The 22-Year Gap in American Politics

DANIEL BERGER

December 05, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

In 1987, after Douglas H. Ginsburg was hounded fro nomination to the Supreme Court for having smoked pot, a cry went up that a generation would be denied leadership and contribution to American life because of unfair taint of the '60s and '70s.

Anyone who smoked grass or popped an illicit pill or avoided or evaded the draft, went the argument, would be condemned for being a child of the times. This would include the best and brightest.

That was before Bill Clinton, a pot experimenter and draft avoider three months younger than Judge Ginsburg, was elected president.

Bill Clinton is 46 and George Bush is 68, creating a 22-year gap of American citizens who might be squeezed out of leadership in America. Especially if Mr. Clinton, like many a young whiz chief executive brought into an organization from the outside, wants no top subordinates older than himself.

This may explain the opposition to a Clinton nomination, last spring, of so many Democratic Party leaders in their 50s and 60s. At a time when the politics of group identity is shouted to the rooftops, generational identity deserves more attention.

So now the danger is not whether the baby boomers born after World War II will be denied leadership but whether they will hog it. And whether people born during the Great Depression and World War II will be denied their turn.

The United States had presidents in their 40s twice before in this century. One of those transitions wiped out a generation of leadership.

Theodore Rooosevelt was 42 in 1900, when he was elected vice president for the second term of President William McKinley, who was 15 years his senior. McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt became president in September 1901 and served most of McKinley's second term and one term of his own.

Roosevelt declined to run in 1908 and picked his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, one year older than himself. Taft served one term followed by a three-way election between Taft, Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who was two years older than Roosevelt. Wilson won and served two terms.

So men born in the years 1856 to 1858 held the presidency for 19 years, 1901-1920. They were followed by Warren G. Harding, who was seven years younger than Theodore Roosevelt.

Taft, an ex-president at 56, became professor of constitutional law at Yale and was picked by Harding to be Chief Justice of the United States. He served until 1930, when his health gave out at age 72.

Nomination of Theodore Roosevelt for vice president in 1900, in other words, influenced the course of American life for 30 years and denied leadership to men born after 1843 and before 1856.

The next time the presidency changed so abruptly was the election of 43-year-old John F. Kennedy in 1960, to succeed 69-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower. ''Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike,'' Kennedy boasted in his inaugural address, ''that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . .''

But it wasn't as true this time. Kennedy had taken for vice president Lyndon B. Johnson, who was nine years older than himself. After Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Johnson served out the term and one of his own. He was succeeded by Richard M. Nixon and then Gerald Ford, both born four years before John F. Kennedy.

So Kennedy's victory did not obliterate the leadership of older Americans as categorically as Theodore Roosevelt's good fortune had.

Which model will Bill Clinton follow? As a generational politician he did not make Kennedy's mistake but picked a man two years younger than himself to be vice president.

If the administration is successful, Mr. Clinton will serve two terms, followed by Al Gore for two more, very likely to be succeeded by a Republican of their own age for two terms. At the end of this 24-year span of presidents born 1946 to 1948, Mr. Clinton would be 70 and Mr. Gore 68.

There is a way for those of us who are older than Mr. Clinton and younger than Mr. Bush -- the 22-Year Gappers -- to beat this thing and get one of our own to the top of the greasy pole. It rests on the strong possibility that the Clinton administration will make no more permanent dent in American life than Jimmy Carter's did after 1976.

Then, in 1996, one of our generation can make it. But only as a Republican.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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