In 1960 John F. Kennedy became the first of what we now call the World War II generation to be elected President of the United States. If George Bush is elected in 1988, he most likely will be the last.
In the interim this generation has dominated American politics. They are the survivors of the Great Depression and victors in history's first global war. As such they have shaped the nation's foreign policy, chosen and rejected its Presidents, set the domestic agenda and, arguably winners in the Cold War, succeeded in shattering the myth of monolithic world communism. In the process, Europe has enjoyed 40 years of uninterrupted peace and the Soviet Union has moved beyond the xenophobia of Stalin's time to new levels of openness and cooperation.
In an election year and against that backdrop of generational history, it is interesting to think of those two products of the era--John Kennedy and George Bush--as early contemporaries. By adding a touch of elegant nostalgia we can visualize two splendid young men in uniform and, in a symbolic sense, see them half a century later at opposite ends of a parenthesis, bracketing a generation that was born before Lindbergh flew to Paris and counts among its achievements that of putting a man on the moon.
There is something in most of us that takes comfort in symmetry. Consider the two men, Kennedy and Bush: each with roots in New England; one a Democrat, the other a Republican; one from Harvard, the other from Yale; both were junior officers in the Navy, and both had fathers who cut wide swaths across the business and political scene in their time.
The similarities abound suggesting background, values and loyalties attributed to scions of those American families of privilege that author David Halberstam describes as having "a sense of country rather than party." However, Kennedy and Bush grew up in partisan households and, in choosing elective politics, knowingly tied their futures to the two great national parties. In turn they became the standard-bearers for both.
Their quests for the presidency started in the House. Kennedy, America's political wunderkind in this century, used his seat as a launching pad to a meteoric career in elective politics. Bush, following an unsuccessful bid for the Senate, became his party's wheel horse. Before being named Ronald Reagan's choice as running-mate in 1980, he served with distinction in an extraordinary number of appointive posts. His style and effectiveness in carrying out both foreign and domestic assignments, often as trouble-shooter for a besieged White House, earned him an international reputation and a legitimate right to contest for party leadership. It also placed him firmly in the tradition of Halberstam's patrician in public service.
Thus, and by congruent routes, those two singular veterans of history's greatest war entered presidential politics a quarter of a century apart.
For the nation, the years from early Lyndon Johnson to late Ronald Reagan marked an era of social and institutional testing unmatched since the Civil War. The resulting cultural impacts are not yet fully understood. But there can be little doubt they are bone deep and that clearly, Bush is running for President in an America very different from that of 1960. Changes both subtle and glaring have accompanied massive shifts in the composition and distribution of the country's population. The demographics have changed and with them, the sociology of politics. The World War II generation may be the only constant and, if elected, Bush will mirror that generation in its maturity. Unlike Kennedy, he will not be the youthful champion of their salad days. Rather, he will be the symbol of an era come full circle, a generation that in the fullness of time has come to recognize the limits of America's power but not its promise, and sees in him the steady hand: reliable, tempered, guided by their shared experience and belief in the future. They are comfortable with him. He has the image of constancy.
This November will not necessarily be remembered as the last hurrah for the World War II generation. But it may be the last election in which their common concerns speak to numbers sufficient to make a difference. Social scientists and opinion researchers analyzing voter behavior over time have established that it was the Great Depression, and not the war, that made the most enduring impression on them as a discrete constituency. They treat the pocketbook issues as more than unemployment statistics and the cost-of-living index; they see them going to the very heart of national survival.
As a generation, they possess a deep, lasting visceral sense that good times equate with strength, and that a prosperous America is a powerful, verily invincible, America. They trust a President whose priorities are consistent with that view and, beyond trust, they adore a President who can imbue their vision of the American future with excitement, seminal ideas and a battery of new programs. Their hope for the future is undiminished; it is the land of their children. They want it to hold promise, and they want it held safe.
The Bush candidacy embodies their aspirations as well as their legacy. He seeks the office on the threshold of a new century, capping eight years as No. 2 man in a high-impact Administration. As the Cold War winds down and competition for world markets heats up, he is the nation's point man positioned to direct the Reagan momentum toward a broad trade offensive aimed at re-establishing American hegemony in the global marketplace. That is where the country's economic future lies. To capture it will require imagination, rigor, a sleeves-rolled-up national posture. That's something the World War II types will understand.