By Gil Troy, HNN, 8-8-08
Barack Obama celebrated his 47th birthday this week with minimal fanfare. The anniversary of his birth on August 4, 1961 highlights his campaign’s often-underappreciated generational dimensions. Obama was not just born later than most national leaders, he imbibed a different sensibility. Demographers may clump Obama – and his wife Michelle who was born in 1964 – together with “Baby Boomers,” but those of us born at the tail end of that population explosion know we are “Baby Busters,” often seeking to revive some of the faith, hope, morality and national unity, many Boomers scorned.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946, represent the two sides of the political fault line that the Baby Boomers 1960s’ earthquake triggered (John McCain, born in 1936, pre-dated the Baby Boom). Clinton and his buddies were traumatized by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, tormented by the Vietnam War’s draft, yet inspired by their political and cultural revolution’s transformational potential. Others, like George W. Bush, enjoyed the “sex, drugs, and rock n’roll” moment, but, politically, triggered the conservative backlash.
As a Baby Buster, born as America’s birth rate stabilized, Barack Obama was too young even to lie as so many Baby Boomers did about being at Woodstock in 1969 – he was only eight. Rather than being children of the 1960s, we were children of the 1970s. We stewed in the defeatism of Viet Nam, the cynicism of Watergate, the pessimism of Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis rather than the triumphalism of the post-World War II world. Most of us did not experience “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” moments teaching us life was so simple; with the divorce revolution fragmenting families all around us, most of us watched Michelle Obama’s favorite show, “The Brady Bunch,” with knowing, pre-post-modernist smirks.
Moreover, thanks to Stagflation, that unique seventies combo of inflation and unemployment, we – and our Depression-era parents – were anomalies in modern America: we grew up doubting the fundamental American idea of progress, doubting we could fulfill the American dream of outdoing our parents and bettering our own lives. In college, many of us felt inadequate for being less radical and influential than our older peers, even as we considered them tiresome and self-righteous.
Surprisingly, after all the Baby Boomers’ experimentation, in our generation, the rebellious ones were the straight ones. For anyone in the left or the center who did not want to be tagged as – heaven forbid – a goody-goody – it was easier to “do it” than to abstain. Even today, when Barack Obama talks about traditional morality and political moderation he risks being mocked by his peers and his usual ideological allies among the “let it all hang out” Boomers.
Of course, demography is not destiny; the generational game – which the Baby Boomers typically overdid – should not be overplayed. Still, it is not surprising that it was Jon Stewart, born in 1962, who has been among the few public figures to champion moderation, blasting the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire for dividing America. And it is not surprising that Obama came to prominence with an un-Boomer-like call for unity and healing.
In his book “Audacity of Hope” and during the 2006 Congressional campaign, Obama emphasized this generational divide. But the Baby Boomer cohort remains too large to risk alienating during a tight presidential contest, so he has done less Boomer-bashing lately. Still, as he demonstrated in defeating Hillary Clinton, born in 1947, Obama is more nimble than many Baby Boomers. He is less starry-eyed and less battle-scarred, thus less doctrinaire, freer of the great Baby Boomer fault line and more anxious for national healing.
Those of us born in the early 1960s have long been upstaged by our louder, more self-righteous, older peers and siblings. Wherever we stand politically, many of us understand that Obama’s syntheses of tradition and innovation, his calls to transcend the usual divides, reflect a collective generational frustration. Many of us are fed up with the older generation’s media-hogging, polarizing, tendencies. Demographers called Boomers the pig–in-the-python because they stuck out demographically. Their attitudes often simply stuck in our craws as we yearned for a less bitter, less zero-sum politics – which is what Obama the birthday boy, at his best, is promising.