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A Hoosier in the White House?

3:16 PM, May 11, 2009 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels gave one heck of a commencement speech Saturday at Butler University. Highlights:

We Boomers were the children that the Second World War was fought for. Parents who had endured both war and the Great Depression devoted themselves sacrificially to ensuring us a better life than they had. We were pampered in ways no children in human history would recognize. With minor exceptions, we have lived in blissfully fortunate times. The numbers of us who perished in plagues, in famine, or in combat were tiny in comparison to previous generations of Americans, to say nothing of humanity elsewhere.

All our lives, it's been all about us. We were the "Me Generation." We wore t-shirts that said "If it feels good, do it." The year of my high school commencement, a hit song featured the immortal lyric "Na, na, nananana live for today." As a group, we have been self-centered, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and all too often just plain selfish. Our current Baby Boomer President has written two eloquent, erudite books, both about….himself.

As a generation, we did tend to live for today. We have spent more and saved less than any previous Americans. Year after year, regardless which party we picked to lead the country, we ran up deficits that have multiplied the debt you and your children will be paying off your entire working lives. Far more burdensome to you mathematically, we voted ourselves increasing levels of Social Security pensions and Medicare health care benefits, but never summoned the political maturity to put those programs on anything resembling a sound actuarial footing.

In sum, our parents scrimped and saved to provide us a better living standard than theirs; we borrowed and splurged and will leave you a staggering pile of bills to pay. It's been a blast; good luck cleaning up after us....

As time runs out on our leadership years, it's clear there is no chance that anyone will ever refer to us, as histories now do our parents, as "The Greatest Generation." There is no disgrace in this; very few generations are thought of as "great." And history is not linear. Many generations fail miserably at the challenges they confront, and their societies take steps backwards as a consequence. Consider Japan before World War II, or Americans in the decades before the Civil War.

And yet in both those instances and many others, the people who followed did great things, not only redeemed all the failings but built better, fairer societies than their nations had seen before. In fact, true greatness can only be revealed by large challenges, by tough circumstances. And your opportunities for greatness will be large....

And please, just to revise another current practice, be judgmental. Whatever they claim, people always are, anyway - consider the healthy stigmatization of racist comments or sexist attitudes or cigarette smoking. It's just a matter of which behaviors enough of us agree to judge as unacceptable.

As free people, we agree to tolerate any conduct that does no harm to others, but we should not be coerced into condoning it. Selfishness and irresponsibility in business, personal finances, or in family life, are deserving of your disapproval. Go ahead and stigmatize them. Too much such behavior will hurt our nation and the future for you and the families you will create.

Honesty about shortcomings is not handwringing. Again, this is a blessed land, in every way. Amidst the worst recession in a long time, we still are wealthier than any society in history. We are safer, from injury, disease, and each other than any humans that ever lived. Best of all, we are free. The problems you now inherit are not those of 1776, or 1861, or 1929, or 1941. But they are large enough, and left unattended, they will devour the wealth and, ultimately, the freedom and safety we cherish, at least in our thankful moments. So you have a chance to be a great Butler class, part of a great generation.

After what will be, in 2012, two decades of Clinton, Bush and Obama, maybe the nation will be ready to elect a Boomer president who disdains his own generation, and urges younger Americans to reject Boomer vanities and self-indulgence in the name of freedom and greatness?