Tuesday, November 8, 2016

In Boomers’ Sunset, Election Reawakens an Old Divide

They came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, in the traumatic aftermath of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They fought and protested a war together, argued over Nixon and Kissinger together, laughed at Archie Bunker together. As children, they practiced air-raid drills; as adults, they cheered the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the 1990s, they saw one of their own become president, watching him gain glory as one of the most gifted politicians of his time, but also infamy as one of its most self-indulgent — a poster child for the Me Generation.

They are of course the baby boomers, the collective offspring of the most fertile period in American history. At 75 million strong, they have been the most dominant force in American life for three decades, and one of its most maligned. Enlightened but self-centered, introspective but reckless, they are known among the cohorts that followed them — and even to some boomers themselves — as the generation that failed to live up to its lofty ideals, but still held fast to its sense of superiority.

If Bill Clinton was their white-haired id, Hillary Clinton is their superego in a pantsuit. A second Clinton presidency could represent a last hurrah for the baby boomers. But it could also offer a shot at a kind of generational redemption.

“There is a kind of do-over quality to it,” said Landon Y. Jones, the author of the 1980 book “Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.” “This is their last chance to get it right.”

A shared history binds the boomers — as do, broadly speaking, some shared traits. Their parents suffered through the Depression and World War II before rearing them in the most prosperous society the world had ever seen. Inevitably, perhaps, they were guided by two polestars: responsibility and entitlement.

Those dueling impulses powered the rise of both Clintons: one impulse galvanizing supporters who deeply admired their commitment to public service, the other galling critics who saw them as playing by their own rules.

“There’s this tremendous idealism with the Clintons — actually living social change, embodying social change,” said Gil Troy, the author of “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s” and a history professor at McGill University in Montreal. “But also, at the end of day, not just having this will to power, but also being so convinced of their own self-righteousness that they improvise a new set of morality and ethics.”

Like her husband’s, Mrs. Clinton’s political odyssey began in earnest when she volunteered for George McGovern’s youth-powered 1972 presidential bid, one that ended in a lopsided, welcome-to-adulthood takedown of ’60s idealism at the hands of President Richard M. Nixon and his “silent majority.” It was there, in the trenches, that the Clintons — still in their mid-20s, and not yet married — began to assemble the network of trusted friends that continues to surround them.

Twenty years later, at 46, Bill Clinton became the third-youngest president ever elected. At 69, Hillary Clinton would be the second-oldest. In many respects, her journey has become her generation’s journey — from protester to parent and now grandparent, from earnest idealist to battle-hardened realist.

They would be bookends on their cohort, one seizing the national stage on behalf of their generation in its prime, the other, who now qualifies for Medicare, vying to lead it into its dotage.

by Jonathan Mahler, NY Times | Read more:
Image: CreditNeal Boenzi/The New York Times