David Ignatius has just written a column in the Washington Post expressing his doubts that Barack Obama will be an effective bipartisan "bridge builder" because he "has not shown much willingness to take risks or make enemies to try to restore a working center in Washington." Later in the same column he writes that "unlike McCain, Obama bears no obvious political scars for fighting bipartisan battles." His point is that creating true bipartisanship often involves opposing the more divisive elements in one's own party, which is true enough. But it strikes me as a peculiar idea that one must "make enemies" and bear "obvious political scars" to bring parties together.
It comes as no surprise to me to learn that David Ignatius was born in 1950, in the thick of the "baby boom." Because this is the essence of boomer politics: There must always be enemies. There must always be scars.
I've never been able to consider myself a "baby boomer." Any demographer would include my birth year, 1957, in the boom—it was the crest of the wave, in fact, the peak procreational year in American history—and yet, the people who generally identify themselves as boomers are distinguished by a set of cultural and political experiences that I do not share: an awareness of America before the mid-'60s upheaval; a consciousness of Kennedy and the impact of his death; a visceral involvement with the Vietnam War; the draft, or at least the fear of it; an active experience of the Counter Culture, or an active reaction against it; a lifelong sense of "the '60s" as a personally formative moment.
Not me. I never heard of Kennedy until he died. It seemed like Vietnam and the anti-war movement had always been on TV as I became vaguely aware of what my parents watched before dinner. I'd learn later that the draft was the reason my brother joined the Coast Guard and moved out when I was nine, but I didn't get any of the connections at the time. I turned ten during the Summer of Love. One day that summer my mother drove me to Haight Street because she was about to take her first job as a high school teacher and figured she ought to know what it was all about; all I remember is that a young man gave her a flower, which I thought was some sort of official greeting, and that we had lunch in a place that sold piroshkis. I liked piroshkis—that's what I learned from the Summer of Love. The assassinations of 1968, Kent State—news stories I couldn't quite comprehend. I didn't even hear about Woodstock until the movie came out a year later; I was in seventh grade and far more interested in the next Planet of the Apes sequel. The war was over and the draft being abolished a couple of years before I had to worry about it. The big song at my senior prom was Mandy, and the first election I could vote in was the 1976 California primary: Jerry Brown vs. Jimmy Carter.
To me the great battles of the '60s are a mixture of vaguely remembered news items and historical recountings. The great battles of my own '60s were in my backyard and mostly involved G.I. Joe. The '70s were the decade of my political dawning and my youth culture. I heard a lot about baby boomers as I was growing up, but the phrase always referred to my big brother's peers, those grinning, yelling, fearless, arrogant, argumentative, eternal adolescents riding their roller coaster of manic idealism and self-pitying disappointment. There was no label for us quieter, humbler, more conciliatory little brothers and sisters of the boomers, and that's just as well. A lack of generational self-consciousness suits our temperament just fine.
During the 1980s we heard much about the rise of those "children of the '60s" who were becoming the mainstream. Surely, we heard, they would surely change the world yet again with their vast numbers and hunger for change. When Bill and Hillary Clinton took over the White House after 32 years of occupation by the generation that had come of age in the Depression and World War II, when they danced at their inaugural ball to Fleetwood Mac, looking so young and alive, the boomers were enshrined as the generation in power. But it wasn't just the old lefties, the ones who'd gotten all the media attention during the '60s, who'd ascended. The big rebellion had shocked other baby boomers into action too, Young Republicans and neocons and angry anti-hippies and newly politicized evangelical Christians. Dan Quayle, Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush, and Karl Rove represent their generation just as thoroughly as the Clintons and Gores, and the tribal elders of both right and left were "proto-boomers" of the same vintage: Jerry Rubin was born the same year as Pat Buchanan, Dick Cheney the same year as Bob Dylan.
But left-wing or right, the generation has shared a single approach to public life: endless conflict.
This is a generation that has always defined itself through denouncing an Other. We're us, they're them, and we have to fight them to remember that we're us. Once the "us" was generational, the youth movement that didn't trust anyone over thirty. That was the battle line that gave the generation its original unity and power. Over the decades the "us" has proven to be endlessly plastic, but the basic dynamic doesn't change.
The "culture wars" have been mainly a boomer fight. Dan Quayle brought the baby-boom style of symbolic combat to presidential politics when he attacked Murphy Brown as the embodiment of all that was wrong with liberals, Democrats, and the media. Just as the over-thirties with their Sinatra and their martinis could be objectified, so could those liberals with their un-American values and entertainment. (And how perfect for a man born in 1947, part of the first tube generation, that wave of kids raised on Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, to launch his culture war over a sitcom.) Karl Rove's divisive electoral strategy is a literalization of the same attitude, its implicit underpinning being that it's fine to hurt, enrage, and alienate those people as long as we win the power struggle and piss them off.
In struggling to retake the electoral center in the wake of Reagan, the Democrats have never embraced the culture wars so openly (anyway, it's hard to fire up the troops by advocating unwed TV moms) and have shown far more willingness to transcend party lines. And yet, they've certainly enjoyed playing the hipper, smarter party, parading their movie stars and rockers, still defining themselves as the young rebels to the parental Republicans. From the conversations of boomer Democrats you'd almost think that Bush's Texas drawl and cowboy affectations were as offensive as his politics. And the Clintons and their peers have always relished their literal and metaphorical boxing gloves, their battles against vast conspiracies and attack machines. In the end, the Clinton administration was hamstrung nearly as much by its own partisan gamesmanship as by the assaults of the Republican Congress.
Yes, I'm over-generalizing, I know that. Plenty of boomers hold the opposite ethos; they were the first generation, after all, to go big-time for Buddhism and Sufi and other philosophies of transcendence. But those who have led and shaped the generation politically, those who rose to positions of power when the boomer ship came in, have been driven by an angry passion for being right—and for seeing the other side as wrong. By a need to define an "other side" even when there doesn't have to be. By a love of arguing, of mocking, of righteous indignation. A joy in watching opponents sputter in frustration. An intolerance of contrasting viewpoints. Little interest in "win-wins" or the "big tent," preferring a vivid delineation of who's hip and who's not, who's telling the truth and who's not, who's right and who's not.
There's a power in that, no denying it. The most combative leaders of the generation are capable of great things. Their intellectual energy is inexhaustible. They are fearless in their willingness to dispute what has been handed to them from the past. Their innate belief in their own rightness gives them an extraordinary resilience: have there ever been two more indestructible politicians than Bill Clinton and George W. Bush?
But mostly the "'60s generation" has squandered its powers and wasted its potential in endless skirmishes and the hunt for new skirmishes.
To me, this is Hillary Clinton's tragic flaw. For all her dedication to children and health care, issues close to my own heart, she ultimately limits her effectiveness and hurts her causes through her reflexive combativeness. She has become a "polarizing figure" not simply because conservatives have developed a neurotic fixation on her (although they have), but because she plays the part with such obvious joy. She has defined herself by her battles with the vast right-wing conspiracy and the Republican attack machine to such an extent that she can't see outside that even as the electorate, driven by younger generations, tells her that it's done with those battles.
Among Clinton's criticisms of Obama—which I hear echoed by many of her boom-aged supporters—is that he's never had to stand against the right-wing attack machine, that he won't be able to survive it. She asks us to support her because she's "tough" and "a fighter." This is a frequent justification of Clinton's own attack strategy: she has to prove that he's "not tough enough" before the Republicans prove it and it's too late.
And yet, so far, Obama only grows more popular as he is attacked. His success is largely founded on the belief that the opponents' attack machine can be mostly dismissed because the attack itself has no more power than we give it. The voters under 50 who are driving his campaign don't want to give attack machines power, and so the attacks are blunted or even turned back on themselves. But the Clinton camp, wedded to the idea that enemies and conflict define us, can only see this as naivete, more evidence of his unreadiness for the battle with the Republicans. At times Clinton and her followers seem almost addicted to battle, to the maneuvering and short-term victories and tit-for-tat squabbling—but most of all to the anger. They see Obama's call for unity as weak because their entire sense of political identity is built on the eternal hostility of us and them.
Eleven years after my mom took me to Haight Street, another woman led me back there: my girlfriend moved to the neighborhood in 1978 and Haight was our main street. There were still relics then of the explosive moment of the '60s—we were always walking by the purple Victorian with the sign reading, "The Jimi Hendrix Electric Church Foundation"—but there were also the twitching speed freaks in the doorways and the panhandlers on the sidewalk and the sullen long-hairs in the book and record stores who looked suddenly so much older than their years. My sense then was that a powerful wind of dreams and ideology had swept down the street and left wreckage behind. The kids my age and younger—call them late boomers, after-boomers, downslope-boomers, or, better yet, give them no label at all—suddenly looked a lot better to me. Without a lot of noise and fireworks, we were trying to clean up the wreckage and make the place habitable for all of us again.
When I look at the aftermath of the Clinton and Bush years, I see the same wreckage. When I look around me, I see the same desire to clean it up. Not through more fighting and more finger pointing, but just through doing what we have to do and doing it together as best we can. I look at the candidate born in 1961, and I hear his rejection of those decades-old battle lines, and I know it's time to put a new generation in charge.