My Gap Generation

Coby Lubliner

I took quite personally, and rather hard, this year’s election defeats of Lionel Jospin in France and Wim Kok in Holland. These two have been among the very few politicians for whom I had something like genuine respect, for their personal integrity and for the solid – if limited – achievements of the governments they led. But, beyond respect, I have felt a personal identification with them. They are, like me, moderate leftists or social democrats (what in North America is known as “liberals”). But even more, they are of my generation: I was born in 1935, Jospin in 1938, Kok in 1939.

The men who defeated them – those who drained away their potential voters, not the “winners” of the elections – are not only right-wingers, but of different generations from mine (which I am limiting to those born from 1930 to 1940, a narrower range than the 1928-1945 conventionally assigned to the United States’ “silent generation”). Jean-Marie Le Pen (1928) is an old-fashioned quasi-fascist, while the murdered Pim Fortuyn (1946) was (as several analysts have described him) a “postmodern populist.”

I have never had the opportunity to identify in such a way – both ideologically and generationally – with any president or vice-president of my country of citizenship, the United States. Focusing on just the generational aspect, when one lists the men who have served in these positions in order of birth year, one observes certain well-defined gaps. For example, the last one born in the nineteenth century was Eisenhower (1890), while those born in the twentieth begin with Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller (1908), who are then followed in quick succession by Humphrey and Reagan (1911), Nixon and Ford (1913), Kennedy (1917), Agnew (1918), Carter and the first Bush (1924), and Mondale (1928). This eighteen-year gap can obviously be regarded as separating those whose younger years were marked by World War I from those who came of age with World War II.

Then comes the next gap, which closes with Cheney (1941), followed by Clinton and George W. Bush (1946), and Quayle and Gore (1947). The thirteen-year gap becomes 22 years if only Presidents are taken into account, and it separates the World War II generation (the “greatest generation,” as Tom Brokaw would have it) from . . . from what? The Vietnam generation?

I belong to the generation that fits into the gap. I have gone from being governed by men considerably older than me to ones significantly younger. No major political figures who are close to me in age – and with whom I can identify in a personal way – have turned out to be made of presidential timber. They have been, for the most part, political oddballs or mavericks: the likes of Ted Kennedy and Mario Cuomo (1932), Michael Dukakis (1933), Willie Brown (1934), John McCain (1936) and Jerry Brown (1938).

What do they – and I – have in common, besides age group? Certain contradictory qualities. A tendency to introspection combining self-doubt – even self-deprecation – with intellectual arrogance (we are, after all, the agemates of Woody Allen). A kind of pragmatic idealism coupled with a sense of irony and a discomfort with grandiloquence or symbolism (as witness Dukakis atop the tank). We are not heroic. Charisma is not our stock in trade.

This generational quality, which sets us apart both from our elders and our juniors, is, I believe, not limited to the United States but is common throughout the Western world. But in a number of other countries, whose peoples are of a more pragmatic mind-set than ours and less susceptible to political cant or charisma, members of my generation have been successful leaders of government: Jospin as well as his rival Jacques Chirac (1932) in France, Kok and Ruud Lubbers (1939) in the Netherlands, Jean Chrétien (1934) and Brian Mulroney (1939) in Canada.

The American leaders mentioned above have been successful on the local or state level, or perhaps as champions of specific issues (health care, campaign-finance reform) on the national level. What citizens expect from a mayor or governor – as distinct from a President – is the solution of practical problems rather than inspirational leadership. Exceptions may occur during specific times of crisis, such as the one that befell New York on September 11, 2001, when Rudy Giuliani (1944) – whatever one might think of his other qualities – brilliantly and credibly rose to the task in a way that a member of my generation might not have accomplished.

We Americans like to think of ourselves as a practical, problem-solving people. I think we live up to that self-conception, for the most part, on the personal and local level. But when it comes to our society as a whole, we are hopelessly addicted to symbolism, to cant, to slogans. We like wars, both literal and figurative. We have waged them not only in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, not only on communism and terrorism, but on cancer, poverty and drugs. Most of us are aware of the cost and futility of our War on Drugs, in contrast with the far more successful results of more sober folk such as the Canadians or the Dutch. No matter. We like the death penalty – and other expressions of “zero tolerance” – knowing full well that it’s unfair and that it doesn’t deter crime. We wave our flag to a trivializing degree. We put God in our pledge of allegiance and on our money.

My gap generation, I believe, by and large views such overuse of symbolism with distaste. What actual war experience we might have – Korea and perhaps the early stages of Vietnam – is decidedly unheroic (McCain, who was a career naval officer, is an exception). Despite General Douglas MacArthur’s best efforts, no epic tale of the Korean War has emerged (an attempt at a film epic, Inchon, flopped miserably and earned a Worst Actor Award for none other than Laurence Olivier), and the war’s only lasting monument is M*A*S*H. Many of us were energized by the civil rights movement and other promises of the sixties, but these were so quickly hijacked by the Vietnam War that not much more than cynicism was left in our minds.

In fact, my generation’s overt cynicism is perhaps our least appealing quality, and never more so than on the part of those who have chosen to use symbol wielding for personal advancement, becoming cheap demagogues on the right or the left – the likes of Pat Robertson (1930), Jerry Falwell and Louis Farrakhan (1933), Eldridge Cleaver (1935), and Jerry Rubin (1938).

I would find these men an embarrassment to my generation, were I not able to summon my own cynicism and shrug them off: haven’t we always had hypocrites?

These days I wish that more of my fellow citizens were infected with a healthy dose of cynicism – from my fellow “gappies” – to help them see through the self-serving, deceitful cant of our country’s present post-gap leadership.

August 8, 2002

© 2002 by Jacob Lubliner

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