Our Leaders, Ourselves - Baby Boomers' Test at the Polls

IN the early morning hours of election day 1960, I stood proudly beside my father on a Chicago street corner, handing out flyers that urged passersby to vote for John F. Kennedy.

I was 10 years old then, and as I saw it, my father and the Democratic candidate were similar in a lot of ways. They were about the same age, they both talked about making America a better place, and to me at least, my father had also been a war hero, having served at the front during the Battle of the Bulge.

When Mr. Kennedy was elected president, I felt comforted and reassured that someone like my father would be leading the country.

With the selection of Bill Clinton as Democratic candidate, the 80 million members of my generation are presented with a deeply personal and troubling question: Do we trust ourselves enough yet to take over the reins of national leadership from our fathers? On the answer to this question, more than any other, will hinge the outcome of this year's election.

The national media have been discussing this election in terms of a generational contest. Time magazine called the Clinton-Gore ticket "The Democrats' New Generation," and Newsweek dubbed them the "Young Guns."

Yet most commentators have assumed that the majority of baby boomers will support the Democratic ticket because they're of the same age group. That is far from certain, as indicated by the comments of a fellow baby boomer at my office. "Clinton scares me," she said to nods from several others. "I don't think he's honest enough to be president."

When George Bush asks voters to decide "who has the character to be president," he is telling baby boomers in effect that we should let our fathers' generation keep control over the federal government. And when the president talks about "family values," he is not-so-subtly implying that my generation is not quite as trustworthy as his since we are much more likely to be tolerant of alternative life styles and unorthodox behavior.

Until this election, it would seem that members of my generation really did put their trust in older candidates to lead the nation. Exit polls have shown that a solid majority of voters born after World War II have consistently supported Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush against younger challengers in the past three elections. Now we have to decide whether to have faith in an overachieving baby-boomer candidate, who in many ways reminds us of our own faults and imperfections.

The "character issue" in this election strikes closer to home than many of my generation care to admit. Many of us wiggled out of the draft during the Vietnam War any way we could. (Unlike our fathers' generation, most baby boomers never served in the military.) Though the evidence is hard to verify, it is likely that a majority of post-war Americans have experimented with illegal drugs (and not only inhaled, but enjoyed it). And according to a number of well-publicized surveys, roughly half of men under

45 have engaged in extra-marital affairs.

IT is more than just a question of personal morality that each of us must weigh in this election. We baby boomers must ask ourselves whether, as part of the most privileged generation in history, we are ready to demand of ourselves the sacrifices necessary to insure a sound economic future for our country. After all, the nation's debt crisis (both the public and private debt) is at least partly due to the excesses our generation has engaged in for most of our adult lives.

The wild speculation in real estate during the '70s and '80s, the rush to invest in corporate takeovers and leveraged buyouts during the Reagan years, the excessive use of tax write-offs and loopholes, and the over-indulgence in consumer spending with credit cards and equity loans were all activities that baby boomers partook of at least as much as older Americans. It is no accident that director Oliver Stone, in his film "Wall Street," chose to pit a working-class father's values against the get-rich-qu ick greed of his stockbroker son.

After the Democratic convention, I telephoned my father (a lifelong Democrat who had been leaning heavily towards Ross Perot) to ask whether he felt that the country could be competently led by two members of my generation - Clinton-Gore. His answer was both reassuring and surprising. "Actually, I'm encouraged by the prospect," he replied. "It seems like Bush, and most older politicians, are just too tired to come up with creative solutions anymore. You might say that my generation doesn't feel it has an ything more to prove, and yours does."

On election day, Americans will discover whether those of us from the baby-boom generation are ready to forgive our own past sins, and regain the confidence in ourselves that our fathers once gave us.

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