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January 24, 2008

Generational Musings: Politics

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's up to you readers to decide whether or not I've attained Geezer status. (Personally, I'd vote No.) Regardless, I know I've long since reached the point where I can't count on people conjuring up shared images when I mention something. So I think it's time for some musings, and to keep things simple, I'll focus on politics and related world events.

In the same sense, a problem for politicians and political commentators is that their audience does not share the same set of experiences. By this I mean, for example, people who remember Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speechifying and circa 1980 "stagflation" might view politics and economics in a different light than those born later.

My very own eyeballs have seen, in person, presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon. I was close enough to Truman (in 1960, I think it was) to shake his hand, had I not hesitated. I clearly remember the Korean War and all those that followed, though my memories of World War 2 are fuzzy because it ended when I was nearly three months shy of my sixth birthday.

Readers age 50 have John F. Kennedy memories akin to my Second World War ones. Readers age 40 are ditto when it comes to Richard Nixon resigning the presidency. You get the idea.

Of course, I was in the same situation regarding my elders. When I graduated from high school, it was only 40 years after the United States entered the Great War and there were plenty of men still in the labor force who had gone to France. World War 2's end was only 12 years past, so its veterans were largely thirtysomethings.

As for Franklin D. Roosevelt, I knew his name and that he was "President" (the guy who ran the country or something like that). My only really strong memory of FDR was when he died. My mother told me that Roosevelt was dead and, when I got to school for my Kindergarten session, I would see the school flag at half-staff. And, by golly, indeed it was.

Speaking of FDR, up through the 1950s and perhaps into the 60s there was a wooden news stand on the sidewalk near the southeast corner of Pike Street and Third Avenue (or perhaps Second) in downtown Seattle. Amongst the newspaper and magazine displays was one of those official government portraits of FDR. The old guy who ran the stand was clearly devoted to the former president.

Other people were not. FDR was hated in his time, and the force of this still wasn't spent by my high school days. I hadn't yet read deeply about political and economic matters of the 1930s, focusing more on military matters. At any rate, there were plenty of books and magazine articles dealing with two major issues. One issue (which seems to be with us yet) is whether or not Roosevelt allowed the attack on Pearl Harbor to happen. The other issue was in part a Douglas MacArthur issue. The theme was that FDR and his henchman George Marshall deliberately, malignly, never gave MacArthur the resources he needed -- both before and following the fall of the Philippines. This "Europe first" strategy somehow or other led to the eventual loss of China to the Communists in 1949, still a hot political topic in the mid-50s.

At the other end of the spectrum, I recall watching Democrat political conventions in 1952, 1956 and 1960 where FDRs name was mentioned frequently, always eliciting enthusiasm from the delegates.

Alas, all the Roosevelt controversy was lost on me to the extent that I could rely on personal experience. Everything I know about FDR (and I know a fair amount) has been due to reading. The reason I read so much was because I started becoming a history buff while in grade school. Aside from that odd, history buff breed, FDR means almost nothing to people younger than age 70; those older than 75 know FDR in their bones.

Allow me to deviate from politics and world events for one last observation. When I was high school age the local television station used to broadcast old movies, usually from the 1930s. Because of that, as well as childhood memories of Thirties buildings, cars, etc. when they were still relatively new, I've always had a fascination for that decade. (Hell, I was alive in the Thirties -- for 62 days.)

But that's not my point. One of those movies was a musical set in the Gay Nineties, which were about 40 years in the past when the movie was made. Memories of that time were real to many involved in the picture as well as for many who walked to the local Bijou to take in a double-header and some air conditioning. When I saw it, the 90s were 60 years ago and the times seemed really ancient to me.

This double-removal in time gave me an odd feeling back in 1955 (or whenever) and it still does. So near and yet so far. Events in living memories and events beyond anyone's memory. Maybe it has something to do with the cusp: there were still some people alive in 1955, including my grandfather, who had experienced the Nineties -- but they were in the process of rapidly leaving the scene.

For me, things get emotionally tidy once that last generation with memories of a period dies off. At that point, we're dealing with history, pure and simple.



posted by Donald at January 24, 2008


I'm almost 50, and for some reason this post reminds me of having an odd reaction (now that WWII vets are getting scarce) to the movie "The Longest Day." It was made in 1962, only 17 years after WWII ended. This is probably weird, but it struck me one time around 1980 that "Longest" was 18 years old, and that 1962-1980 was about the same time span as 1945-1962. Even in 1980, WWII didn't seem so long ago; the equipment and tactics in WWII movies didn't look ancient, as they do now. Looking back at WWII in 1962 is the same as looking back now to the first Gulf War in 1991. And almost like looking back to 1993 to the actual events depicted in Somalia in "Black Hawk Down." I was 5 when Kennedy was killed and, unlike many my age, can't remember where I was. I do remember both '68 assassinations, though, and the first Administration I remember being somewhat aware of was Nixon's.

Posted by: kg on January 24, 2008 4:15 PM

I very barely remember JFK's assassination. At six, I was old enough to know that something had happened, but not old enough to grasp its importance, and I was puzzled why adults seemed so upset. Interestingly, my mother told me years later that I had been watching TV when Jack Ruby shot Oswald, but I have no recollection of that at all.

Posted by: Peter on January 24, 2008 10:13 PM

I find it really amazing that you are both (1) so freakin' old, and (2) a blogger.

Posted by: James on January 25, 2008 12:14 AM

Well James, with that attitude you may not get as old as we are....

Remember the announcement of Kennedy's assassination on the school PA system as well as seeing the Ruby kill live on TV. Nixon was my Commander In Chief. My first date with my wife was the first Monday Night Football game while on leave from Vietnam. Adjutant of my local American Legion Post (we are losing Korean vets also - our post lost our 2 Pearl survivors and is down to 3 WW2 vets - including one that walked off Dunkirk!). I know too well what the memory drain is doing to the living memories in this country.

Talk to the old folks - you will be the winner in that info exchange.

Posted by: The Old Man on January 25, 2008 7:08 AM

I have no personal memory of Kennedy's assassination, being not quite 3 then. I remember my mother saying something about "Bobby Kennedy being shot" in 1968 but not much else. I only really remember the "Vietnam War" because my parents were both conservative and news junkies and hated the long-hair protester types. I certainly was old enough to remember "Watergate"---but it was all interpreted through my parents political lens, and only in the last few years, watching a "History Channel" thing on Nixon, did I really understand the term "consitutional crisis" when Nixon ordered the Attorney General to fire special prosecutor Cox. Was it Ruckelshaus who refused to do it? I also only then understood that ultimately it was Robert Bork who executed the order, which was why T. Kennedy and others were so outraged when he was nominated for the Supreme Court---talk about an "in your face" nomination! Whatever Bork's other credentials, it was wierdly bad judgement for the normally good political instincts of Reagan to nominate Bork of all fellows.

I certainly remember Carter, Reagan, Bush One, and Clinton. And...if I had begun to forget Clinton---boy, have the last three weeks been a vivid reminder or what??

I'm going to say it out loud here first---I think the Dems are just about to make a totally self-destructive decision yet again, unless they change course quickly, if they stay on what appears to be the Hillary Train. I just don't think she'll win a national election. If the Republicans are smart enough to stay away from an extreme candidate like Huckabee, I think---against all odds---the Republicans could keep the White House! Remember---B. Clinton only won in '92 because Perot siphoned likely Bush voters off as a protest. (Not because Daddy Bush was such a great choice or anything---don't mean to imply that). No third party candidate this time. And if the Clintons wanted to terrify most of the country into remembering who they really are---they sure did it in recent weeks. Talk about a "oh yeah...I remember now" feeling. Again---talking about their narcissistic ruthless style, not stands on issues. Did anybody but me notice the sheer hatred in Hillary's eyes when she was looking at Obama in the most recent debate? The Clinton entitlement in full force. How dare you even try to get in my way? I want it--therefore, I should have it. Taking on the Clintons is the same as taking on The Mob---and its ick, ick, ick regardless of "policies".

Posted by: annette on January 25, 2008 9:34 AM

Thinking back to JFK's assassination I completely mess up about when I heard it. I have something in mind about eating macaroni and cheese in a sunny kitchen. My mother told me I was full of it..I was with her when the news broke, and there was no macaroni and cheese involved.

Odd isn't it, how World War II was such a massive presence in the early '60s, and has receded into ancient history now. Not only was it a recent memory for many alive, there were veterans everywhere, movies were about almost nothing else, and the politics was suffused with issues that were blowback one step removed from the Big One. I remember having detailed arguments with friends about the fighting post-D-Day in the bocage, you know, the relative merits of the Bren gun and the MG42, how good Tiger tanks really were, to say nothing of endless "war games" with those ubiquitous green plastic favourite was the guy holding his rifle up over his head.

And now...pffft! Gone! One of the reasons I dislike the WWII documentaries of today, from Burns's The War to the stuff on the History Channel, is that it reminds me of just how long ago the war was. There's the black and white footage, maybe some maps or computer graphics, and then...the REALLY OLD GUYS. Talking heads, absurdly filmed in harsh colour, rambling and reminiscing about the events of yore, and looking really, really old.

That kind of TV just makes WWII seem as far away and as irrelevant as WWI did to me when I was a kid. Sad, really. Make me feel old, too, dolgarnit!

Posted by: PatrickH on January 25, 2008 10:48 AM

I like Annette's term, the "Clinton entitlement." There is something weirdly dislikable about the woman, that almost makes you want to wish her ill ... I certainly don't think it has anything to do with her sex. The Wife and The Wife's mom, both of them full of gumption, detest -- and make that with a capital D -- Hillary.

BTW, did anyone else see the cover story on the Onion this week? Pretty funny.

I remember the JFK assasination quite clearly. I was in second grade ... Some kids were making presentations of some kind ... There were weird phone calls from the principal's office ... Finally the principal showed up in class (which he never did normally) and whispered to the teacher ... Something was clearly amiss in the universe. I remember seeing Ruby shoot Oswald too, at home on the old b&w tv. I was probably watching a replay but it sure felt "real." The entire decade seemed to spiral out of control from then on out. At the beginning of the '60s it seemed incomprehensible -- a real violation of cosmic laws -- that anyone should physically attack a leader-figure. By the end of the '60s you almost took it for granted that politicians would be getting bumped off.

I'm with PatrickH too. Funny the way WWII has gone from being "yesterday," the background of everything, to being "the distant past," more or less next door to the Civil War. I was raised by a vet, and his stories about the war, and his mementos of the war, and the way so many of the guys and gals of that age group had been through both the Depression and the War ... It was basic. Now it all seems so distant and exotic, even. Can't be too many people around any longer who had direct grownup experience of the war. An Aunt of mine who was a WAVE during the war just died at 86 ... That's pretty old. Sad the way time goes by, people pass on ... I have to say that despite this, one thing I'm looking forward to is the retirement of the civil rights generation. They've certainly dictated terms to the rest of us for a little too long. IMHO, of course. I've gotten a little tired of their persistence on the stage.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 25, 2008 12:20 PM

Even in Britain people trot out the silly line about remembering where you were when you heard that Kennedy had been shot. Cobblers: I was a 17-year-old with a mild interest in politics and have no idea where I was. I do remember asking my father what sort of chap Kennedy was. He said he didn't know, but that if he was anything like his father he'd be a shit. The truth slowly emerged as the years passed; I'd say that "shit" was pretty accurate.

Posted by: dearieme on January 25, 2008 1:40 PM

It's hard to point to what it is, but there seems to be a heavy difference between generations that were directly or indirectly affected by World War II and those not.

I was born in the next-to-last month of the war, and when I was a child it was still very much "in the air." My parents had saved the newspaper from my birth day (300 B-29s pounding Japan), you still found old copies of Life with photos of the fighting. Talk about war experiences was commonplace among men of my parents' generation; my fellow Cub Scouts and I listened breathless to our Scoutmaster telling about knifing a German soldier. ("Did he scream?" "Not for long." Now, I wonder if the guy really spent his service in the Quartermaster's Corps in New Jersey.)

Even in the late '50s when I was a teenager, it seemed that every other book that came out was about the war, and like almost all the other guys in my class, I read them by the carload.

Reading and hearing about the war is nothing like experiencing it personally, of course; it wasn't until many years later, when the patriotic gloss was no longer in fashion, that I began to grasp the unbelievable horror of it.

Still … we who were raised in the shadow of World War II tend to appreciate how much freedom and the "good life" can cost, and are unlike younger people who think it happens automatically as long as you just "understand" everyone.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 25, 2008 5:31 PM

Ah, come on, Annette...quit beating around the bush, tell us how you really feel about Hillary!

I remember being in school when Kennedy was killed; they came on the P.A. system and made an announcement. Which, of course, I didn't understand, being in elementary school. But I remember going home and asking my folks about it. Other than that, I didn't take it too seriously.

Actually, the whole thing freaks me out more today than it did then; the Kennedy assassination sort of symbolizes how much American politics in the postwar era had become like something out of the Godfather. All that business about bumping off Diem and trying to waste Castro, and the CIA overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran for the crime of wanting to nationalize Iran's oil industry in 1953(he remained under house arrest until his death in 1967). Sorry to say it, but play with enough fire and you will get burned.

Today, actually, I feel as much or more connection to WWI (having studied what my footsoldier grandfather did during his remarkably eventful year in uniform) as I do to WWII.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 25, 2008 8:42 PM

It's always seemed to me that sociology trumps politics. In my lifetime the returning greatest generation veterans who then proceeded to take up family creation with a vengeance, suburbanize America and get, if not rich, at least prosperous on a never seen before scale, a rolling affluence that has never let up since -- well, that has meant so much more than the two party squabbling that was and is mere foreground noise in comparison.
Don't get me wrong. I remember where I was when JFK was assassinated, too. But the real story has always been this insane, maddeningly energetic creative destructive country. Love it, hate it, it just carries you along, a speck in the foaming tide.

Posted by: ricpic on January 26, 2008 7:38 PM

Dearieme: I had to look up the date of Kennedy's assassination. Apart from having different ground-shaking events set up my world, I was a tiny bud of a human then and can't possibly remember anything that distant.

Donald: I read some similar ruminations recently on the subject of generational memory - but with a different twist, how it (the memory)shapes the politics and attitude towards economics. Here (and I can't recommend the blog highly enough, in general).

What you write is always in right proportion of personal and observational, that makes it interesting. Also, I mostly agree with you - so you must be brilliant. For all that, I have a question: what are you still doing here, in "third fiddle" capacity? It's time to start your own blog.
Then you (in my mind at least) will avoid all the negative associations of this place.

Posted by: Tat on January 27, 2008 1:22 PM

Time perspectives can be a weird thing. For instance, Chicago buildings fall (broadly) into two classes divided by the Depression/WW II construction moratorium. The "old" buildings were brick and terra-cotta, with applied decoration; the "new" buildings were metal and glass with no decoration. (A great oversimplification, but you know what I mean.)

When I was 12, the old buildings were all 35+ years old, the new buildings were all 15 years old or less. The gap between them was _huge_.

Today, the old buildings are 75+ years old, and the "new" buildings are often 50+ years old. The age gap is proportionately smaller. Furthermore, in 1965, the old buildings had a (relatively) long past history, before I knew them, and the new buildings did not. Today, the bulk of the history of even the old buildings is in the "recent" era, that is, post 1965.

Or take politics. To me, Harry Truman was dim history, even when I first became politically aware around 1970. It's hard to realize that Truman was more recent then than Reagan is now.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on January 28, 2008 4:06 AM

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