The Baby-Boom White House

A political analyst foresees the first rock 'n' roll president as a restless, hands-on leader

JANUARY 15-17,1993

EVERY PICTURE tells a story: In June, Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential hopeful, wailed Heart-break Hotel on a tenor saxophone on Arsenio Hall's show.

In July in Madison Square Garden, he and Al Gore waved to the crowd as music from the consummate '70s rock group, Fleet- wood Mac, blared: "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow. ... Yes- terday's gone; yesterday's gone."

And on election night in.little Rock, Clinton and Gore acknowledged each other not with a hand-shake, but an emotional embrace.

What do these images have in common? Simple: They are impossible to envision, or even imagine, with the politicians of an earlier era. More than any set of policy views or political beliefs, they remind us that, in electing 46-year-old Bill Clinton and 44-year- old Al Gore, America has put the baby-boom generation squarely in charge of our nation's affairs.

Whether this is a cause for celebration or concern remains to be seen. But the dramatic nature of the change -- the defeat of a 68-year-old president by a ticket young enough to be his sons -- is clear.

The new president is nearly 23 years younger than the outgoing president, the biggest age difference by far since Dwight Eisenhower gave way to John Kennedy 32 years ago.

George Bush served as the youngest naval aviator in World War II. He was the lOth consecutive president with a direct connection to the "last good war." Neither Clinton nor Gore had been born when World War II ended. Both came of age during the Vietnam War, the most divisive conflict since the Civil War.

The new president is the first to have grown up as a child of rock 'n' roll and TV, the cultural twin towers of the baby-boom generation. When Clinton was asked to name his favorite Beatle and replied "Paul," he knew he was telling his contemporaries volumes about the way he had grown up (favorite of his elders; rarely, if ever, in trouble). Asked his opinion of "heavy metal," he said bluntly: "I didn't like it when [Jimi] Hendrix started it. I don't like it now, and I haven't liked it in between." Imagine asking Bush, or Ronald Reagan, or Walter Mondale, or Michael Dukakis for an opinion of heavy metal. They might answer with a ringing endorsement of America's industrial base. To measure the chasm between Clinton and his predecessors even more dramatically, he and Gore both are younger than Paul, George and Ringo, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan.

A cautionary note is in order -- maybe a whole cautionary fugue. Clinton did not run as a baby boomer. It was Bob Kerrey, the Democratic senator from Nebraska, who hit the generational theme heavily, and unsuccessfully, during his brief White House run. It was running mate Gore who said: "This is more than a change of leaders. It's a change of generations." Clinton understood well that, if you ask for leadership on behalf of one generation, you risk alienating others. In fact, Clinton ran better among senior citizens, and among 18- to 29-year-olds, than among boomers.

More important, the temptation to draw sweeping political messages from the relative youth of the new president is fraught with danger. We are talking, after all, about a group of some 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 who have sharply different experiences and beliefs. (The Times-Mirror Center for the People and the Press tells us, for example, that boomers over 35 are heavily Democratic, while those who came of age in the time of Jimmy Carter or Reagan are more Republican.)

For John Kennedy's generation, there was one almost universally shared experience: participation in World War II, and a sense that by 1960 they had earned the right to lead (though it's widely forgotten, JFK's opponent, Richard Nixon, was himself only 47). One obvious, and oversimplified, image of boomers is that they all are children of affluence, shielded from any sense of privation, sacrifice or testing.

Thus Reagan-Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan could draw an unfavorable contrast between boomers and their parents by saying: "Kennedy's generation was not shocked to be governing at 43. They had already been men for 20 years."

Thus a younger critic, Ben MacIntyre, could write: "From where I am standing, the Sixties was an era of bad music, worse clothes, self-obsession, too much facial hair and not enough soap." In fact, baby boomers were on both sides of the political and cultural barricades during the fractious time of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A few million boomers did indeed risk their lives in Vietnam -- Al Gore saw men die in front of him during his stint as an Army journalist -- while millions of others protested the war and millions more evaded it, including the new president of the United States.

In 1968, when demonstrators and police battled in Chicago at the Democratic convention, The New York Times' Tom Wicker wrote: "These were our children, and the police beat them up-" But some of the police were "our children," too, in 1970, anti-war protesters-mostly young-were attacked in downtown Manhattan by club-wielding construction workers -- mostly young.

And most boomers, far from being the children of easy affluence, are those hit most heavily by the flattening of wages and living standards. One of our shrewdest cultural observers, the University of Massachusetts' Ralph Whitehead, says: "The typical baby boomer isn't a character on thirtysomething. It's Roseanne. " The principal boomer preoccupation is not the state of the wine cellar, but money for the kids' sneakers.

What then to make the fascination with the first baby-boomer president?

Was it simply that the dramatic age difference of the candidates seemed to symbolize something important? It is symbolic -- but it is more than that. Without question, something happened when Bill Clinton chose Gore as his running mate, and the two stood on the lawn of the governor"s mansion in Little Rock. Mandy Grunwald, one of the campaign's key media strategists, says candidly that "we had no idea of how powerful the message was of the two of them standing together. It knocked us flat." But hopes for change are easily dampened by a bad economy, or scandal, or a foreign policy misstep that puts American interests or lives at risk.

The more promising possibilities lie in what genuinely does unite almost everyone who is part of the baby-boom generation.

First is what we might call "cultural populism." This generation made its own music, its own clothes, its own way of receiving information the dominant forms across the nation-indeed, around the world. What characterizes this "populism" is an impatience with formality and with "top-down" information, and a quick willingness to dismiss conventions.

Thus, Clinton and Gore campaigned immediately after the convention in buses -- the most plebeian of transportation modes -- to reach communities that had not been visited by a presidential candidate in decades. And on his first visit to Washington after the election Clinton toured a working-class black neighborhood wearing a wireless microphone -- so his conversations could be overheard by the press without requiring a convoy of cameras to accompany him, effectively cutting him off from the people he was trying to see.

Without question, this "populism" will be a defining characteristic of Clinton's presidency. Without exaggeration, the whole postwar era was a time of loosened structures, a far more "laid-back" approach to everything from sex to education. Judging by everything we have seen so far, Clinton has absorbed an essential theme of his youth: to distrust hierarchies, to shun bureaucracies, to learn in a far more "hands-on" manner. If George Bush was the classic corporate model of president, with telephone calls and briefing books his tools, Clinton will be restless, visiting not just the departments of government, but the Veterans Administration hospitals, job-training centers, military bases, factories -- not simply as photo opportunities, but because that is the way he has learned to learn. Second, there will be a much higher "comfort level" with matters that other generations have felt unsuitable for public discussion. For example, both Robert Kennedy and George Bush usually dismissed questions about their psychological states by refusing to be "put on the couch." Clinton, by contrast, grew up in a time when a visit to a psychologist was no more shameful than a visit to an internist. He and his mother both have talked about the impact of growing up in a home with an alcoholic, sometimes abusive stepfather. Bill and Hillary Clinton's first real national exposure came on 60 Minutes right after the Super Bowl -- when they dealt with Gennifer Flowers' charges of adultery.

Such candor is dangerous political material. There is a fine line between openness and self-absorption, the substituting of caring words for good policy. We are not looking for a president to speak with us as if he were addressing our need for a 12-step economic recovery program, or day care for the inner child. But we might expect, for example, a readiness to acknowledge mistakes that older generations of politicians would have found unthinkable. ("No, there's no inconsistency at all -- if you'll remember what my amendment really provided ..."). One of the most dramatic influences of his generation on Clinton is likely to be the role of women in his administration. If modern-day feminism was born at the end of the 1960s, then Clinton has spent his entire adult life in the midst of that movement. It is impossible to measure how big a change this is from past political leaders, who almost never had a woman in a genuinely powerful decision-making role-not FDR, not JFK, not LBJ, not Reagan, not Bush.

Clinton, by contrast, has been part of a marriage in which his wife earned three or four times his income almost every year; in fact, the presidency will be the first job Bill Clinton ever has held in which he'll make more than Hillary. Beyond this instructive factor, Clinton is of a generation that simply does not find it unusual to have a woman in an authority role. In this sense, it is the same experience that a generation of writers, lawyers, doctors, insurance agents and teachers have experienced.

The idea that women indecision-making roles will change the nature of those decisions may be debatable. But there is no doubt at all that, when Clinton makes a key decision, there will be women in the room; not only that, but it will not seem the least bit remarkable.

Of all the questions awaiting answers, none is more intriguing and more troublesome, than the question of patience: Can a generation raised on instant gratification make the decisions that may require years of effort in order to see results?

The question is framed best by an old New Yorker cartoon, in which a father, changing a tire on a rainy day, says to his children: "Don't you understand? This is real life. We can't change the channel." For baby boomers, experience has moved at a breathless pace: TV instead of books; sex now, not after marriage; sensation now, at the flick of a remote control; marital problems solved with a quickie divorce. This has not impressed the wider community as the best nurturing for a generation about to assume power.

In fact, a recent Washington Post survey showed that Americans as a whole regard the baby boomers as "more selfish, more materialistic, less patriotic, less family-oriented than the present generation." Only in racial tolerance did the boomers rate high marks.

Can the boomers convince their own generation, much less the country, that some sacrifice is needed in the interest of a long-term solution to America's economic woes? Can a president who himself did not serve in time of national risk demand risk of others? Can a generation that largely avoided physical risk in war demonstrate political courage in time of national need?

We are in uncharted terrain. After all, Bush risked his life at 18 but rarely showed strong political conviction. And do Clinton's forays into the ghetto to deliver food and medicine during the 1968 riots say nothing about his courage?

What we do know is that boomers constitute the largest, most discussed, most self-conscious generation this country ever has produced:

They have moved through America, "like a pig moving through a python," shaping every institution with unparalleled force.

Now they are running the government. Whether better or worse than their forebears, they will be different. Yesterday's gone.

Greenfield is a political analyst for ABC News and a syndicated columnist.

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