With the death of Ted Kennedy, let the word go forth: the summer of '09 has become the bookend to 1969. In a biblically appropriate 40 years, the baby-boom generation has gone from making history to being it.
I hear that the mainstream-media mania over the passing of the Last Great Kennedy isn't generating commensurate traffic on the Internet. Since I cover politics every day, I'm not surprised. To young America, the Kennedys are heroes of their parents', if not their grandparents', generation. The millennials have their own fixed star, and his name is President Barack Obama.
In 2008, don't forget, Obama won the votes of 18- to 29-year-olds by an astonishing margin of 66 to 32 percent, the largest split in any age group since exit polling began in the early 1970s. Boomers were statistically ambivalent, splitting 49-49. The generation that came was coming of age in the summer of 1969 is now drifting out on an ice floe of history, listening as it goes to loud echoes of long ago. In the summer of 1969, a half million of them gathered at Woodstock; this year the oldest of the boomers became eligible for Social Security. Director Ang Lee is out with a new movie called Taking Woodstock. He's advertising it with a tongue-in-check tag line—"based on a true story"—as if no one alive would either remember or believe it.
Forty years ago a generation that had been reared on the space race (and fear of the Soviets' winning it) were riveted to their televisions as Walter Cronkite described the first landing on the moon. As if on cue, "Uncle Walter" passed away in July. And 40 years ago this summer, Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick—a scandal/tragedy that galvanized the nation. It was treated like the abdication of the King of England. Forty years on, there is grief in some quarters at the death of this last of a political dynasty, but either puzzlement or shrugs in most of the country.
In America, history is not "bunk," as the cold and cunning Henry Ford claimed, but it doesn't define or control us, either. And that is a good thing. We are about remaking the world, and our country, anew with each generation. We are unique among nations in believing that this is possible—indeed, necessary. The Kennedys in their own youth were utterly ruthless and unsentimental about sweeping away the ossified leadership of elders. America is not, and never has been, a nation run by seniors, Ronald Reagan excepted.
I knew Ted Kennedy, heard him sing "My Wild Irish Rose" and laugh that bursting, boisterous laugh. He applauded the ambition of youth, in his own family and in people of every ethnicity, race, religion, and region. He never spent much time looking back, or poring over the obits.
Kids don't, and if the boomers know what's good for them, they won't, either.