One thing that occurs to me, in reflecting on the death of Justice Scalia a month shy of his 80th birthday, is that his death just about closes the book on the “Silent Generation” in American politics, and Scalia will be very close to the top of the list of its most consequential members. The “Silent Generation” refers to Americans (like my parents and my wife’s parents) born between 1925 and 1945, too young to be part of the “Greatest Generation” that fought World War II (though its oldest members did fight in the war) and too old to be among the Baby Boomers. Men of that generation fought in Korea, America’s forgotten war of the 20th century. No American President belonged to that generation, and unless Bernie Sanders is elected in 2016, none ever will.
That distinction is a narrow one – George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were born in 1924, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1946. And we’ve had other figures in presidential politics from that generation: Robert F. Kennedy, born 1925; Walter Mondale, born 1928; H. Ross Perot, born 1930; Michael Dukakis, born 1933; Jack Kemp, Geraldine Ferraro, and Ron Paul, born 1935; John McCain, like Scalia born 1936; Dick Cheney, like Sanders born 1941; Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman, born 1942; John Kerry, born 1943. Probably the greatest figure in American politics of that generation has been dead for 48 years: Martin Luther King jr., born 1929.
The “Silent Generation” was known as such precisely because they were viewed as an age cohort that never rose in protest as a unified political entity. It is hard to fault them as such; the refusal to see onself as part of a collective is the most American of traits. Yet if their generation formed the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement that the Boomers only watched from their televisions, they also formed the backbone of Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” people in their 30s and 40s in the era of “don’t trust anyone over 30.” If we remember them as an unrelated group of individuals, many of whom had nothing to do with politics, it’s hard to say that’s a bad thing.