Generation gap widens in campaign


BOSTON -- Who could have predicted this? The Baby Boomer generation is turning 50 and dad wants to take back the keys to the car.

On Monday, Bill Clinton hit the big Five-Oh. By the most optimistic actuarial table, he is middle-aged and eligible for membership in the AARP. Something he dearly wants to avoid.

The president left his 40s Sunday night with a celebration at Radio City Music Hall where Whoopie Goldberg warned that "pretty soon the Secret Service will be jogging ahead of you."

But just last week, Bob Dole, the opponent old enough to be his father, launched his campaign for the White House with a paean to the advantages of age and, by implication, the disadvantages of "youth." Bill Clinton's youth.

In his acceptance sermon the elder said, "Age has its advantages. Let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquillity, faith and confidence in action. And to those who say it was never so, that America has not been better, I say, you're wrong and I know because I was there. And I have seen it. And I remember."

Until that moment, I had thought Bill Clinton was the nostalgia candidate. This year he took up the mantle of national dad talking about V-chips, teen smoking, school uniforms and curfews. He waxed on about the 1950s when kids were "home before dark" and watched over by the community.

Now Bob Dole is harking back to the 1920s, '30s, and '40s as the good old American days. After the Republicans spent an entire week trying to close the gender gap, the 73-year-old candidate willfully reopened the generation gap.

Spock's progeny

Guess who he was talking about when he said that "permissive and destructive behavior must be opposed, that honor and liberty must be restored, and that individual accountability must replace collective excuse"? Dr. Spock's kids.

Guess who he was referring to when he described "a corps of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned"? Not just the Friends of Bill. The flower children, the '60s protesters, the Youth Generation. The Peers of Bill.

Mr. Dole is sounding a reprise of the running complaints against boomers, and the prototype boomer in the Oval Office, as undisciplined, self-indulgent foul-ups. Folks who still aren't grown up enough to run the country.

But if age has its "gracious compensations," one of them should be perspective. A man born in 1923 surely has seen darker days. A past of "tranquillity, faith and confidence"? Which era was that? The Depression? The years when Hitler was taking over Europe?

In the pre-speech video, Mr. Dole remembered childhood days when people could leave their keys in the car. He forgot that in those days few people even had cars.

Is Bob Dole "the most optimistic man in America"? I sincerely hope not.

There is an irony in an anti-boomer message directed at the bulk of voters: 77 million boomers. But one of the characteristics of the divided, questing, introspective generation is self-doubt. They are uncertain about choices they made and changes they brought about.

Indeed, boomers may be most uncertain about their values, about themselves as spouses, as parents. It's at the root of their ambivalence about one of their own -- Bill Clinton.

Nevertheless, if we are wistful about "traditional values," does that mean we want to go back to the era that Mr. Dole described so warmly, an era when his mom washed his mouth out with soap?

Having arrived at the mid-century mark before the president, I can tell you that 50 is when you suddenly enjoy hearing anyone talk of you as "the kids."

But when your own kids are heading out of the nest, when you find yourself sandwiched between college tuitions and aging parents, you know for absolute certain that you are the grown-ups.

In 1993, Bill Clinton became the first Baby Boomer in the national driver's seat. In 1996, we'll see how comfortable that generation is behind the wheel.

Can anybody under 60 be trusted?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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