Move over, boomer presidents: A new generation takes charge

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 7, 2009 

US NEWS PRESIDENTS 3 MCT

President George W. Bush, center, meets with former President George H.W. Bush, left, President-elect Barack Obama, second from left, former President Bill Clinton, second from right, and former President Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C.

CHUCK KENNEDY — Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — When President Kennedy said the torch had been passed to a new generation in the 1960s, the baby-boomers who were beginning to grow up then figured it was their time, and they spent most of the decade noisily trying to do just that in ways that have split the culture ever since.

Half a century later, after voters under 30 backed him in record numbers, Barack Obama will "pass the torch" to another new generation: The children of the boomers, most of them born after 1980, known as "millennials."

They, like the president-elect, have little patience for the simmering feuds and nasty partisanship of their elders.

So say goodbye to the Sixties, mom and dad. No one cares about Woodstock or the time you got maced at the 1969 March on Washington.

"It's a bunch of old war stories," said Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism at Columbia University. He was an antiwar activist in the 1960s and the president of the Students for a Democratic Society, a left-wing antiwar group.

Young folks also might welcome the notion that presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946, could be all the boomers will get. Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. The World War II generation, sometimes known as the "Greatest Generation," lived through another turbulent time and produced seven presidents.

Whatever their political skills, Clinton and Bush stoked long-smoldering tensions and widened political divides. Controversies from the '60s era clung to them like the cloud of dust always surrounding Pig-Pen in "Peanuts."

To the right, Clinton was "Slick Willie" in love beads who "didn't inhale" and debated "what the meaning of 'is' is." To the left, Bush never learned the lessons of Vietnam, though he served in the Air National Guard, and launched the country into another dubious war on the basis of false or manipulated information.

To the millennials, however, Vietnam, civil rights and other moments that defined their parents' salad days are about as relevant as Pearl Harbor and "Remember the Maine!"

"We're the generation of 9/11, of Hurricane Katrina, of the Iraq war," said Stephanie Young, 24, a spokeswoman for Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan political action group that encourages young people to participate in elections. "We've had our things that define us. Young people respect (the 1960s), but we can't really relate. That's our parents' generation. Obama is definitely new generation."

Count Gen X-ers in, too. They're the wave that followed the boomers and in which Obama, who's technically a boomer, feels that he belongs. They've had their noses out of joint for a long time about the boomers' gauzy "give peace a chance" sincerity and self-importance.

Like, if you weren't at Berkeley in '65, then man, you just don't get it.

"There's an impression that people who came of age then were looking at ideas of utopia and 'great societies,'" said Laura Segal, 38, a Gen X-er who worked in the Clinton White House. "We're not dreaming of a 'great society.' We're more ready to work for a good society."

A lot of Gen X-ers and millennials preferred Obama to boomer Hillary Clinton because he seemed more tuned in to what's happening now.

Clinton, who was born in 1947, made her campaign announcement on the Web. However, Obama, who was born in 1961, was on the Web, too, making greater use of Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, and text-messaging campaign updates to his supporters' cell phones.

"What he did was really speak to young people in a language that they understood," Young said.

He's also different from boomer politicians because he's self-effacing and cool where they often were self-referential and emotional.

"I think Hillary reminded them of their boomer moms who wore their passion on their sleeves," said Neil Howe, a demographer and the author of several books about generations.

Obama has a post-boomer's jaundiced eye of the '60s squabbles.

In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," he wrote of watching the political wars during the Clinton administration and the controversies over the 2000 and 2004 elections:

"I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby-boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage."

Indeed, in the past 16 years, as America has had back-to-back boomer presidencies, the culture wars grew nastier, interest group politics turned more strident and partisanship trumped all else.

In 1995, House Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, shut down the government because they didn't like Clinton's budget. In 2004, some groups backing Bush questioned the medals that his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., had received for bravery in Vietnam. Wasn't that the war that conservatives had pilloried Clinton for ducking?

Even this year, Republicans dredged up the Sixties one more time. They tried to paint Obama as a closet revolutionary by linking him to William Ayers, a Chicago neighbor and a former member of the Weather Underground, a Sixties radical group.

Bummer, weary voters finally said. Time to move on.

Obama, said historian Michael Kazin of Georgetown University, "represents a sense of breaking away from those old conflicts."

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