Boomerang

Why baby boomers hate Bill Clinton -- and themselves


Todd Gitlin
May 27, 1996 3:32PM (UTC)


it's open
season on baby boomers, not least the ones who live in
the White House. As if there were such creatures as baby boomers. As if
the president, ex-Georgetown, ex-Yale, shared a world view with a
bricklayer or a CEO by dint of birth if the latter first saw the light in
1946 -- or 1956, or 1964, all technically years of the boom.

Casting campaigns as generation wars is always a bit of an
intellectual fraud. As screenwriter and essayist Jeremy Larner ("The Candidate") says, "The concept of generation is a bad and false idea that comes up in every generation." Jack Kennedy's rugged youth appeal masked all the continuities between his policies and
Ike's. For that matter, Kennedy and Nixon shared a generation (and with
Reagan, yet): How much does that explain? In a Newsweek puff
piece about Bob Dole and his generation's valuing of "self-discipline over
self-actualization," political columnist Joe Klein deplores "talking about yourself
excessively, celebrating yourself...what passes for 'honesty'
among baby boomers." (Newsweek, 2/12/96) Elsewhere, Klein
writes that the Clintons' "low crimes and misdemeanors are mostly
generation-specific...draft avoidance, marital squiggles, chemical
enhancement...moral relativism, the assorted seductions and confusions of
counterculture America....They bent the rules. They cut corners."
(Newsweek, 1/22/96)

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Well, yes. And in 1940, the sainted John F. Kennedy's father
intervened to keep his darling boy from being booted out of the Navy after
the FBI tapped young John's cavortings with a Nazi spy. For that matter, who in the
following list of Good War presidents did not cut corners, squiggle,
seduce, strut his stuff on the low road paved with gold while proclaiming
his highmindedness -- Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George
Bush? The Good War generation produced dealmakers galore, men
possessed of blue-sky ambition, if that's the self-discipline Klein has in
mind. You'd think it was the Clintons' wealthy friends and not Reagan's
who chipped in to buy the president a below-market retirement house.
There's no generational qualification for Bob Dole's free trips in the
Archer-Daniels-Midland plane -- only political power for sale.

Klein -- a card-carrying baby boomer who wrote for Rolling Stone in its sex-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll heyday -- deplores the "self-indulgence and squalid confessionalism
that have debased our public culture." (Newsweek, 2/12/96) A thousand
amens. But I hadn't noticed that the recently retired Phil Donahue, who
opened the fourth wall in the confession box, is a boomer, exactly. And
while we're on this squalid subject, what of the Richard Nixon of
Checkers, the Gay Talese of adultery, and the Norman Mailer of the men's
room?

In The New Yorker, (4/1/96) Michael Kelly, another baby boomer political scribe, sneers that
Clinton against Dole is "Elvis against Bogart, the Vietnam War boomers
against the Good War generation, the man of many words against the man of
few, the feeler of your pain against the tough guy who doesn't even feel
his own." Even the estimable Christopher Hitchens goes over the top in a recent
Vanity Fair cascade. Hitchens finds his fellow boomers to be a bunch of
teetotalling, butt-crushing, Stairmaster creeps with no culture worth
cultivating. The cultural charge is merited, by and large, but the
interesting question is why. Hitchens neglects the role of the
gatekeepers of celebrity, not least the aforementioned Condi Nast magazines,
which disdain to promote art that develops outside the galleries,
publishers and theaters of Chic Ltd. Hitchens lavishes wet kisses upon
the war generation which did, fortunately, fight the Good War, but a few years
earlier generated the Bad Appeasement that led to that war.

As for the boomers, they've had the bad taste to spawn a
wilderness of bad seeds -- "affectless, caps worn the wrong way round,
subliterate rather than even illiterate, moving in herds or gangs,
haunting the shopping malls and cinema multiplexes...The thing about
these kids is that they can't be blamed on anybody else. If the culture
has declined into a brave new world of candified, soft-centered,
massified, and mushy narcissism, on whose watch did this decline occur?"
In Hitchens' view, the sins of the Xers are visited upon their parents.
But where, one wonders, did these boomers come from? They seem to have been
born bad in a fit of parthenogenesis.

There's plenty to disappoint and irritate in the Clintons, God
knows. There's enough political mediocrity among the so-called boomers
(not to mention their parents) to fill the Senate and House. But when
Nixon was under fire, neither Woodward nor Bernstein had the gall to trash
Nixon's entire generation. Paranoia and lies were not taken to be
infirmities of age.

No, the intensity and sweep of today's outrage suggest a kind of generational
fear and self-loathing. One's middle years can be
distasteful. Finitude is a drag. You get a glimpse of unfinished
business -- personal and political -- that's likely going to stay unfinished.
Institutions lumber on, in all their corruption and inertia. So what's
gone wrong? Why does life remain incomplete? Check out those pious
tricksters in the White House! This shallow criticism comes out as
another whine -- boomer petulance all over again. (Why isn't my White House
as fabulous as the commercials promised?)

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The fear, afflicting all us moderns shuffling through this mortal
coil, leads to the search for culprits. The self-loathing is more
specific, more surprising and interesting. The so-called boomers were
told, and told themselves, that if they wanted the world, they could have
it now -- a shot or a pill away. Meanwhile, many of them thought it was
their mission to save the world, for which extravagant hope some elders
mocked them unmercifully while others waved encouragement. The world
remained unsaved, though mightily improved in many respects, but the sense
of failure nags -- a measure of the magnitude of youthful hopes.

Add the fact that many of these folks bore their children late, at
an age when they might have thought they would know -- as their parents
didn't, quite -- how to steer the young. But they don't know how to usher
their children through a sexed, drugged, grunged world. They believed in
sex on demand, on request, in passing, even, and -- whoops, that got
dangerous. They believed in rebellion, but not the nihilistic sort of
rebellion their kids seem to fancy. They believed, many of them, in not
going to war, and for two decades now they've been told they were chicken
wretches who missed out on rites of manhood and will remain forever
untested. They believed in doing as they pleased, because they grew up on
the fat of the land, and now the land's not quite so fat, and it's their
kids who worry whether they'll be able to afford to live in a house that's
half the size of the one they grew up in. The impulsive now want to be
impulse-controllers, and don't like the way that feels. It's hard, ma,
when it's your kid that's bleeding, and when your worries are so close to
the bone, and you don't know exactly what to do, you warm to the sound of
"family values," wish you could assert your authority, and fill up with
nameless guilts.

But fear and self-loathing can't explain the entire phenomenon,
since so-called boomers are not the only boomerangers. Riding this
current, there comes Robert Bly, no boomer himself, in his new book, "The
Sibling Society," to fulminate that "we navigate from a paternal society,
now discredited, to a society in which impulse is given its way. People
don't bother to grow up, and we are all fish swimming in a tank of
half-adults....Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents -- seeing
that -- have no desire to become adults."

Bly asks: "How did we move from the optimistic, companionable,
food-passing youngsters gathered on that field at Woodstock to the
self-doubting, dark-hearted, turned-in, death-praising, indifferent,
wised-up, deconstructionist audience that now attends a grunge music
concert? That is the question we need to answer." Indeed. But
many folk tales and theories of human nature later, answer the question of
what Bly has not done. Like many university students, he
doesn't know the difference between an assertion and an argument.
Overstated description is an excellent skill in a surrealist poet from the
Great Plains, but it is not much help in social anatomy. It is, in fact,
self-indulgent.

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Too bad, because Bly's horror at the premature aging of
children -- remember little Jessica, the seven-year-old pilot? -- is right, and his catalogue of the
psychic and social risks of fatherlessness is important. An influential
British feminist, Rosalind Coward, writing in The Guardian,
recently made the point that many feminists are now paying the price for
having too long cavalierly dismissed men. ("A woman without a man is like
a fish without a bicycle.") Bly is accurate, too, about the shriveled
vocabulary, the syntactic breakdown, the distrust for coherent language,
that fills television and turns the chat of everyday life into,
like,
television, as well. But again, the deploring is easy, the
explanation hard. Bly's psychoanalytic arguments are interesting but
ahistorical. If the root of cultural
decline is TV saturation -- and a lot of it is -- then let's talk about that.
The last time I looked, neither William S. Paley, David Sarnoff, nor Ted
Turner were boomers.

Bly comes closer to the point in a too-brief chapter about the
deleterious effects of bottom-line economics, which has spawned a
bottom-line culture. "Our society has been damaged not only by
acquisitive capitalism," he writes, "but also by an idiotic distrust of
all ideas, religions, and literature handed down to us by elders and
ancestors." On the other hand, callow faith in the market is,
let's face it, an "idea...handed down to us by elders and ancestors."
Bly's ancestor-worship is indiscriminate -- a mystification.

The problem of how to create (not only worship) authority worth
the candle is not the boomers' problem in particular, it's democracy's and
modernity's problem as well. America is in the undermining business -- that's, as Bob Dole
would say, what it's all about. Bill Clinton wasn't the author of "How to
Win Friends and Influence People." The confidence man, as Melville knew in
1857, is an American fixture. The new whines come in the oldest bottles.
Good to the very last drop.

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Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin teaches at Columbia University, writes regularly for BillMoyers.com and Tablet, and is the author, most recently, of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

MORE FROM Todd Gitlin

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