Baby-boomers' boys? Balderdash!

Steven Stark

July 24, 1992|By Steven Stark

WE HAVE BEEN told countless times that, because of its youth, the Democratic ticket will appeal to the baby-boom generation. Well, I'm a baby boomer. I know many baby boomers. A lot of baby boomers are friends of mine.

These guys are no baby boomers.

It's probably no coincidence that the journalists screaming loudest about this ticket's generational appeal are all older than we are. After all, Bill Clinton was a noticeable washout among baby-boom voters in the primaries -- instead, running strongest with the elderly, who are, after all, the parents of baby boomers.

The feeling that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore should appeal to us because they're "Kennedyesque" reminds me of the times during the '60s when our parents would arrive with a new album by the Cowsills and say, "Instead of listening to those Rolling Stones, I thought you would like this."

They were wrong, as usual.

All baby boomers knew a Bill Clinton or an Al Gore in high school, just as they knew a Tipper and a Hillary. They were the kind of people who thought running for student council president was still a neat thing to do; who went out for the band rather than football because it gave them more time to study; who told the principal which students were smoking in the bathroom; who talked to the chaperones at dances; who read Foreign Policy instead of Mad; who sold Girl Scout cookies rather than going to make-out parties; who left the room when "Louie, Louie" was played; who pretended to smoke but never inhaled.

Being a baby boomer is a lot more than a question of age; it's a matter of attitude. For starters, baby boomers have always placed a high importance on irreverent humor. From Alfred E. Neuman and Abbie Hoffman to John Belushi and David Letterman, boomers have been characterized by a rather ironic and satirical attitude to politics and the culture. Yet, suffice it to say that if these four have a funny bone in their bodies, medical science has yet to locate it.

More important, the defining characteristic of the youth culture of the '60s was its attitude of defiance, not its love of the Kennedys. The Kennedy legacy has always been a mixed one to the baby-boom generation. The creation of SDS and the March on Washington came in reaction to Kennedy administration policies, not those of Lyndon Johnson.

Even in 1968, many baby boomers preferred Eugene McCarthy to Robert Kennedy in the race for the presidency, largely because Mr. McCarthy was perceived as more of a dove on Vietnam.

But even support for Mr. McCarthy was atypical of baby boomers: With their culture synonymous with their politics, they tended to detest politicians, reserving their support for cultural or movement heroes, such as the Beatles or Dylan, who would shake the older establishment. By and large, that attitude has persisted. A generation raised on James Dean and John Lennon believes that defiance is always the defining characteristic of leadership.

Thus, boomers still look for leaders to provide confrontation and entertainment. That's why they tolerated the elderly Ronald Reagan, even though they disagreed with his policies. At least, he made things interesting, pretending to stand up to everyone -- the media, Congress, and even economic experts who said you couldn't both cut taxes and balance budgets.

It also didn't hurt Reagan that in the mythology of the rock 'n' roll JTC culture, he could play the ideal, diffident parent -- the father who didn't care when you came home at night.

That's hardly the image of these two unwild and uncrazy guys -- a ticket that looks as if it should be on the PGA tour, not the concert or comedy club circuit. This ticket is the Monkees, not the Beatles; a Super Bowl half-time show, not Woodstock; Petticoat Junction, not Saturday Night Live; the fat Las Vegas Elvis, not the earlier Memphis version.

This ticket is attractive to many voters and may still win, of course. The early polls look good and both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore have compelling stories. There's a long tradition of Americans falling for cover versions, and even boomers have mellowed. George Bush and Dan Quayle are hardly rock 'n' rollers either.

But a ticket with generational appeal? Spare us, please. To many a boomer, these two look as though they've gotten ahead for the past 35 years by committing the unforgivable sin of ingratiating themselves with the older generation. It's obviously a good way to get that generation's approval. But it's no assurance of getting ours.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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