Boomers: Which Way Will Their Politics Go?

When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, his campaign-trail theme was the exuberant Fleetwood Mac anthem "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." Fourteen years later, that "tomorrow" has arrived for the first baby-boomer president: he turns 60 in August. If he had a song these days, it might be Bob Dylan's wistful hymn "Forever Young." Heart surgery has left Clinton pallid and gaunt, and deepened the hint of melancholy that always lay beneath the surface of his preacherly style. He keeps busy, of course, with charitable work on tsunami and hurricane relief and AIDS in Africa, with global A-list parties and conferences, with kibitzing in back rooms on the nascent presidential candidacy of his wife, Hillary.

And yet, at a recent testimonial dinner for Rep. John Dingell of Michigan—a 79-year-old Democrat who has served for 50 years in Congress—Clinton sounded like he was searching for some new public mission, for some crusade that might be politically useful and personally rejuvenating. Dingell's doggedness was the model. "The secret to living a full life with no regrets and to staying young is to figure out what you believe in and fight for it," Clinton said somberly, biting his lower lip in a trademark display of hard-won understanding. "If you lose, don't give up. If you win, raise the bar, and then rare back and do something else. And remember that, with the accumulation of years, our responsibilities to the future grow greater, not less." The bipartisan audience applauded warmly as he loped off the stage.

As always—and for better or worse—Bill Clinton sums up the political persona and aspirations of his generation: the emotional brew of idealism and self-centeredness; the view of public life as a perpetual "fight" purified to abstraction by the boomers' relative lack of experience on real battlefields, in real wars. And now, as the former president indicated, the leading edge of the baby boom is trying to figure out the politics of the remainder of their lives. "We're facing a kind of final exam," says Nancy Bekavac, a Yale Law School classmate of Clinton's and, since 1990, the president of Scripps College in California. "I'm not sure we really want to take it."

And with good reason. For here is the essay question: can a generation—reared in affluence, schooled in self-importance, comparatively ignorant of national sacrifice—admit that the country can't support it as grandly in its old age as it did in its youth? Author Christopher Buckley, conservative son of the legendary Bill Buckley, is focusing the dry wit he inherited from his dad on a satirical novel called "Boomsday." In it, a twentysomething "Ayn Rand type" reacts to looming federal bankruptcy by mounting a political campaign to demand that all boomers do the patriotic thing: commit suicide at 70. Neither Clinton nor his generational successor, George W. Bush (who also turns 60 this year), has urgently confronted the pending explosion of national spending on health care and retirement, says Buckley. "Bush says he is a conservative, but I'm wondering if his policies aren't in reality an organic product of his being a boomer. His philosophy seems to be: enjoy it now!"

And that, of course, is the generational caricature: 75 million people who never met a need they didn't want to gratify—immediately. Boomers know the image that history tentatively has sketched of them. Their parents are memorialized as the "Greatest Generation": survivors of the Depression, victors in World War II, they built an American zenith, and begat the best-educated, best-fed—and now the most powerful—generation that any country has ever produced. But, in public life as in all else, the boomers have seemed confounded by their comfort—and come up far short of meeting Great Expectations.

They were the first, and so far only, generation to see itself en masse from infancy onward. Network TV and the boomer generational awareness rose in tandem, from the Peanut Gallery and "The Mickey Mouse Club" to "American Bandstand," campus protests and Woodstock. At the dawn of the boomer era, "The Howdy Doody Show" nominated its eponymous star for president. Producers printed 10,000 buttons as a joke; they were inundated with requests for hundreds of thousands of them. Young viewers by the tens of millions absorbed the noble myths purveyed by Walt Disney, whose announcer informed a nation of Mouseketeers that they were nothing less than "leaders of the 21st century" (whenever that was). "Davy Crockett was our Homer," says Tony Dolan, a conservative speechwriter (he now works for Donald Rumsfeld) and 1970 graduate of Yale College. "People don't appreciate how powerful those shows were."

But what broadcast television gave—unity, self-confidence and idealism—it could also take away. As teens and as college students, boomers watched fiery racial battles, assassinations, nightmarish dangers in Vietnam and, finally, the corruption at the pinnacle of public life. The images were so searing for a paradoxical reason: they were mostly vicarious, filtered through the heightening, simplifying (oversimplifying) lens of the media. The result: a generation wary of war and suspicious of political authority, assuming that politics was a conspiratorial struggle of "movements"—whether liberal, radical or conservative. As a boy, Clinton saw the story of Rosa Parks, and moved to the back seat of the bus. Bush once said that he understood the divisions of society in the '60s because he had seen them on TV. He wasn't being ironic.

But if the boomers were watching their history closely, they weren't always learning its lessons. Look at the grade transcript. Steeped in the failures of the Vietnam War, the boomers nevertheless produced a president who has led the country into what many regard as another Vietnam-like quagmire. The first generation to make the environment a political cause, the boomers also hoarded every SUV and electronic gadget they could get their hands on. They championed tolerance and creativity—a brave, lasting achievement—but Clinton turned their devotion to personal freedom into a sordid Oval Office farce. That gave Bush—an exemplar of boomer feel-goodism before he sobered up at 40—the chance to play the scold at the Republican convention six years ago. "Our generation," Bush declared, "has a chance to show that we have grown up before we grow old."

Can they do it? There are a host of places in which to search for clues, but Yale University is a particularly good one. The New Haven campus shaped the outlook of many who would rise to power—among the boomers, including Clinton (Yale Law '73), Bush (Yale College '68), a host of other recent '60s-era presidential candidates, political authors and artists ranging from Buckley to Garry Trudeau to Oliver Stone, one baby-boomer justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (Clarence Thomas) and another man hoping to be elevated to that court (Judge Sam Alito).

Far from being monolithically "liberal," the boomer generation's political story is about two youth movements in competition—each inspired by "freedom," but by differing interpretations and strategies for protecting it. Yale had deep roots in both camps. Indeed, it was instrumental in creating both camps. The conservative bastion was in Yale College. Its credo: devotion to free markets, anti-communism, government service and traditional social arrangements. Its avatar was Bill Buckley (class of '50). When Bush was there, he was not only president of his college fraternity, but of the Inter-Fraternity Council. "George was for torture then, too—of the pledge class," joked one of his college classmates.

The university left had its headquarters in the Law School, where Bill and Hillary Clinton studied and where, a generation earlier, professors propounded the theory of "legal realism." "Laws" were not set in stone by God or man, they said, but were political constructs that could and should be used as an instrument of social betterment when other institutions become ossified.

The two sides of the Yale campus knew of each other, but barely, and assumed that the other was not only wrong but dangerously so. And that is consistent with what polls have shown about the boomers: they are far more driven by ideology than were other generations, and far less willing to believe in traditional political institutions such as political parties. "We used to say: 'Look at the dinosaurs!' " says Bekavac of the conservatives on campus. "It never occurred to me that, in the battle of ideas, we would lose." But the left underestimated the resentment created by its air of elitism. That resentment fueled the traditionalism of men such as Thomas and Alito, the Yale law grads most likely to shape jurisprudence in the years to come. The idea of liberals' losing did occur to Dolan, though. The cofounder of a conservative political magazine at Yale in the late '60s, he invited Ronald Reagan to campus. He drew a few protesters, but an intense band of supporters. "I always knew that we were on the right side of history," says Dolan. And he was right, up to a point: in 1984, a majority of the "Woodstock Generation" voted to re-elect Reagan.

Can someone unite this campus—create a synthesis of Bush and Clinton's Yale? After the '70s, the boomers as a whole tended to lose interest in "movement" politics. "We were too busy snorting coke and trying to get jobs at Morgan Stanley," Buckley jokes. But having reared their children, are they going to re-engage in politics for their sake? One boomer hoping to be that inspiration and create that synthesis is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton—although she has a long way to go to make herself welcome on fraternity row. The early field for the 2008 presidential race is filled with boomer candidates, from Democrats Mark Warner and Evan Bayh to Republicans Mitt Romney and George Allen. But none of them, as yet, has put forth a plan to truly grapple with the financial crisis that seems all but unavoidable as the boomers grow old. The track record to date is grim. Clinton proposed his wife's sweeping health-care plan—a vast expansion of regulatory power. Bush, 12 years later, essentially proposed to turn Social Security over to Wall Street. Both proposals were all but laughed out of Congress. As Deadheads know, it's been a long, strange trip. But the journey's only just begun.