Back around 1984, Gary Hart, in the manner of Napoleon, crowned himself leader of his generation -- the hinge upon which the World War II generation would exit and a new one would enter. Unfortunately for Hart, the exit turned out to be his own.
Now yet another self-proclaimed generational candidate has been given the gate. He is Sen. Joseph Biden, whose academic and political plagiarism, coupled with instances where he embellished his college record, put his presidential campaign into a nose dive. He bailed out before the crash everyone knew was coming.
Biden is 44. Hart was 46 when he launched his 1984 campaign. More than the other Democratic candidates about the same age (Bruce Babbitt, 49; Albert Gore, 39; Richard Gephardt, 46; Michael Dukakis, 53; Jesse Jackson, 45), they stressed generational themes. Biden even touched upon it in his withdrawal statement. His generation would be back.
For sure. The actuarial tables say so. The country is fast depleting its store of men who came of age during World War II -- along with the Depression, the formative experience of that generation. Where once military service was almost obligatory for high political office ("Tail-gunner Joe" McCarthy, PT-109 John F. Kennedy), it is now hardly ever mentioned.
Of course, not all World War II veterans became political or business successes, but an impressive number of them did -- and their durability has been amazing. Even now, the presidential campaign boasts two World War II combat veterans, and unfortunately for the Democrats, they are both Republicans: Vice President George Bush and Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole. At an age when most young men were seeking the perfect wife and perfect convertible, these two were fighting for their lives.
The underlying assumption of generational politics is that each generation is shaped by its times. Certainly, the World War II generation was shaped by that conflict. The next epochal event -- the challenge for the next generation -- was the overlapping one of the civil rights revolution and the Vietnam War. They produced their own leaders -- people who tested themselves at a fairly young age and did not find themselves wanting.
Yet, with one exception -- Gore -- none of the Democratic candidates was in Vietnam and none rose to fame in the anti-war movement. The same applies to the civil rights revolution. While some of the Democratic candidates, like Babbitt, were actively involved, only Jackson emerged from the movement itself. The rest, like Biden, cheered from the sidelines.
To a remarkable degree, then, the men who either proclaimed themselves generational leaders or, by virtue of their candidacy, have assumed that role, had little or nothing to do with the events that shaped their generation. They were observers, maybe sympathizers, but their work was incidental to the emotional events that in large measure shaped the Democratic Party they now seek to lead.
Maybe we have yet to see the emergence of real generational candidates. But if that's the case, it's hard to see who they might be. The Army that fought in Vietnam practiced reverse snobbism: by and large, it excluded college graduates. The leadership of the civil rights movement was mostly black -- no minor handicap for a presidential candidate. As for the anti-war movement, its leadership cadre was -- and probably remains -- politically unacceptable to most Americans. In stark contrast to the World War II generation, civil rights and anti-war leaders were, like the movements they led, anti-establishment. While these movements continue to be critical constituencies for the Democratic Party, like trade unionism before them, they stand somewhat outside the American mainstream.
For the Democrats, these are depressing facts. With the exception of Jackson and Gore, none of the candidates was either involved in -- or is a product of -- the movements that supposedly shaped their generation. This explains the hollow sound of Biden's tub-thumping -- his incessant attempts to connect to the residual emotionalism of the Vietnam-civil rights era. He was a wallflower at those dances.
Around the time that Gary Hart proclaimed himself the Pied Piper of his generation, I wrote a column kidding him. I said that, all things considered, our generation would still prefer to have the previous one lead. Soon after, I bumped into the candidate himself. He was not amused: "Maybe you're not ready to lead, Richard, but I am." Well, Hart wasn't ready and neither was Biden -- and maybe the others aren't either. This generation of Democratic candidates may have a rendezvous with oblivion.