WASHINGTON — Each presidential election is a turning point of sorts, a chance for Americans to redirect the leadership of the nation.
But as turning points go, today's looks set to be an ambiguous one. Voters tell pollsters they're dissatisfied with their choices, but also report a certain comfort level with the status quo. The economy is doing all right, the nation is not at war.
Whichever party wins control of Congress - a battle pundits still pronounce too close to call - the majority will likely be slim, the mandate for action uncertain. Democrats have advertised themselves more as un-Republicans than agents of their own brand of change. Republicans, too, have run away from the revolution they tried to ignite two years ago. "Vote for me as a check on Bill Clinton," GOP candidates say, a tacit acknowledgment the president is likely to win a second term.
But even if many Americans are blas about their options, in some ways today's presidential ballot represents a stark choice. It is a choice between two distinct men, each in his own way epitomizing the generation that produced him, each ready to stand as a symbol of America on the world stage.
In Bob Dole, the Republicans have put forward the last of the World War II generation of politicians to run for president - a generation that occupied the White House longer than any other in American history, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower and ending with George Bush.
In Bill Clinton, the Democrats are looking to solidify the baby boom's hold on power, to reaffirm the nation's choice four years ago to leap ahead to a new generation of leadership. It is a generational choice that cultural historians find laden with meaning.
"Dole carries the badge of his generation in his war wounds, and it's become increasingly the symbol of his campaign," says Paul Boyer, a historian at the University of Wisconsin. "It's the theme of endurance that goes back not just to World War II, but to the Great Depression and that generation that confronted adversity and endured. His personality sort of reflects the suspicion of pleasure that, at least in his public persona, I think Dole conveys."
Aura of the baby boomers
In President Clinton, cultural observers find the personification of the baby boom generation, with its aura of confidence and entitlement. Even the warmup acts - such as musicians Bobby ("Don't Worry Be Happy") McFerrin and Bruce Hornsby - for some Clinton campaign appearances reinforce that notion.
Of course, the baby boom is something of a media creation, a bulge in the population that has been told over and over that it's special by virtue of its size. But, Professor Boyer observes, when baby boomers reached college in the 1960s, many of them acted as though they had a kind of moral authority that came surely from being a member of this generation. It was this generation, after all, that declared in the 1960s: "Don't trust anyone over 30."
Mr. Dole, by contrast, has lived his life "doing it the hard way," as he pronounced in his Senate resignation speech. In the context of his times, he went to war not out of choice but out of duty.
For boomers - and for Clinton - life has been marked by choices and ambiguity. Should I fight in Vietnam or should I resist? Should I try illegal drugs and engage in other immoral behavior or should I abstain?
Even though Clinton, like Dole, came from humble beginnings and had a much less stable home life than Dole, "Bill Clinton had many more opportunities in life than Bob Dole did," says Donald Freeman, a political scientist at the University of Evansville in Indiana. And, ironically, it was the Dole generation that created the opportunities that allowed their children - the Clinton generation - to get ahead.
In a way, the generational difference between Clinton and Dole is no more evident than in how the two use television. Clinton grew up with television; Dole didn't. Clinton is clearly more comfortable with the medium, and with its opportunities for public confession that afternoon talk shows have made so prevalent.
Dole, in contrast, reveals himself more as a radio man. Historian Garry Wills notes that in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Dole harkened back to the pre-TV days, referring to his voice echoing "across darkness and desert, as it is heard over car radios on coastal roads...."
And Dole has kept quiet about the problems he experienced in his first marriage, in contrast to Clinton's willingness to discuss the pain in his marriage. Almost in recognition of their generations' respective mores, the media have treated the candidates' personal histories differently. But if Clinton and Dole are marked by their generations, they also share important points in common that transcend their eras, says Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley.
"They're both politicians, and they've both spent their entire lives consumed with political ambition, and I think that makes them more alike than the generational differences make them different," says Professor Brinkley.
In the end, he says, the candidates' differences have more to do with the way they're positioned within the political order.
"I think their differences have to do with an inclination, in Dole's case, toward limited government and a kind of small-town view of what the relationship between the individual and the state should be, and in Clinton's case, an inclination towards a more energetic and active government," says Brinkley. "Those inclinations exist in any generation."
But regardless of the candidates' differences, analysts don't see today's election producing a clear mandate for dramatic policy changes. Dole has promised a sweeping 15-percent tax cut, but his chances for getting that through a divided-down-the-middle Congress would be remote.
Clinton hasn't promised any big initiatives at all. Perhaps he's waiting until he's safely reelected to launch anything significant. But with a raft of ethics problems awaiting him, and a strong team in Congress, he may spend a second term playing defense.