• U.S.

Missing the Man in the Middle

3 minute read
Calvin Trillin

One reason that so-called gotcha journalism–campaign coverage dominated by attempts to reveal youthful misbehavior–seems to have arrived so abruptly is that Fifties Guys were skipped when the presidency passed from World War II Guys to Boomers. Two or three presidential elections with Fifties Guys as candidates would have provided a soothing way of putting off such harsh subjects as coke snorting and draft dodging until we’d had time to gain the perspective that comes with a little distance–soothing because Fifties Guys tend not to have engaged in any youthful misbehavior interesting enough for anyone to bother revealing.

Fifties Guys are people who graduated from college in the years from the early Fifties to around 1965, when what is now spoken of as the Sixties started to get in gear. As a Fifties Guy myself, I can testify that going to college in that era had all the excitement of standing at the luggage carousel waiting for your bags to come off the plane.

In our defense, opportunities for disgraceful behavior were limited by circumstances beyond our control. There weren’t any shooting wars to slither out of. The term recreational drugs–a term that was invented to make what privileged people do sound less depraved than it would if it were done by poor people–had not been coined. The sort of state lawbreaking that Fifties Guys were associated with was underage drinking. The sort of federal lawbreaking that Fifties Guys were associated with was underage drinking with a fake draft card. Reading about the recent accusations against George W. Bush, I could imagine one of my classmates’ saying wistfully, “I might have tried cocaine if I’d ever heard of it.”

Fifties Guys got shut out of the White House because a couple of World War II Guys, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, won the presidency when they were old enough to be thinking about retirement, and then a Boomer, Bill Clinton, won when he was still in his 40s. If the World War II Guys hadn’t been so reluctant to leave the stage and Bill Clinton had permitted the Fifties Guys to go in the normal order, the electorate still might not have reached the point of talking about who “experimented” with drugs (another usage invented for the privileged).

When Clinton ran again as an incumbent, he might have been expected to face a Fifties Guy–some 58-year-old Governor or 61-year-old Senator or Jack Kemp (Occidental College, class of ’57) who got the vice-presidential nomination. Instead, the Republican ticket was led by Bob Dole, another World War II Guy, who was running for President in his 73rd year. Now the leading candidates for 2000, Bush the Younger and Al Gore, are both Boomers. After 1996, we Fifties Guys had to face the cold, hard fact that our one shot at the White House might have been lost when Michael Dukakis peered out of that tank.

But is it really all over for us unless John McCain’s long-shot-maverick strategy has unexpected appeal to those who decide the Republican nomination? Maybe not. The Ames straw poll was led by Bush and Steve Forbes, both Boomers. But who came in a strong third? Elizabeth Dole–Duke, class of ’58, and not even a fake draft card among her youthful follies. When it comes to presidential politics, Elizabeth Dole may be the last of the Fifties Guys.

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