With a Continental Shrug, 'Yesterday's Gone' and a Torch Is Passed Now It's Up to the Baby Boomers

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 05, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- It was past midnight by the time Bill Clinton and Al Gore arrived, like elated and tardy rock stars, at the final concert of a grueling national tour.

They were puffy around the eyes, and raspy around the vocal cords. But if, as Paul Simon once wrote, every generation throws a hero on the pop charts, this was their moment. The baby boomers bus tour was, finally, headed for Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the din of victory celebration in front of the Old State House in Little Rock, the music played the subliminal message of this campaign, ''Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow.'' The two men in their dark suits and white shirts, requisite presidential attire, reached down into the crowd against the final refrain: ''Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone.''

At that hour and in that place, it was possible to see and hear one era ending and another beginning.

At the end of this exhausting election, George Bush, a 68-year-old World War II veteran, the last Cold War president, has been replaced by Bill Clinton, a 46-year-old baby boomer and veteran of the war over the war in Vietnam. When all is said and counted, we have witnessed the most striking generational change since the 70-year-old Dwight David Eisenhower was replaced by the 43-year-old John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

But what a different change it is this time. At JFK's inaugural, the bareheaded president issued the eloquent and strident declaration of his generation's ascendancy. ''Let the word go forth from this time and place,'' he said, ''to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans. . . . ''

In that same sentence, JFK offered up the clear, unified description of the men who had just taken power. They were, he said, ''born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.''

Where could Bill Clinton find such a clear description for the transition of his generation? These are the baby boomers who have gone through the population like the proverbial pig through the python. Until now, demography is all they've had in common.

Everything that united the World War II generation, divided the baby boom generation. George Bush's war was ''the good war.'' Their generation knew what was expected of men and women. They shared a single attitude toward authority -- respectful. They even agree on their drugs -- cocktails and cigarettes.

But their children disagreed, and often bitterly, with each other. They disagreed about war, about the roles of men and women, about sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll. They disagreed about taking authority or questioning it.

As the years went by and the predictions of boomer victories went sour, it seemed that the baby boom generation had trouble coming into power because it couldn't resolve its own deep divisions. In a tough and grueling way, this campaign did some of the work of resolution. In many ways this campaign was about generational change.

Bill Clinton's life showed all the fault lines of the baby boom years. Indeed he often had a foot on each side of this great divide. He opposed the war in Vietnam, though he didn't head for Canada. He admitted trouble in his marriage, though he didn't get divorced. And he tried marijuana, but he didn't inhale.

His wife, too, worked this fault line. She kept her name and then took his. She earned four times his salary and delivered his message. She wrote briefs and baked cookies.

The Last Warrior of the Cold War generation bet the bank that he could divide and conquer the baby boom generation one more time. The Bush campaign inflamed hard feelings about the Vietnam War, pit traditional against non-traditional families, working against non-working mothers.

Some of it backfired. Much of it just didn't work. It sounded like ancient history. The stuff of the Cold War.

It may be that this generation has been through enough, seen enough, to make peace with itself. To put aside the conflicts of its wonder years for its middle years.

It may be Bill Clinton's place in the intragenerational wars that fuels his real passion to mediate conflicts, to find a center that holds. As he said again to the crowd, ''We need a new spirit of community, a sense that we're all in this together.''

One thing we do know. The bumper crop of postwar children were Young in capital letters. They were often less eager to take power than to challenge it. They didn't trust anybody over 30. As a whole, they deferred adulthood, put off marriage, postponed parenthood. And delayed believing they could run the country.

Now, guess what. There's a baby boomer going to the White House. Turn the music up. It's time.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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