Living Politics: Check Please

In the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, we know this truth to be self-evident: there is no free lunch. Now it's time for the Baby Boom Generation to pay for the banquet it enjoyed until last week.

After years of living it up-or down-with a sense of abandon bestowed upon them by prosperity and peace, the Boomers have been presented with the check. What's due is not just money-though it is that, too-but the kind of patriotic faith and sacrifice Boomers now say they admire.

The children of the World War II Generation, some 75 million born between 1946 and 1964, were reared to think the world of themselves. More recently, they've come down with a bad case of generation envy, fixating on the Founding Fathers, whose biographies topped best-seller lists, and on "The Greatest Generation." Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (Boomers both) have spent $125 million to retell the story of D-Day on HBO.

The self-glorification was never justified (Boomers were more lucky than good) and neither was the self-loathing (they have done much to be proud of). But now it's time for generational narcissism to cease once and for all, and to simply confront the implications of the new world-and new war.

It's doubtful that the Boomers will again know the kind of gluttonous good times in which they were privileged to grow up, and to live much of their adult lives. More important, it isn't at all clear that their children will have such good fortune. The parents of Gen Y will have to work harder, and for more years, than they perhaps had wanted or expected. Every Bob Dylan song has a sharper edge these days, including one called "Forever Young." Now it's a prayer.

Boomers have been notoriously lax about planning for their own retirement. In a sad way, it's possibly just as well: their 401(K)s were sinking into oblivion even before the Evil Ones destroyed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Who knows what nest eggs will look like a few years from now?

The Social Security equation is changing, too. The inherent strength of the American economy is almost beyond imagining, but it can't pay for a limitless war and gold-plated social programs simultaneously. Boomers who had been planning to rely on generous Social Security benefits had better think otherwise.

But it's not just about money. What matters now is the use of time and the habits of heart and mind. At one point in the late 70s, it was fashionable for Boomer writers to pen confessions about how they had avoided service in Vietnam. They all but bragged about their guilt. Hollywood in recent years has indulged the same emotion in a subtler way, with vivid remembrances of the Good War.

Only a relative handful of Boomers served in 'Nam, but now comes a version of payback: in this new kind of war, every civilian is a combatant, every city and office building a front line. And as for the military itself, it will be filled with the sons and daughters of the generation that, for the most part, didn't "go."

There is no greater sacrifice than to send kids to war. The Boomers' parents didn't insist, and the politicians eventually lost the will to make them do so. What about now?

The books will be balanced in other ways. A generation that grew up in unimagined freedom-political, artistic, sexual-will have to abide new limits on travel, on communications, on free speech, due process and other constitutional protections.

A generation that made its political debut with ostentatious contempt for institutions and symbols of nationhood, now seeks comfort in them, from the powers of the FBI and CIA to the flying of the flag. The Boomers when young were never as far "left" as the media made them appear, but they did not, as a rule, like authority, government or otherwise. They like it now more than ever.

War began last week with the Baby Boom Generation nearing the zenith of its leadership clout in society. Last year, for the first time, two members of the tribe faced each other in a presidential election following the reign of Bill Clinton. The first Boomer president was gifted and brilliant, but an icon of the kind of self-indulgence that long ago began making Boomers nervous.

Now comes George W. Bush, born in 1946. He tells his own life story in terms of indulgence overcome, in terms of the harm that can come from too much leeway in the life of the eldest son with a famous name in a well-connected family. Others helped him make his money and find his way. But through his own will he shaped himself into a man of discipline and focus and resolve.

He has, so far, been reluctant to ask for "sacrifice." Dick Cheney, on TV the other day, mentioned long lines at airports but very little else. But there will be sacrifice, and it is up to Bush to explain the need for it to his own cohort.

He grew up late, but with what seems to be a tensile strength that was worth the wait. He wanted to be president, but didn't imagine-couldn't possibly have imagined-the tests that would await him. But he seems more than ready to take the exam. And in that way, let us hope, he is emblem of his generation.