,'' he mused, ''it's . . . ahh . . . big.''

Beyond that, he conceded, much that can be said about the 77 million Americans born in the aftermath of World War II is contradictory and unexceptional.

''Think of a big snake,'' he explained, ''a python, say, that has swallowed a pig. As the snake digests it, what you see is this big lump moving from one end of the snake to the other. That's what the baby boom is like: Its attitudes, values and concerns have tended to shift fairly predictably as its members age. But because you have so many people experiencing a particular stage of life at the same time, the impact on society is magnified. By the time they retire, the kvetching will be deafening.''

It is this perception, I suspect, that accounts for the Clinton-Gore camp's ambivalence over what to make of their baby-boom affiliation. Bill Clinton, 45, clearly would like to ignore it. As his pollster, Stanley B. Greenberg, told Los Angeles Times political writer Ronald Brownstein this week, ''We're not going to run on generational themes.''

Al Gore just as clearly has other ideas. ''The time for a new generation of leadership has come,'' he said when he first appeared at Mr. Clinton's side.

What Mr. Gore has in mind, of course, is the sort of generational change that occurred in 1960, when John F. Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected president, succeed Dwight D. Eisenhower, then the oldest man ever to occupy the Oval Office.

That was a transforming moment in American political history. On balance, though, I suspect Mr. Clinton's wariness is correct. The common generational experiences of the men and women who elected Kennedy had produced a common sensibility waiting to be tapped. The Great Depression, which dominated their childhoods, touched people of every region, race and occupation and all but the most privileged classes. Men and women of every race, religion and social class fought World War II. In other words, their generation's formative experiences had a unifying effect.

The same cannot be said of the baby boomers. The defining events of our lives -- the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the women's movement -- have had a divisive impact because each, to some extent, remains unresolved. Baby boomers, no less than other Americans, remain divided on the significance of those three social upheavals and on how their legacy ought to be lived out.

Baby boomers and the generation that elected Kennedy also have had very different experiences of the American economy. World War II and the historic economic expansion that followed it obliterated traditional distinctions of region and class. Together they created not only unprecedented prosperity but also unprecedented physical and social mobility. America became more egalitarian in an economic sense than it ever had been. Over the past 20 years, a mismanaged U.S. economy has erased many of those gains. Baby boomers have spent most of their working lives in a country where class distinctions and economic inequality have dramatically increased.

The result is more division. Consider the delegates to this week's Democratic National Convention. Nearly 70 percent of them are members of families earning $50,000 or more per year. At the party's 1980 convention, only one out of every four delegates came from a household with an annual income that high.

The average delegate's educational level also has skyrocketed. Now, nearly three-quarters of the Democrats convened in New York have college degrees. An astonishing 44 percent of them have attended a graduate or professional school.

That's hardly representative of the country -- or even the baby-boom generation -- as a whole, and particularly striking in a party which prides itself on its inclusiveness.

Perhaps the only thing that does unite baby boomers is the experience of having been doted on by parents and society as no previous generation of children ever was. Over and over, we were told we were the ''brightest, best-educated, most idealistic and promising generation in American history.''

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