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The Boomer-in-Chief Nears a Milestone: The Big 6-0

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

He talks about the March of Freedom around the world, but it's the March of Time at home that's on President Bush's mind lately. No matter how fast he pedals that mountain bike, no matter how much he towel-snaps foreign leaders, the Yale-by-way-of-Texas frat boy is facing the big 6-0 next week.

The idea no doubt will shock many fellow baby boomers, accustomed as they are to the mantle of youth in American society. And it certainly seems to have shocked the president, who regularly mentions the approaching milestone to audiences and jokingly blames his graying hair on his mother.

"Getting older by the minute," he sighed during a speech at a college in Omaha a few weeks ago. "I know I'm not supposed to talk about myself, but in a month I'm turning 60. For you youngsters, I want to tell you something. When I was your age, I thought 60 was really old. It's all in your mind. It's not that old. Really isn't."

But if his generation likes to obsess about the broader meaning of it all, its most powerful member seems content to let others decide. What does it mean that the generation of revolution has become the establishment? What does it mean that the generation of idealism has been tempered by reality? What does it mean that the generation of vigor and optimism now begins to peer over the hill at mortality? If Bush has any thoughts on that, he's keeping them to himself.

"He's by nature a nostalgic guy, and he reflects about experiences and friends and things he's loved. I'm sure he'll look at this as a marker in his life," said Mark McKinnon, the president's friend and political consultant. But not publicly. "It's just not in his nature. He's not a public navel-gazer."

Born in New Haven, Conn., on July 6, 1946, 10 months after the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri, Bush represents the first wave of the postwar generation to reach its seventh decade. Others turning 60 this year include Cher, Reggie Jackson, Diane Keaton, Liza Minnelli, Dolly Parton, Susan Sarandon, Suzanne Somers, Steven Spielberg, Kenneth W. Starr and Donald Trump, not to mention Bush's wife, Laura, and his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Baby boomers, generally defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, now dominate the halls of power. As of last year, they controlled 41 of the nation's 50 governorships, exactly half of the 100 Senate seats and 275 of the 435 House seats. With the ascension of John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., they have even begun to crack that last bastion of the Silent Generation, the Supreme Court, where with Clarence Thomas they now have three of nine seats.

"After 60, you can't pretend you're any longer a young Turk. You're now at best a senior statesman, a graybeard," said former labor secretary Robert B. Reich, speaking from a Cape Cod weekend celebrating his own 60th birthday. "I would never think of myself as part of the establishment, but yes, from the perspective of people 20 years younger, you are by definition the establishment."

That's a long way from 1988, when Dan Quayle became the first boomer elected to national office after a campaign in which he was mocked as a callow youth and tried to defend himself with an ill-fated comparison to John F. Kennedy. Clinton came along four years later and capitalized on youth by playing the saxophone and picking Al Gore, while fending off the hangovers of his generation -- marijuana experimentation, avoidance of the draft and participation in the sexual revolution.

When he arrived on the scene, Bush tried to turn that on its head, positioning himself as the opposite side of the same generational coin, the backlash to the excesses of the 1960s as seemingly represented by Clinton's affair with an intern. "Our current president," Bush told the Republican convention in 2000, "embodied the potential of a generation -- so many talents, so much charm, such great skill. But in the end, to what end? So much promise to no great purpose."

Never mind that, by his own admission, Bush didn't really grow up until 40, when he quit drinking, or that he had his own history of sidestepping Vietnam. Bush's message was: Our generation has a more sober, responsible side. As if to emphasize the point, he chose for his vice president a man identified with a previous generation, Richard B. Cheney.

The first great geopolitical challenge for the boomer leadership arrived on Sept. 11, 2001, and Bush now regularly compares the threat of terrorism and the war in Iraq to the trials of his father's World War II generation. Some see Bush's aggressive approach in historical terms. "A core lesson in history is the generation born in the immediate aftermath of a great crisis is the one that tends to push society and those who follow into the next great crisis of history," said William Strauss, co-author of the seminal book "Generations."


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