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Generation Gap

By Russ Smith | Posted 6/9/2004

Now that Ronald Reagan, the greatest of the "Greatest Generation," has passed away, perhaps that noxious phrase--thanks, Tom Brokaw--will be retired.

After all, it's just another baby boomer indulgence, one that World War II veterans didn't protest but felt somewhat awkward about. My two uncles, both of whom participated in the war--one as a spy, the other as an Army chaplain's assistant--were perplexed at the sudden attention given the men and women who came of age in the late 1930s and early '40s, feeling it was just a way to sell books and movies.

Reagan, of course, didn't see combat or clean latrines in Europe or the Pacific during the long conflict, but more than any other American he was responsible for the end of the Cold War. Once his funeral is over, and the bipartisan eulogies are delivered, it'll be business as usual for the boomers who've been running the government, media, and business for more than a decade, and Reagan will again be relegated to a place far behind John F. Kennedy in the pantheon of presidential immortals. That a man who, through a cruel twist of fate, didn't complete even one term in office, and thus never realized his potential as a chief executive, is revered more than Reagan, one of the three most influential presidents of the 20th century, says more about the political views of historians than the two men themselves.

It's a lucky accident of geography that the budget-conscious Sun, which runs mostly syndicated op-ed columns, doesn't generally poach from The Washington Post. (Baltimoreans who require a more serious daily read the local paper for sports and classified ads, and turn to the Post or Wall Street Journal for substance.) Otherwise, the self-caricature named Tina Brown would undoubtedly stain the already soiled pages of the Tribune Co.'s outpost in Baltimore.

Brown, the washed-up glossy magazine editor, writes a weekly column for the Post, frivolous dispatches from the trenches of Manhattan's dinner-party front, and takes it upon herself to speak for boomers on current events. As a member of that group myself--born in '55--I cringe upon reading Brown's words.

On June 3, the one-time queen of "synergy" laid it on so thick that it's a wonder Bob Ehrlich didn't recommend that Brown take a remedial course in basic English. Or at least manners.

Brown wrote: "The pile-up of World War II ceremonies is causing an outbreak of Greatest Generation envy among the media baby boomers who are covering them. . . . In the Hamptons on Memorial Day weekend, most of the pundit class spent evenings arguing about exit strategies in Iraq and then beating a nostalgic retreat to watch The Longest Day, Patton, and Saving Private Ryan."

I wonder if the "pundit class" in 1942 were also debating "exit strategies" from Europe before "beating a nostalgic retreat" to read the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. This is all very depressing. President Bush hasn't achieved the status of a Churchill or FDR, but unlike those leaders he's had to endure the sniping from an omnipresent print and broadcast industry that, as the National Review's Victor Davis Hanson says, measures history in hours, not decades.

The Post's upper-crust correspondent continues: "In New York, what's souring the psyches of baby boomers is the sullen sense that they did have a whiff of their own Greatest Generation moment, after 9/11--and then, too soon, were cheated out of it. . . . Democrats mourn the squandering of that galvanizing post-9/11 international unity, but New Yorkers feel something more personal. Washingtonians do, too. Certainly in the weeks after the attacks, New York was an inspiring place to be. . . . Moguls manned the food lines at Ground Zero along with schoolteachers and students."

It's dandy that "moguls" got their hands dirty, but as a witness to the Sept. 11 attacks, someone whose neighborhood was turned into a war zone, I think it's fair to say that most New Yorkers were shocked, frightened, and traumatized, and didn't think for even a second about their opportunity to join "Greatest Generation" status.

What was "inspiring" in Manhattan after Sept. 11 wasn't the celebrities pulling strings to make cameos at ground zero, but the wash of American flags throughout the city, and the sight of firefighters at the crumbled World Trade Center for months, not "weeks," after that horrific day.

Brown claims that in the wake of the attacks "Sex-and-the-city girls wore flats instead of Manolo Blahniks and inhaled the Times' foreign pages before the gossip in the New York Post." Maybe for two days. But long after the "buzz" had evaporated, even as the pointless Sept. 11 Commission was busy pointing fingers at government officials and municipal workers for their lack of preparation for such an attack, men and women who worked 18-hour shifts at ground zero are still numb.

One of my cousins, a boomer who's a 25-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, attended 125 funerals for his slain colleagues, and now, after remaining at the site into 2002, is a shell-shocked middle-aged man who spends his time counseling Sept. 11 widows and their children. Once a gregarious fellow, he visibly flinches when chatter about "Greatest Generation" redux is mentioned. Unlike Brown, and her friends who seek headlines by calling Bush a war criminal, my cousin has more pressing concerns. H

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