WASHINGTON — In retrospect, we probably should have expected that the first presidential election between two baby boomers would result in deadlock. The generation that came of age in the 1960s was divided by so many forces it never has gotten its act together.
Al Gore and George W. Bush are not perfect embodiments of the split within their generation, but they reflect the opposing tendencies that have their roots in that stormy decade.
It’s been 20 years since I wrote about that generation and its characteristics in a book called "Changing of the Guard." The premise of the book was hilariously off the mark. I thought the 1980s would end the long ascendancy in American politics and government of the World War II veterans — the generation that occupied the Oval Office from Dwight D. Eisenhower through Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president when the book was published in the autumn of 1980. I predicted that in the years just ahead they would be replaced by the boomers.
Two months after it was published, America elected its oldest president, Ronald Reagan, another World War II vet. And he was succeeded by yet another man who had been in uniform during the war against the Nazis and imperial Japan, George H.W. Bush. So much for a reporter’s prescience.
But it was not difficult to identify some of the men and women, then in their 30s and 40s, who were good bets to be part of the successor generation of American leadership. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott were all among the interviews that went into the book, along with David Stockman, Donna Shalala, Bruce Babbitt and many others who later became familiar public figures. George W. Bush was not — having been at the time caught up in the activities he summarizes by saying that "when I was young and irresponsible, I did things that were irresponsible."
What emerged from the hundreds of interviews in the book was a clear sense of the differences between the generation then in power and the successor generation.
They can be summarized this way: The leaders from Eisenhower through the elder Bush were shaped by two major experiences — the Great Depression and World War II. Those were immense challenges, which this nation survived only by pulling together all of its moral and material resources, a shared experience which required Americans to submerge their differences for a larger cause and a common enterprise.
The shaping experiences of the boomer generation were of a very different character. They included the civil rights revolution, the women’s rights movement, the controversy over abortion and, perhaps most of all, the divisive debate over Vietnam.
Every one of those experiences polarized Americans — most of all the young men and women who were at the forefront of those battles.
To a significant degree, the sides they chose back then — pro-choice or pro-life, feminist or traditionalist — continue to determine their political alignments now.
Al Gore opposed the Vietnam War but served a brief stint in that country; Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, supported the war, though neither served on active duty. Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, went south to join the civil rights demonstrators; neither of the Republican nominees took an active role in that struggle.
You still hear the echoes of those unresolved arguments. I remember the speech Marilyn Quayle gave at the Republican National Convention in 1992 — a speech in which she almost hissed through clenched teeth at Hillary Rodham Clinton: We weren’t all like you and that husband of yours. I turned to my Washington Post colleague Dan Balz, who is of that generation, and said:
"I have this picture in my head that when all of you reach the nursing homes, you are going to be leaning on your rockers and beating on each other with your canes, because you still won’t have resolved those arguments from the 1960s."
Is it far-fetched to say that the stalemate in this first election of the new century reflects those divisions? I don’t think so. The economic issues in this time of prosperity were far less sharply drawn than the moral and cultural issues. They had surfaced clearly during the long debate over the effort to impeach and remove Clinton from the presidency, and they were an important part of the context for the 2000 campaign.
The exit polls from last week’s elections give age breaks in the electorate. The voters between 45 and 59 — most of whom came of age during the 1960s — split 48 percent for Gore and 48 percent for Bush. Until they make up their minds, deadlock is likely in this country.
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