A Generation Must Show Itself

<i> Alan M. Webber is the managing editor of Harvard Business Review</i>

First came Gary Hart. Then Joe Biden, followed in quick succession by Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg. Before anyone could notice, we had slip-slided from 1984’s comfortable rubric of Old Politics vs. New Politics to the uncharted territory of the Politics of Character. In other words, we had entered the manic-depressive Land of the Baby Boomers, where the highs are always higher, the lows lower--and, most important, almost everything that happens is happening for the first time.

It is a land without familiar referents, where perception is the only reality and experience the only check on perception. Character--the candidate’s sense of self and capacity to realize that sensibility in a consistent political persona--is the reigning political measure here, since character alone is a constant. Everything else--positions on issues, past accomplishments, future commitments--these are quite literally nothing on their own terms and questionable as criteria because of their complete relativity. Positions may change, issues come and go. At best they are prisms through which the candidate’s character shines, projecting a more or less pure beam of political light. It is the character of the candidate that must never flicker or flare but always shine with consistency and coherence.

Would that the same could be said of the baby boomers themselves. In 1988 the boomers face their own test of character, a political gut check of historic proportions. In 1988 this generation for the first time will represent a clear majority of registered voters. In the ill-fated Judge Ginsburg it now has had its own first Supreme Court nominee and in Sen. Albert Gore its own first bona fide presidential contender. Across the tops of the nation’s institutions, baby boomers are assuming positions of power, prominence and leadership, bursting into full generational flower before their parent generation is quite ready to fade. And the boomers are accustomed to making themselves heard; this is the generation that cut its teeth on speaking its mind.

If only it knew its own mind. Between the late 1960s and the 1980s the baby boomers have appeared to change course in such a radical way that what was once assumed to be true about this generation is now open to question. For 1988 a self-assured candidate for President, confident of his own character, could be excused for asking the baby boomers, “Who are you; what do you stand for?” Whatever the answer, it will certainly shape the direction that the United States follows into the 21st Century.


Take the events of the baby boom’s adolescence, the blue-jeaned upheaval and the street-protest politics that this generation spawned and celebrated. The civil-rights movement. The peace movement. The women’s movement. The sexual revolution. Haight-Ashbury and the hippie movement. Experimental life styles, unconventional views that challenged all the old assumptions and put new, strongly felt values on the agenda through direct action. If this generation hadn’t experienced a truth for itself, then it clearly wasn’t true--at least not yet. And if it tumbled to an out-and-out lie, a national shame or hypocrisy, the only solution was eradication--immediately.

This is the generation that, while still in college, influenced the entire nation to reverse some long-cherished, or at least tolerated, givens--on racial segregation, on war and the draft, on presidential invincibility, on reproductive rights, on women’s role in the workplace.

Now come the 1980s. The generation of hippies and yippies goes straight with a vengeance. They vote for Ronald Reagan--overwhelmingly. They don’t march, they commute. The protest for equality gives way to the search for excellence. Celebrations of public conscience end and serious private concerns begin. The giving stops and the having starts--having children, having careers, buying homes, making money.

The questions of national character are still there, sometimes even the same questions coming around again. Presidents still lie; White House advisers still flout the Constitution; American power still is wantonly exercised; environmental degradation spreads; the poor get poorer; private interests pillage the public trust. But for the generation of protest the lights are off. The screen remains strangely dark.


Who are these people? And what do they really want? What makes a generation blink on and off like a flashing light, turning go-go green for two decades, then red-for-stop for who knows how long? Or did we simply misread the events of the 1960s and 1970s, misjudging not the behavior but the impulse--the character--behind it?

We took it for values; this generation’s contribution, we thought, was to be its strong and passionate beliefs. Commitment. Equality. Peace. This generation had a code that it took seriously. This generation meant to live by its own values, and in the process teach the whole country something about the national character: Values and actions would match. We would at last practice what we had so long preached. We would deliver on the promise of America.

But perhaps this interpretation, so earnest and sincere, is plain wrong. Perhaps we credit too much to depth of character and dwell too little on the shallow truth of old-fashioned self-interest. What if all that we saw in the 1960s and 1970s was the evidence of a generation on the first leg of its extended power trip? What if all that we witnessed was the capacity of this generation to make a difference--and what if the content of the difference itself was only marginally important? Isn’t that the difference, after all, between a dilettante and a pilgrim?

Perhaps it was just generational body-building that we saw, a whole generation pumping political iron and caught up in the hormonal high of its own surging strength. If this is true, then the vehicles--the various and sundry causes and movements--were less the source of the generation’s commitment and more the almost random vessels into which it happened to pour its power. Ronald Reagan’s amiable appeal to pure self-interest, the 1980s’ inward turning to family and career, these are logical extensions of the previous pathology, the private phase of a previously public fascination with the self.

This is the argument that the generation is now having with itself--candidate by candidate, event by event. Which is why the election of 1988 is of such profound importance to the country as a whole and the baby boomers themselves. Which face of this peekaboo generation will become the logo for 1988? Is its commitment to values ready to reemerge? Or was it ever really there?

This election may show this generation its own face. It is an election in which the fundamental issue is one of character: ours.