John McCain and Henry ClayPosted: Friday, September 5, 2008
Raised in the shadow of a high-ranking Navy father and grandfather, serving and suffering honorably in a war most of the rest of the country would rather regret if not forget, John McCain is the pitch-perfect example of his generation — overshadowed by others older and younger than him (even his younger Veep candidate!), fighting the good fight, respected, productive, a leader backstage, yet measuring just shy of national leadership at center stage.
Like a famous senator from more than 150 years ago, more likely to serve America than lead it.
I’m not the first one to suggest the comparison between John McCain and Henry Clay. Indeed, one author believes McCain is actually Henry Clay reincarnated. We’ll not touch the spiritual end of that, but the same author notes, quite appropriately, that Henry Clay was declared in 1957 by a JFK-led Senate committee to be the greatest U.S. Senator in history. Likewise, the author notes, McCain is a respected and influential Senator. He is popular, too, I would add — Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman called him a great friend — and despite his maverick status, McCain has long been one of the most powerful senators in a non-leadership post.
Henry Clay ran for, and lost, the Presidency three times.
McCain’s Silent Generation, as described by Strauss & Howe, comprise Americans born from 1925 to 1942. They “grew up as the suffocated children of war and depression. They came of age just too late to be war heroes [McCain obviously bucks this point, but his war was Vietnam, not WWII of the ‘Greatest Generation’] and just too early to be youthful free spirits. Instead, this early-marrying Lonely Crowd became the risk-averse technicians and professionals as well as the sensitive rock ‘n rollers and civil-rights advocates of a post-crisis era in which conformity seemed to be a sure ticket to success.”
Likewise, here’s an excerpt from Sam Tanenhaus’ New York Times story earlier this year on McCain’s generation, one largely born in the ’30s but who have never elected one of their own as President:
Young people born in the 1930s experienced no such tumult [as did the Baby Boomers]. They typically came of age in the 1950s, when consensus reigned, and with it conformism. Young Americans were collectively disengaged from politics and distrustful of ideology. They were the “silent generation,” content to be guided by their elders: Eisenhower, the avuncular white-haired president who had been the hero of World War II, and the Wise Men who formulated the strategies of the cold war.
In this climate the young were more likely to serve than to lead. The Korean War, which raged from 1950 to 1953, claimed nearly as many American casualties as Vietnam, and yet, despite the universal draft, there was scarcely a protest from those waiting to be called.
Strauss & Howe’s groundbreaking 1991 book, Generations, defined American generations in roughly 20-year splits occurring in cycles of four. They later renamed the archetypes, but their theory did not change. McCain’s Silent Generation lines up with the Compromise Generation of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, who were a collective “zero for twelve in runs for the Presidency” and whose generation “were fated to careers of secret turmoil and hidden frustration” who “at their best, their irrepressible instinct for openness and honesty ennobled even their failures.”
Strauss & Howe quote a 73-year-old Henry Clay (at one year older than McCain):
“‘Life itself is but a compromise,’ observed the … ‘Great Compromiser’ himself, as he proposed the last of his famous balancing acts. ‘All legislation, all government, all society is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, and courtesy.'”
Or as McCain would surely say today, the ability to “reach across the aisle” to “reach out our hand to any willing patriot, make this government start working for you again.”