Monday, March 7, 2011

Obama Baffles the Baby Boomers

Andrew Sullivan had a nice post on Friday praising President Obama's restraint and refusal to take credit for what Sullivan is calling the Arab 1848. When Mubarak left office, Obama rightly said "Today belongs to the people of Egypt."  The credit, he made clear, was all theirs.  According to Sullivan, Obama's "willingness not to take credit" is "part of his nature."  While that's true, it is,  I think, only part of the story.  The rest is generational. 

Baby boomers of the left and right have a common trait: they tend to see the United States at the center of everything.  For far left groups like the Weather Underground in the late 1960s, the U.S. was the root of all evil.  For the "love it or leave it" right, America was unquestionably the source of all good.  But in either case, whatever happened in the world, for good or ill, was due to American action (or inaction).

Obama, by temperament and by generational background, eschews such extreme views, and in doing so, confounds his opponents who remain mired in the 1960s political and cultural divisions that shaped them.

Depending on how one dates the baby boomer phenomenon, Obama, who was born in 1961, is either post-boomer or late-boomer.  In my view, he is our first post-boomer president.  The previous, World War II generation, had a long 32 year run in the presidency.  Every president from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush was 18 years old or older during the war.  By contrast, the two boomer presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, only held the presidency for 16 years.

I define Obama as post-boomer because he came of political age after the polarizing issues of the 1960s.  He was too young to be a participant in the vehement disagreements over the Vietnam war.  He came of political age in a later time: the post-Watergate troubles of the late 1970s and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.

Why does this matter?  This past week, Roger Newman of the Columbia School of Journalism gave a talk at Wofford and I was invited to have dinner with him afterwards.  During the dinner conversation, the topic turned to the question of when American politics became so polarized.  Newman, who is of the Vietnam generation, argued that Reagan's election was the turning point.  I argued that it was the Clinton-Gingrich confrontation of the early to mid-1990s that was more significant.  I've been thinking about that disagreement, and I think it comes down to this: For Newman's generation, Reagan represented the conservative enemy of the 1960s coming to power to reverse the gains of that decade. 

But as harsh as the criticism of Reagan was from the left in the early 1980s, I would argue that it never reached the depths of personal vilification that greeted Clinton in the early 1990s.  Reagan was denounced by the left as a man of the past, even a reactionary.  Clinton, on the other hand, was accused of being a draft dodger, a murderer, a drug dealer, a traitor (the last for protesting against the Vietnam war while studying abroad).  These accusations almost always had their roots in the cultural and political divisions of the 1960s.  He came to embody for conservatives everything that they had loathed about that decade. 

Similarly, Newt Gingrich embodied the radical right's rejection of the social and cultural developments of the 1960s.  While condemning the results, he often embraced the extremist tactics of the radical left: he consciously demonized the opposition in an effort to discredit them as un-American.

Beginning with Gingrich, the baby-boomer right in the U.S. developed a consistent campaign theme: their opponents were not merely wrong on the issues, they were anti-American.  With figures like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry, the boomer right employed themes pulled directly from the cultural and political baggage of the 1960s.  These tactics have proven successful enough, at least with the base, that they remain addicted to them, even when the new target, Obama, is maddeningly inappropriate for them.

Last fall, Gingrich said of Obama: "he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating--none of which was true ... He was authentically dishonest."  Gingrich is not describing Obama--he is describing what he wishes Obama would be: a mirror image of Gingrich.

Think back to the 2008 campaign and Sarah Palin's favorite line, that Obama "palled around with terrorists."  That of course was a reference to Obama's acquaintance with 1960s radical, Bill Ayers. Obama was too young for 1960s radicalism, so they tried guilt by association.  Last August, boomer Rush Limbaugh, whose rise to prominence coincided with the Clinton administration, called Obama "our first anti-American president."  While hawking his new memoir, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reiterated another common trope: that Obama "has made a practice of trying to apologize for America," a none-too-subtle suggestion that the president, like the radical left in the 1960s, thinks America is evil.

Last week, Mike Huckabee took this absurdity to new lengths for a supposedly mainstream politician by falsely stating that Obama grew up in Kenya and somehow trying to associate him with the Mau Mau revolution in Kenya.  Huckabee surely knows that for Americans of a certain age, the term "Mau Mau" has a particular resonance.   It was part of the anti-civil rights backlash that helped turn the solid Democratic south into the solid Republican south.  The phrase came from a 1970 book by Tom Wolfe.  "Mau Mauing" meant the intimidation of whites by the "angry black male" of the Black Panther variety.

No reasonable person could describe Obama in that way, and yet we hear the right do it time and again.  He's socialist, he's foreign, he is not "one of us."  They make themselves look utterly ridiculous by trying to fit Obama into their 1960s style preconceptions of what he should be, and yet they persist.  Certainly the first African-American president can not be someone who is the epitome of the values conservatives say they cherish: hard work, education, faith, public service, devotion to family.  So they recreate him in their own perverse mirror image.  The more Obama proves them wrong by being truly reasonable and refusing to conform to the boomer stereotypes, the more they flail about, making increasingly absurd charges, removing themselves further and further from reality.  And the more ridiculous they look, trapped in the debates of the past, the more likely they make it that Obama will be our leader for the foreseeable future.

No comments:

Post a Comment