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She's the Man

In This Year's Democratic Race, It's the Generation Gap, Stupid

By Vincent Williams | Posted 1/30/2008

I must admit that I'm not that interested in what's happening in the GOP primaries. Although the fact that they have a Mormon and divorcee vying for the nomination with a madman who apparently took time off from pastoring that town from Footloose about the evil of rock 'n' roll dancing is, um, a little different, at the end of the day, it's just another collection of rich white guys. And, while I don't have anything against rich white guys (well . . . not much), none of the potential GOP nominees really challenges any societal mores.

Over on the Democratic side of the fence, it's a different story, especially in regard to the two candidates who have sparked the most debate, passion, and discourse thus far, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I believe both are more than qualified to be president of the United States (as is John "Hey, Remember Me?" Edwards, for what it's worth). The irony is that, because Clinton and Obama are both qualified, issues of deservingness are off the table, meaning that issues of gender and race are bubbling up to the surface. I believe this is a good thing, because both Clinton and Obama are forcing all of us to re-examine how we approach these issues. But there's one issue that no one is really addressing just yet: how generational definitions are playing a role as well.

In many ways, Clinton's status as a baby boomer is defining her run. Early on her campaign was fueled by a certain feeling of inevitability to her rise to the presidency, a subliminal suggestion that she was owed something, that this was not a race but a coronation parade. Her campaign has since taken pains to downplay that idea (especially after her resounding defeat by Obama in the Iowa caucus), but it's not like their sense of entitlement hasn't always been a key critique of baby boomers.

For the first time, though, these accusations of entitlement aren't just coming from cranky old Great Depression- and WWII-surviving Greatest Generation folks. No, Generation X (of which I count as a member) and Generation Y are both challenging the boomer notion that those born in the country's fat post-war years are "owed" anything. In some cases, the grandchildren of baby boomers are voting this election season. And while you certainly have to go easy when you interpret polls (if you don't think so, ask Obama about New Hampshire), I find it pretty provocative that Obama has overwhelming support from voters under 50.

And this fascinates the hell out of me, because it forces Hillary Clinton and, increasingly, Bill Clinton into the role that many boomers have spent their lives hating: Hillary Clinton is The Man. The boomers have always brushed off criticism from their parents' generation because, hey, they just don't get the New Math. It's a different look when the critique comes from those younger than you, however. I mean, she's campaigned on her "experience," but that's a term not far away from "authority."

Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas and president of the United States, while Hilary has served as first lady and U.S. senator, so it's not as if they're unfamiliar with power. But I think being perceived by many as symbols of entrenched power is an uncomfortable position for them, and one that both are trying to adjust to. I think Hillary has handled it a little more easily than Bill, because authority seems to be something for which she's well suited. Bizarre as it sounds, however, after eight years of being the most powerful man on Earth, Bill has never seemed more like a member of the Establishment, with all the negative connotations that go with that, than he has over the past weeks campaigning against-or attacking, depending on your point of view-Barack Obama.

I mean, God, how uncomfortable did Bill sound during his black radio barnstorming tour as he tried to downplay and halfway apologize for what many perceived as the racial undertones to his now-infamous "fairy tale" comment about Obama's stand against the Iraq war? I think he sounded so put-off because this is a new place for him: not "down." There's been a lot of talk recently about the old joke that Clinton was the "first black president." But a lot of the reason that joke felt so true was because he did seem like an outsider, like an interloper in the halls of power. The more Fox News and Rush Limbaugh railed against him, the more Clinton seemed young and virile, and in the historic context of racially codified American culture, what has ever been younger and more virile than being black?

Bill was the quintessential boomer, with outsider cred to spare; now, suddenly he looks up and he's just another old rich white guy. And Hillary is not only his wife and his generational peer, but for better or worse, her identity is tied up in Bill's legacy. Despite the fact that she is poised to become the first woman president of the United States, somehow she comes off like more of the same ol', same ol'.

And then there's Barack Obama, who, so far, has lived up to his press. He's young, he's vibrant, he's black, etc. Any halfway bright politician, especially a newcomer, throws around the word "change" as much as possible, and Obama is all-the-way bright and more. But when he and his camp say "change," I think that it means something different to the many folks gravitating toward him than it does coming from a pundit or any other candidate this time around.

Let's look at the adjective that has gotten the most play: "post-racial." Literally that means "after race," which, to my mind, evokes some stereotypical earthy, crunchy, "well, I don't see color"-type of ideology that has never really existed and has long since gone out of style for those of us paying attention. Hell, even when I was a kid, teachers had stopped calling America "a melting pot." I was taught that, at its best, America is a stew. With a melting pot, you get some indistinguishable goo, but with a stew, I get to be a carrot, you get to be an onion, and the dude over there is a tomato, and we're all respectful and content in our various vegetablenesses coming together to make a glorious concoction that is more than the sum of our separate parts. But, again, that's a fairly, dare I say it, post-civil rights philosophy.

And this is where I get queasy in the pit of my stomach, because I have to say something about the civil rights-era arm of the baby boomers, a group of people who are responsible for my access to this publication, my education, my upbringing, and my very existence. Still, as much as I admire and honor that generation of civil-rights activists, I think Obama is just as new to them as he is to the rest of their age group. The whole "African father, white mother, raised in Hawaii" thing is part of it, but more so the fact that Obama does not come from the Southern preacher tradition that has served the black community so well for almost 400 years is throwing them a little bit. Much like Clinton and the "fairy tale" thing, I felt sorry for Andrew Young when he stumbled into the whole "Bill Clinton is blacker than Barack Obama" faux pas, because in the minds of many black people from his background, outsider Bill Clinton, with his Southern drawl and that rascally charm, does more easily fit into a particular definition of blackness than Obama. The problem is that in 2008 the overall definition of blackness has changed.

He may not be from a background that can be called "traditionally black," but more importantly, Obama is comfortable in his own skin. It's almost like a Zen koan: How do you know Barack Obama is black? Because he says he is. And I believe that this is what resonates with many voters. I don't think he's post-racial, but he's absolutely post-integration, and in this new fluid, global electronic world, whether we're talking fourth-generation Japanese-American, biracial Puerto Rican and Dominican, or a 20-year-old white man from Connecticut, Obama's ease of identity speaks to people and makes them feel good about him representing them.

And you cannot discount the value of how supporting Obama makes many people feel good. I may scoff at "earthy, crunchy" feelings, and God knows any discussion about something as abstract as "hope" gets my eyes rolling, but hope changes the world. This is the part where Obama-friendly writers nervously drag out the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. comparisons, but the absurd irony is that there's another comparison that fits much better. Bill Clinton was another brash, young politician who critics said wasn't ready to be president but whom people across the board gravitated toward. 1992 was the last time it seemed to me that so many voters were motivated by hope. And I think that worked out OK.

Of course, the big question is, now what? If Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, does that mean Obama and the youth vote will be chastised and boomer smugness is going to be cemented in the public consciousness as the natural order for another 20 years? Conversely, if Obama wins, will Team Clinton take the metaphorical ball of their vaunted experience and go home in a snit?

How do I know? Hopefully, both sides will be able to come together after the primaries and keep their eye on the real prize. Regardless of how the primary process turns out, this new framing of the baby boomers through Hillary Clinton's candidacy, as well as the very presence of Barack Obama, has prompted many of us to have conversations about identity and America that are long overdue, no matter which side of the generation gap you're on.

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