Politics & Policy

“Pass the Torch — Please”

We could have skipped the Boomers eight years ago.

Author’s note: Michael Barone’s column today, “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation,” is a fascinating look at the prospect of more years of baby-boomer conflict in presidential politics. It reminded me of a piece I wrote in January 2000, “Pass the Torch — Please,” in which I advocated bypassing the Boomers entirely, thereby making Bill Clinton the only Boomer president. The idea was to elect one more pre-Boomer — John McCain or Bill Bradley (who at the time still seemed to be a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination) — and then move on to the Xers. By 2008, I wrote, the oldest Xer would be the same age John F. Kennedy was when he was elected president. As sometimes happens with my amazingly, astonishingly brilliant ideas, nobody wanted to publish this one. So this is the first time it has appeared anywhere. –Byron York

Given all that’s happened, it’s hard to remember that many Americans celebrated Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 as the baby boom generation’s final ascent to power. Indeed, the choice of Clinton, born in 1946, represented a clean break from the generation represented by President George Bush, born in 1924. And the boomers’ dominance seemed complete in 1996 when voters re-elected Clinton over Bob Dole, born in 1923.

Now, although no one is talking about it, Americans face another generational choice. Two presidential candidates, Al Gore, born in 1948, and George W. Bush, born in 1946, represent the boomers (most demographers date the boomer birth cohort from 1946 to 1964). A third contender, Bill Bradley, born in 1943, narrowly missed being a boomer but seems temperamentally distant from them. And the fourth major candidate, John McCain, born in 1936, represents a clear return to an earlier generation.

The differences are real. Gore and Bush share some of the defining characteristics of their affluent, untested generation. Gore seems to be on a lifelong search to discover who he is, while Bush at times does not give the impression of being entirely grown-up about the responsibility he is pursuing. And both seem more like sons than fathers, still seeking parental approval. They are in short, classic boomers, defined by traits that are — at best — not particularly appealing in a president. “Fulfilling their own wants and needs was the number one priority for the boomers,” says Cheryl Russell, a demographer based in Ithaca, New York. “For the older generation, duty and obligation were the number one priorities.”

Count McCain and Bradley among that older generation — sort of. They represent what some experts label the “swing generation,” because they were born on the hinge point between the World War II and boomer eras. “They’re like hybrids,” says Susan Mitchell, author of “American Generations.” “They display characteristics of both boomers and the World War II generation.”

But one means more than the other; it could be that the reason McCain and Bradley seem more solid and honorable than their opponents is that they embody the attributes of an earlier generation. McCain’s sense of duty and obligation — those war generation hallmarks — is beyond question. And he does not appear to spend great amounts of time in a search for his inner self. Bradley, for his part, seems part of that group of pre-boomers — the Bob Dylans, the John Lewises, the Tom Haydens, born in 1941, 1940, and 1939, respectively — who played important roles in 1960s liberalism. Say what you will about McCain and Bradley, they are serious men.

So if voters decide they simply do not want to risk electing another boomer who might ensnare the nation in his own self-absorption, they have two good choices. And beginning this year, there is yet another option. The 2000 election will be the first presidential contest in which a post-boomer will be eligible for the nation’s highest office. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution requires that the president be at least 35 years old. So this year a man or woman born in 1965 — the first post-boomer year — will be eligible for the job.

Who might be our first Generation X president? Good question. Just seven members of the House of Representatives fit the bill (the oldest Xer is New York’s Vito Fossella, born in 1965, and the youngest is Tennessee’s Harold Ford, Jr., born in 1970). No members of the Senate qualify, nor do any of the nation’s governors or cabinet members. Which leaves little else, unless one wants to draft a young Internet millionaire.

With such slim pickings, Americans determined to avoid another boomer president might choose instead to elect McCain or Bradley, who would serve while up-and-coming Xers mature. By the year 2008, the first Xers will be the age that John F. Kennedy was when he was elected president. And then the torch would finally be passed to a new generation.

And what of the boomers? Don’t worry about them. They could tend their investments and continue to seek personal fulfillment free from the demands of leadership. And Bill Clinton could add one more line to his legacy: the distinction of being the first — and only — president from his vexing generation.


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