About a year ago I memorialized the political death of the Silent generation (those born 1925-1942), on the occasion of the release, and dismissal, of the Baker-Hamilton commission report. Composed entirely of Silents, that commission had given up the Messianic Iraqi enterprise as a bad job and returning to traditional diplomacy among the Arab regimes--something in which the Bush Administration could not have been less interested. I do not think that I rang those bells too early, but it seems there may be at least one more drama to play in which two Silents may play a leading role--this Presidential election. One is John McCain, of course, whose campaign seems to have returned from the brink of disaster, and who may win in New Hampshire even though he has no chance in Iowa. I do not think McCain can win the Republican nomination because of some of his generational attributes--he is too sensible and too non-ideological for today's Boomer-led Republican party. But the second, now running under the radar, is Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, who has evidently been contemplating an independent Presidential bid.
Washington Post reporter David Broder reports a forthcoming meeting at the University of Oklahoma to discuss not only a Bloomberg candidacy, but a "government of national unity." The roll call of attendees reads like a Silent generation Who's Who, including David Boren, Sam Nunn, Christie Whitman, Chuck Hagel, Charles Robb, Gary Hart, and John Danforth. All of those people have the same thing in common: they quit, or were driven out of, politics, usually because they could not get along with Boomers. (This applies to the two Boomers on the list, Whitman and Hagel, both moderate Republicans, as well.) I have heard other rumors about Bloomberg's plans and I would not be surprised to see this happen, because it would be so generationally in character. The same thing happened for twenty years leading up to the civil war, when the Compromiser Generation, led by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and including the last prewar President, James Buchanan, sought vainly to avoid the final break between the North and the South, increasingly led by Prophets like Charles Sumner, Robert Toombs of Georgia, Ben Wade of Ohio, and Jefferson Davis, men who neither asked for nor gave any quarter. Their last gasp was the Crittenden Compromise, proposed during the winter of 1860-1 by Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky. Crittenden, born in 1786--three years, that is, before Washington's inauguration-- proposed six permanent amendments to the Constitution designed to protect, but also freeze, slavery south of the line of the Missouri Compromise, the limit the Compromisers had initially fixed in 1820. Both the North and South, however, were now led by men committed either to the eventual abolition of slavery or to its extension throughout the country, and his proposal had no chance. Crittenden had two sons, who appropriately fought on different sides in the civil war.
Bloomberg is a "last wave" Silent in the same way that the Crittenden was a "last-wave" Compromiser--born in 1942, he could only have the barest memories of V-J day. But his life history makes it clear that a real chasm divides him from Boomers only a couple of years younger. He graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1964, that year of nearly overwhelming consensus, and went straight to Harvard Business school, graduating two years later in the spring before the first stirrings of revolution hit Cambridge. (I know--I was there.) From there he went immediately to Salomon brothers, rising through the ranks. He married relatively late for this generation, waiting until he was 33. Silents tend to believe that a calm, unemotional, data-based approach can solve any problem--and so it can, in certain periods of history. Unfortunately, as more and more Boomers (such as Paul Krugman and John Edwards) are beginning to realize, we now live in a world of all-out political war in which trying to understand the other side's position has become a waste of time.
Bloomberg's possible candidacy highlights another key aspect of the disintegration of American politics since his graduation from college: the importance of private fortunes. Worth more than $10 billion himself, he can run a campaign equal to that of either of the two major parties. He might actually be able to affect the outcome, and I suspect that he would be more likely to help a Democrat than a Republican. The electoral votes of at least 40 states, I would guess, can pretty definitely be predicted right now--I would put Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Hampshire in the undecided column, but I'm not sure how many other states belong there--and it strikes me that Bloomberg might poll well among Silents in Florida who would hesitate to vote for a conservative Republican.
There is of course one huge anomaly from the Silent generation playing a leading role today--Dick Cheney, a year older than Bloomberg, but possessed of every bit as authoritarian, uncompromising and intolerant an attitude as any Boomer. His biography, however, explains how that happened. Most young men born early in 1941 were well established in their careers by the time the late 1960s hit, but Cheney was not. Leaving Yale after only one year in 1960, he apparently spent the next three years working blue-collar jobs and raising hell (he was arrested twice for DUI.) He returned to college at Caspar College in 1963, left for unexplained reasons, and got a B. A. and M.A. from the University of Wyoming in 1965 and 1966. His next stop, where he was in 1967-8 (as far as I can make out), was the University of Wisconsin, a revolutionary hotbed, where he spent one year as a doctoral program before leaving for Washington during the Nixon era. In short, Cheney saw the New Left first hand, went to work for one of its biggest targets--Nixon--and has evidently carried the contentious atmosphere of those times with him ever since. Life cycle, as well as birth year, is important.
Other candidates are taking very different views about the kind of world they hope to govern. Hillary Clinton, of course, is also trying to strike a relatively conciliatory tone in her campaign, and actually promises us to return us to the Silent-dominated 1990s--a promise she will not be able to keep even if elected. Barack Obama also talks of trying to move beyond partisanship, and John Edwards, whom I just glimpsed on Face the Nation, replies that corporate power cannot be conciliated, it must be defeated--a view with which I agree. Mike Huckabee, alone among the Republican Boomers, favors a less confrontational tone, and it will be interesting to see whether this helps him or not. The Bloomberg boomlet and the Hillary Clinton campaign, however, are two indicators that we have not really reached the new crisis in our national life. Krugman and Edwards, I think, are right--the center, such as it is, will be co-opted by the more politically effective side, as it was by Lincoln in the North and by FDR over most of the country. That may however take some time--we may flounder around for at least another four more years. Roosevelt took office in 1933, 68 years after the end of the civil war. 1945 + 68 = 2013. We'll see.
It seems only right to note another piece of news from this week--Bill Kristol, whose advocacy of the Iraq War I explored at length here a few months ago, has been hired as a weekly columnist for the New York Times. I do wish the editors could have read my blog. . .Next week I'll discuss the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and what it means, in my opinion, in the context of American foreign policy.