John McCain, Barack Obama, and the Coming Generational Change

Whoever wins the White House, a generation will have its first president.

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The generational stakes for the presidential contenders could hardly be higher: Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, the major parties' presumptive nominees, each belong to a generation that has not had a president. Such a matchup is rare in American presidential politics: A dominant generation usually has at least one representative on the ballot. Either way it plays out in 2008, the winner and his generation will have a first date with destiny and dance at an Inaugural Ball on Jan. 20, 2009.

Age in this case is not a matter of health or fitness but a signifier of the cultural forces, conflicts, and times that shaped the character of the candidates. Contrasts between the sets of shared experiences could not be clearer.

John McCain is of the "Silent Generation," born between the mid-1920s and the start of World War II (McCain was born Aug. 29, 1936). Their first president was the wise, avuncular Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and though their childhood was marked by the somber struggle against the Depression, they came of age in the exhilarating aftermath of victory in the Second World War, as America ascended to dominance on the world stage. Too young to be part of the so-called "Greatest Generation" (which gave the United States leaders like John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush), McCain and his cohorts witnessed the United States winning a "just war" that boosted national morale and was followed by decades of prosperity. This generation entered adulthood in an era of apparent domestic tranquility, international dominance, and unshaken confidence in the country. McCain's old-fashioned faith in family, Navy, and country may be why he later survived five years as a prisoner of war in the "Hanoi Hilton." The Silent Generation is considered adaptive and open to consensus to avoid conflict—useful traits in a crisis or when resources are scarce.

Born on Aug. 4, 1961, Barack Obama is a member of the "Thirteenth Generation"—a term coined by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe in their lucid 1991 book Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 to denote the 13th generation since colonial times. Like the Silent Generation, the Thirteens (including this writer) bridge the gap between better-known generations (Baby Boom and Millennials). Obama is no Boomer—America's children in the 1960s were a far cry from the flower children of that decade. There was no Woodstock or Summer of Love for those born in 1961. It's hard to dodge the draft when you're 6 or 7. We recall the sound and fury over the Vietnam War and the anguish at the slayings of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy as scenes playing out at a remove, through the prism of a black-and-white television.

Thirteens grew up in the rebellious 1960s and the skeptical 1970s. We saw heroes die young when we were very young. Governmental authority was breaking down, and people did not trust leaders to tell the truth about war or Washington hotel shenanigans. Our first president? Richard M. Nixon. Watergate left us without political innocence but with a watchful quality not found in good "joiners" and team players. Thirteens were especially influenced by observing older generational successes and failures, much like the youngest sibling mulls over her moves in a large, lively family. That reactive pose can produce a savvy, unsentimental kind of toughness, which Obama may well possess.

The sad truth is the Thirteens have had neither a positive unifying experience nor an inspiring call to serve our country, such as the one President Kennedy issued. Instead, we went to Stanley Kaplan test preparatory classes—not exactly storming Normandy. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was nice and fun to watch, but we didn't make that happen. September 11 was truly terrible to watch, but it didn't galvanize us to a common purpose other than fighting terrorism by going shopping, as President Bush suggested.

History's tides favor Obama, even if McCain is worthy and his generation deserving. Once a president of a new generation is elected, voters have historically not turned back to a previous generation, and the presidency skipped McCain's Silent cohort in 1992 when the elder George Bush passed the presidential torch to Bill Clinton, a classic 1946-vintage Baby Boomer. The cohort of Americans born in the 1930s was effectively passed over for a turn at the nation's helm.