Boomers to the Back of the Bus

In today’s big-deal Obama speech , he offered a smattering of memorable quotes on how he was going to unify a country that is deeply split along regional, racial, and religious fault lines. But for all that talk of unity, he never discussed how he planned to bridge the generation gap.

Obama said the word generation 15 times in today’s speech—with its context ranging between a reverence for past generations’ heroism and a disappointment that they can’t let go of their pasts. In the trickiest passage of today’s speech, Obama defended his Reverend-in-Chief James Jeremiah Wright* with accolades about Wright’s service in the marines and his 30 years of community service. According to Obama, Wright erred by getting bogged down in the politics of his generation. “For the men and women of Rev. Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years,” Obama said.  

The generational argument offered Obama his best escape plan for wriggling out of the Wright quagmire. If he threw his family friend and spiritual adviser under the bus, he’d look like a scheming politician. If he embraced Wright in his darkest hour, he wouldn’t assuage concerns that he, too, wanted to damn America . So instead Obama designed an excuse for Wright’s actions—Wright is too old to understand the country’s current racial positioning, and his generation’s past clouds the country’s future. Obama’s pathos has always claimed to be the answer to this age-group fiction. The spin: Only Obama and his unique American story can transcend the culture-war murkiness.

It’s an argument Andrew Sullivan has already made at length—and it’s one that makes sense if you’re a young Obama fan. Past generations haven’t seemed to get the job done, and Obama is (arguably) the first politician of Generation X to run for president. Therefore, Obama is a better option than John McCain. McCain is so old, the thinking goes, that his generation taught Bush and Clinton’s generation how to be a generation. That’s no way to bring about change.  

But even if he soothes the country’s racial rifts, he may create a new one in its place. All of this talk about Obama transcending our nation’s past harms an innocent bystander—old people. Senior citizen Democrats already like Hillary Clinton more than Obama. If identity politics hold through the general election, they’re likely to prefer McCain over Obama, as well. Rather than pander to what may be a crippling weakness, Obama is headed the other direction. His heavy reliance on generational rhetoric in today’s speech and his crochety-old-uncle excuse for Wright only highlights his efforts.

After he won South Carolina’s primary Obama said , “I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina, I saw South Carolina.” Seventeen percent of South Carolina voters were over 65. Seniors favored Clinton over Obama by eight points. The state favored Obama over Clinton by 28 points.

Ironically, Obama’s willingness to break free from past generation’s mentalities pays tribute to the politician Obama most resembles—John F. Kennedy. In JFK’s inaugural address, he said:

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century , tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

The torch has been passed to Obama, but he may end up burning too many bridges to use it.

*UPDATE 2:49 p.m.: I originally misidentified Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, as James Wright.