Can Boomers Lead?

In one of the comic strips Garry Trudeau drew shortly after graduating from Yale 40 years ago, the everyman, Mike Doonesbury, is sitting on a stone wall, contentedly snacking on a sack of something while being harangued by the self-appointed campus radical, Mark Slackmeyer. “Doonesbury, this country is being torn apart!” Mark rages. “I just can’t stand by and watch it happen!” He vows to “fight ’till death to make this country great again!”

Then, with Mark still mid-rant, Mike tilts the open sack toward him and politely interrupts to offer a chocolate-chip cookie. In the last frame, Mark is wearing a boyish grin of rapt delight as he bites into one cookie, his left hand buried deep in the bag to grab another. Having silenced his friend, Mike gazes out at the reader with a smile of his own and observes, “Even revolutionaries like chocolate chip cookies.”

It seems surprising that the comics can help teach you that the world is a complicated place, a place where people can simultaneously want social justice for all and chocolate-chip cookies for themselves—possibly, but not necessarily, without being hypocrites. But I was probably 9 or 10 years old when I first came across that particular strip, in one of my mother’s many Doonesbury collections, and I remember it as part of the early education I got from Doonesbury in politics and human frailty (not to mention in how confusing and exciting it could be to be an independent young adult).

The young people in the strip were self-consciously part of some new chapter in American history, trying to find their way—to get high, get laid, and get justice, in no clear order—through the tumult they were helping to create as they sought a “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating mode of living,” as a promising graduate named Hillary Rodham put it in her 1969 Wellesley commencement address. It’s astonishing, in retrospect, to consider how attuned Trudeau was from the beginning to the contest within Baby Boomers between idealism and indulgence—and to how even the idealism could be a form of indulgence.

So we could imagine no more fitting artist to create our cover as Michael Kinsley was preparing his manifesto to his fellow Boomers. It may seem unfair to single out the Boomers for having let the country down, but as Kinsley notes, “Boomers are right to feel at least a bit like a failed generation, because they—at least those who consciously thought of themselves as part of a generation—had hopes. They had an agenda.” So far, they have opted more for chocolate-chip cookies than for their early passion to make things right.

We’re now on our third Boomer president. The first, Bill Clinton, who is fond of referring to himself as the oldest of the Baby Boomers, is generally seen as the generation’s archetype, because of a tendency to indulge himself. But it is the second Boomer president, George W. Bush, who best represents the generation, at least so far; it is Bush who performed the (stereotypically!) defining generational feat of making the least of the most opportunity. Under a cloak of moral seriousness, he led the country on a heedless eight-year binge that would have embarrassed even Zonker Harris, if he followed the news. By the time Bush left office, he had almost doubled the national debt to more than $10 trillion, with two wars and little else to show for it beyond new federal giveaways that are still digging us into an ever deeper hole.

At 49, Barack Obama is among the youngest of the Boomers, years younger than Trudeau’s characters. Maybe he is distanced enough from his generation to learn from its mistakes, and determined enough to summon its own early dreams for itself. As Kinsley writes, there’s time yet for the Boomers to deliver on their youthful idealism, now by fixing not just their parents’ mistakes, but their own as well. They could free their children and grandchildren from an inheritance of debt. They still have the chance, as Mark put it, to fight till death to make this country great again.