If Mitt Romney succeeds in his quest for the presidency, the media will focus on his status as the first Mormon in the White House. But it’s even more significant that he’d represent the last of another breed: the baby boomer.
After more than 20 years of dominating the national political scene, the narcissistic children of the ’60s are finally preparing to amble toward retirement, leaving the nation’s highest office to leaders from less polarized and self-righteous generations. Ironically, the boomers’ last hurrah in the presidential arena will almost certainly come from a starchy straight arrow utterly untouched by weed or Woodstock, rock and roll or rebellion.
Of course, Hillary Clinton could confound Romney’s status as the Last of the Boomers by breaking her pledge to eschew electoral politics and making a presidential race of her own in 2016 or thereafter. Even if she delayed her candidacy till 2020, she’d be only 73 at the time of the election—just a year older than John McCain in 2008 and four years younger than Ron Paul this year. Nevertheless, friends of the secretary of state believe she’s serious in her determination to pursue other paths of public service and personal fulfillment.
There’s also the possibility that Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, could return to the political lists to pursue the presidency and to redeem his family’s honor, but his age and personal history make his identification with the ’60s generation somewhat questionable. While sociologists Neil Howe and William Strauss identify baby boomers as those born between 1943 and 1960, a younger member of that group like Jeb, who was born in 1953, would have missed out on most of the defining experiences of the era. President Nixon announced an end to the Vietnam draft before Jeb even graduated from prep school in 1971—and when Barack Obama, by the way, was only 10.
The high school class of ’65—the graduating class of Romney, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, and me—comprises the very heart of the baby-boom generation. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both may have graduated in 1964, but it was in January 1965, that Time magazine ran a famous cover story on “Today’s Teenagers” with the hopeful subtitle “On the Fringe of a Golden Era.”
That article focused on my own senior class at Palisades High School in Los Angeles, and more than a decade later provided the basis for my bestselling book (and later an NBC TV series) What Really Happened to the Class of ’65? The distinguishing characteristic of our moment in history was sudden whiplash change that afflicted the country just as we made the fraught transition from high school to college. Marijuana and psychedelic drugs remained extremely rare, if not altogether unknown, during our high-school years but became thoroughly ubiquitous shortly after we arrived at college. The Vietnam War enjoyed overwhelming, nearly unanimous public support when we got high-school diplomas in June 1965, but within two years the rising draft calls made the conflict massively unpopular on university campuses. The Watts riots paralyzed Southern California within weeks of our high-school graduation, followed by a seemingly endless series of other urban explosions over the next five years, with campus unrest and even bloody confrontations disrupting the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher education.
Nevertheless, some prophets of the New Age saw all the turmoil as both hopeful and helpful. In 1970 a professor I knew casually at Yale wrote a massive bestseller called The Greening of America, proclaiming “a great change” among “the bright, sensitive children of the affluent middle class.” Specifically, Charles Reich located that change in “the college class of 1969, which entered as freshmen in the fall of 1965”—in other words Romney’s class, and mine. “There is a revolution coming,” Professor Reich solemnly proclaimed. “It will originate with the individual and with culture and it will change the political structure only as its final act … At the heart of everything is what we shall call a change of consciousness. This means a ‘new head’—a new way of living—a new man.” A year earlier, my law school classmate Hillary Rodham had given a commencement speech to her class at Wellesley (prominently featured in Life magazine) in which she similarly referred to our generational quest for “a more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating mode of living.”
No wonder that Obama managed to beat her in 2008 by appealing in part to the rising national exhaustion with the boomer generation’s relentless navel gazing and incurable self-importance. Because he was some 14 years younger than a typical member of the class of ’65, and because he spent a significant portion of his childhood abroad, Senator Obama seemed untainted by the ancient and increasingly irrelevant divisions between hippies and straights, SDSers and frat boys, New Politics activists who fretted over our “sick society” and reflexive love-it-or-leave-it patriots. In his second book, The Audacity of Hope, the future president expressed his weariness with the endless confrontations between countercultural and traditional values. “In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby-boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage,” he wrote.
Obama promised to transcend such pointless, paralyzing cultural battles and to launch a new era of post-partisan cooperation that would unite all elements of society across ideological and even racial lines. Instead, most Americans now view the Republic as more deeply, destructively divided than ever before. The greatest disappointments and disasters of the Obama presidency all stem from his undeniable failure to deliver on his promise to pursue peace.
And what about Romney?
How could The Last Boomer possibly lead the nation beyond the vicious fights over values that began during his most formative years and in one way or another shaped nearly all his generational counterparts?
Virtually all of the leading liberal lights to emerge from the ’60s generation embraced the attitudes of campus rebels and the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era, including the Clintons, Gore, John Kerry, Howard Dean, and countless others. Their conservative opponents (Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, George Pataki, John Boehner) stoutly rejected the youth culture’s gauzy ideals and embraced the values of earlier generations, but in most cases did so only after some experimentation with ’60s approaches to lifestyle and personal values. Gingrich, of all people, freely confessed to his youthful enthusiasm for marijuana, and Bush famously and eloquently declared that “when I was young and stupid I was young and stupid.”
Romney, on the other hand, never so much rejected the ’60s as he remained altogether isolated from that era’s ferment and torment. He never reacted negatively to the high-profile fights over sex, drugs, and foreign policy that characterized the country during his university years because, for the most part, he never experienced them. He spent his freshman year, September 1965 to June 1966, at Stanford but disliked the increasingly politicized campus atmosphere, so he interrupted his college career to pursue his traditional Mormon obligation as a young missionary in France. Debates over the draft never seemed to concern him because he received a “ministerial deferment,” like most Mormon missionaries, and married his wife, Ann, whom he’d pursued since high school, in March 1969, within weeks of his return to the United States. Their son Tagg arrived the next year, with Mitt and Ann living in a basement apartment and pursuing their undergraduate degrees at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah—a world away from the activism that affronted most students of their era on elite campuses like Yale, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin.
When the Romneys moved to Harvard for Mitt’s simultaneous MBA and law-school program, they were raising two little boys, with three more to come, and were already leading a deeply conservative family life that allowed little connection with the fervent activism that continued to characterize the campus. Almost alone among the famous boomers, Mitt never let his hair, sideburns, beard, or moustache grow out in some outrageously dated and embarrassing manner. In photographs from the period he remains disconcertingly recognizable—the same self-possessed, clean-cut, immaculately groomed figure he presents today, despite his occasional campaign-trail efforts to make himself seem more earthy with his incongruous choice of jeans.
While Romney’s isolation from the trends that defined most others in that famous class of ’65 might make him a dubious choice as the final presidential candidate of his generation, his distinctive experience could provide special appeal to the bulk of his fellow boomers. Many (if not most) among the huge population bulge associated with that age group missed the cultural revolution known as “the ’60s”: they fought in the Vietnam War rather than protesting it, they got jobs rather than getting high, they saw themselves more as flag wavers than freaks. In addition, tens of millions of boomers who may have taken a more unconventional approach back in the day have come to feel more ashamed than nostalgic about their youthful indulgence; as early as 35 years ago, that theme dominated my book on the class of ’65.
If Romney can unite all those who consistently shunned the counterculture with all those who once flirted with its values but now look back on those callow notions with disdain, he could easily win a majority of his fellow boomers and with them the election. Romney can never pretend that he was once “young and stupid” like George W. Bush, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We rightly respect him because he was never stupid. But it may be harder to forgive the fact that he was never young.