Is Obama's run the end of the boomer era?

Generation's `promise' ends in an anticlimax

February 25, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Much of the excitement around the candidacy of Barack Obama centers on his age. He's young. A huge part of his appeal is simple - out with the old, in with the new.

"Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done," the 45-year-old Obama said in announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Ill. "Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call."

The old that Obama wants to sweep away are the baby boomers. And, if he succeeds and does indeed usher in a new generation of American presidents - big, big ifs, of course - it will mark a stunning end to the national leadership of a generation once thought destined for political greatness.

If that happens, the presidential scorecard will read like this: World War II generation: 7, baby boomers: 2.

The World War II number could be six, depending on where you put Dwight D. Eisenhower. But it certainly includes John F. Kennedy (who famously said words that Obama echoed: "The torch is passed to a new generation, born in this century, tempered by war ... "), Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Perhaps it is not an all-star lineup, but it is still a full team. As for the two baby boomers - Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - no matter what you think of their politics, both will certainly go down in history as flawed presidents.

If that's all the boomers produce, you have to wonder how it could have come to this. How could the generation that was raised in the politically charged atmosphere of the Cold War, whose social consciousness was pounded into shape first on the anvil of the civil rights and Vietnam War protests, who pushed issues like ecology and feminism and gay rights onto the national agenda, so quickly be seen as something to be discarded, to be left in the rear view mirror so the country can get on with its business?

It may well be that the seeds that have grown into an era of political cynicism were planted and nurtured by the idealism of the '60s.

"The formative political experience of the baby boomers was the Vietnam War and the protests against it," says Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "They came of age politically in a time of abnormal politics and they don't know how to play the game in routine times."

Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University who has written extensively on the politics of the '60s, agrees.

"The movements of the '60s were very good at forcing issues forward that had been buried - and were being buried - by the conventions of politics," he says. "They were not so good at producing political leaders within the system."

The standard political tactic in the Vietnam protest era was confrontation and the resulting polarization. The idea was to force people to make the choice - which side are you on?

It was adopted by the anti-war movement after it worked for the civil rights demonstrators as the bulk of the country took the side of the black protesters in that struggle. But it should be noted that the real civil rights legislative gains were made by people like Lyndon Johnson and Everett M. Dirksen, political pros from an older generation who were masters at the art of politics - wheeling and dealing and compromising.

Crenson sees Vietnam-era tactics at work in Congress as the Democrats struggle with another unpopular war and try to get people to line up in a which-side-are-you-on? fashion.

"You can see the plight of the Democrats," he says. "They want the war to end, but they don't want to be seen as not supporting the troops. The situation is just too complex for the use of confrontational politics."

It is almost as if the Baby Boomers in Washington keep fighting the '60s all over again. The result is that instead of sitting down and hammering out agreements, they shout slogans at each other the way they did when they were attending demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.

It's "Are you pro-choice or pro-life?" Not, "Gee, abortion is not a great thing, but maybe it shouldn't be outlawed. How can we figure this out?"

"Baby Boomers are trapped in this notion of a generation that came of age with a sense of having a high level of aspiration, of wanting things to be better," says Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Whether it is the war or the abortion controversy, there is a sense that they can't transcend the polarization on issues."

Though confrontational politics was associated with the left in the '60s, the tactic was taken up by its opponents even back then. Just look at the rhetoric of Spiro Agnew and George Wallace.

And that continued with the baby boomer heirs on that side of the aisle in a line that runs from Newt Gingrich to Tom DeLay. They recognized that, particularly on cultural issues like gay marriage, their side would win an are-you-with-us-or-against-us battle.

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