Are we grown-up enough to lead the country?

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 08, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the night I turned 19, I began to dread turning 30. It became an 11-year exercise in brooding intensely about the inevitable. I wanted to be prepared when it happened. I didn't want to be one of those people who forgets to do his dreading all along, and then has to pull a bunch of all-nighters to catch up on the dreading he skipped.

Nobody in my generation particularly wanted to grow up, since the world had made it so delightful for us to be children. First we had Howdy Doody, and later (according to somewhat unreliable sources) we had free love. Therefore, we wished to extend childhood (or at least childishness) forever.

This is why we have most of my generation now voicing mixed emotions about Bill Clinton, who is one of our own. Who are we to be put in charge? Clinton came of age at the same time the rest of us were resisting coming of age. He is 46 years old, meaning he will be the first president in my life who is younger than I am. There is no turning back now: The rest of the way, every new president will have more hair than almost anybody in my generation.

I don't know how to feel about all of this. I've come to expect a father figure in the White House, a fellow who, in a pinch, I could call Dad and have the kind of heart-to-hearts that Mickey Rooney once had with Judge Hardy.

Image still counts, and I imagine young Bill Clinton sitting in front of the TV like the rest of us, with his brain turning to guacamole. The generation before us listened to Ed Murrow reporting the war from Europe. We had Howdy reporting from Doodyville. (Not to mention Clarabelle, who was the first TV star to teach a generation of kids about anarchy.) I feel funny having any guy with Howdy Doody in his history, even such a policy wonk as Clinton, suddenly running the country.

My image of a presidential father figure was Dwight Eisenhower. Walking home from School No. 20 early in the 1952 election season, when I was 7, I passed the Apollo movie theater. Someone had tacked Ike's poster on a wall. Such a smile! Such a grandfatherly look!

I went home and told my parents that I was rooting for Eisenhower. My parents, old-line Democrats who worshiped at the shrine of Adlai Stevenson, took the news well. They announced formally that they were putting me up for adoption.

They didn't get it: It wasn't Eisenhower I loved, just his image. I wouldn't have voted for him; I only wanted to sit on his lap. And now, just four decades later, I'm confronted by this Clinton who delivers the inevitable message: once he takes office, people who are a lot like me are in charge of things.

I wish my generation had spent as much time worrying about taking charge as we did about leaving youth behind. Franklin Roosevelt said his generation had a rendezvous with destiny. John Kennedy said his generation was formed by war, and then by a hard and bitter peace.

Dan Quayle's a member of my generation. He had a rendezvous with the Indiana National Guard; Bill Clinton had a puff of &L marijuana, but didn't inhale. (At least he picked Al Gore, who had the political foresight not only to inhale, but to do it in Vietnam.)

I still remember an anti-war demonstration in College Park at the University of Maryland around 1970. There was tear gas in the air, and troops massed along Route 1, and talk of bombing the ROTC building.

But just yards off the main action, there were kids throwing Frisbees in the air. Others lay on towels and sunbathed. When tear gas began wafting through the air, a friend named Dave Bourdon, who was covering the demonstration for the school newspaper, staggered through the fumes and crawled into a fraternity house. He found everybody watching an afternoon soap opera on TV.

''There's a war going on out there,'' Bourdon hollered. But nobody moved; nobody wanted to miss the soap opera.

That's not a bad snapshot of my generation. We figured we'd change the world, but make time for a swell party, too. We were comfortable with cheap posturing about blowing up the ROTC building, but not so clear about finding a replacement for it.

ZTC Maybe we figured: the people in charge will take care of that. That's why they're here. We never entirely admitted we'd have to take adulthood seriously, they way they did.

I know there's something in psychology called the impostor syndrome, and I think that's what I'm talking about. It feels a little fraudulent having one of our own suddenly becoming one of them.

Against all odds, the last of our parents' generation has finally been driven off stage, leaving us in charge now. And we're waiting for a grown-up to come into the room and tell us how to do it.

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