Q: If the World War II generation was the "greatest generation," what is the Vietnam War generation?
A: I don't think the full judgment of history is in yet. There is certainly greatness in the '60s generation. They changed our attitudes about race in America, which was long overdue.
--Tom Brokaw, interviewed in the November 19 U. S. News & World Report, on his new book, Boom! Voices of the Sixties.
Whoa! The '60s generation changed our attitudes about race in America? Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr.--were they from the Vietnam war generation? Earl Warren, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey? For that matter, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, murdered on June 21, 1964, in Mississippi? None of these was a member of the " '60s generation." None was a boomer.
There really was greatness in the "greatest generation." It fought and won World War II, then came home to achieve widespread prosperity and overcome segregation while seeing the Cold War through to a successful conclusion. But the greatest generation had one flaw, its greatest flaw, you might say: It begat the baby boomers.
The most prominent of the boomers spent their youth scorning those of their compatriots who fought communism, while moralizing and posturing at no cost to themselves. They went on to enjoy the benefits of their parents' labors, sacrificed little, and produced nothing particularly notable. But the boomers were unparalleled when it came to self-glorification, a talent they began developing as teenagers and have continued to improve up to this day. They were also good at bamboozling their parents, and members of the "silent generation" like Tom Brokaw, to be overly deferential to them--even to the point of giving them credit for things they didn't do.
Now the first boomers are applying for Social Security. Their time is passing--without eliciting any discernible consternation among their successors. It's not that every last one is unworthy. But for each David Petraeus or Ray Odierno (two very impressive members), there are countless posturers and blowhards who have received wildly disproportionate attention. We've had two boomer presidents now, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They followed eight presidents whose lives were more or less defined by the experience of World War II, or the Cold War: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush. (Carter is the exception that proves the rule--a bit young to be defined by World War II, he turned out to be a kind of baby boomer avant la lettre.) With all due respect to Clinton's intelligence and Bush's determination--it's hard to make the case that boomer presidents were an improvement. (And some of the most impressive characters in the Clinton and Bush administrations--Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Vice President Dick Cheney, to name two--weren't boomers.)
The boomer urge for self-glorification is still going strong. In its latest issue, Newsweek celebrates "1968: The Year That Made Us Who We Are." Recently Hillary Clinton spoke at Wellesley reliving the glory days of her "experiment in human living" 1969 commencement speech. For her reprise, she received mostly fawning coverage, in accord with the how-wonderful-our-kids-are coverage her original remarks received four decades ago. But rereading that fatuous oration today makes one think that the romance of the '60s must surely fade.
Maybe we'll even see this in the 2008 presidential election. Maybe the American public will decide two boomer presidents are enough. The Republicans will either nominate a pre-boomer (John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson) or an anti-boomer (the square Mitt Romney or the preacher Mike Huckabee). As for the Democrats, they can pick from two quintessential boomers--Hillary Clinton and John Edwards--or go for Barack Obama, barely on the edge of boomer-dom (Obama was born in 1961) but really a post-boomer.
America's hopes for the future rest mostly with the 9/11 generation. Despite their unfortunate propensity so far to vote Democratic, these young men and women will, I believe, turn out to be far more impressive than we boomers who begat them. It would of course be a fitting fate, after all the soaring rhetoric about the boomers, if they turned out to be basically a parenthesis. They may go down in history as occupying space between the generation that won World War II and presided over a relatively successful second-half of the twentieth century, and the 9/11 generation that will deal with the threats the boomers neglected during that quintessential boomer decade, the '90s. It is the 9/11 generation that will have to construct and maintain a new American century. The best we boomers can do now is help them get started on the job. Meanwhile, the experience of the boomers should hearten us: America is such a great country that it will end up surviving even a not-so-great generation.