On Safire, Obama and naming the Joshua Generation

William Safire takes his unique lexical look at the ongoing generation-naming debate, sparked by the election of our first Generation X President (more here and here, too). (And I love the lede of Safire’s column: “Welcome to the socio-literary parlor game of ‘Name That Generation.'” Of course, I am a fan of most things Safire writes. But I digress.)

Safire begins with the Gertrude Stein-coined, Hemingway-cited “Lost Generation,” which appears as one of the two epigraphs that opens “The Sun Also Rises.” Safire also quotes Neil Howe, of Strauss & Howe fame and co-author of the groundbreaking book Generations, and whose work obviously heavily influences this blog.

Safire reminds us of a couple of once heavily used generational names that look a little hazy in the distance, but at the time, were quite popular in their usage: the Beat Generation and the Me Generation. Best as I can rationalize, those names now appear to be better suited to the period they were used in, or at least appearing to be a subset of the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers, respectively.

Where Safire really hits home is his use of the term “Joshua Generation” to apply specifically to African-Americans like President-elect Obama — those who came of age after the great Civil Rights battles of the last century, and are now reaping the rewards of the work of those in the time of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later (actually, Safire cites Obama citing the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. who reminded the president-elect to “look at the story of Joshua because you’re part of the Joshua generation.”
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Generation O, revisited

What I liked about Damien Cave’s article in the Sunday New York Times headlined “Generation O” (I’ll avoid modest self-promotion except to say I had that headline months ago, but I digress) is the attention it pays the Baby Boomers (and post-Boomers) and the Millennials (those voters born mostly after 1979 or so).

But I also liked that Cave’s article did not mention my own generation, Generation X — the 29- to 47-year olds born in between these two generations (and I would include President-elect Obama in that group, though I know others disagree, and probably will until we’re all six feet under).

That we were not singled out in the article is hardly an indication of willful ignorance. Rather, it’s simply our lot in history.

The Boomers used their idealism to fight the good fights of the ’60s and ’70s (and never let you forget it) before moving into the ruling class with the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies.

The new Millennial Generation is a civic-minded, community- and consensus-oriented grouping (Strauss & Howe’s cyclical theory of four generational types would make them akin to the new G.I. Generation, a new “greatest generation,” if you will). They voted overwhelmingly for our new president (and they came out in numbers not seen since 1972). They have been accustomed to success for most of their brief work history, and they continue to receive it. They’ve been told the world is theirs, and they’ve seen little evidence to the contrary.

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Gen X and Boomers? Sure. ‘Generation Jones’? Not so much.

I’m not so sure of this Generation Jones™ campaign, which I only became aware of from a comment the other day, and which I’ve responded to. It’s a term that now seems to be on some sort of viral marketing push to gain acceptance. In fact, there appears to be at least a small segment of folks born in the late Fifties and early Sixties that seem willing to buy into this concept — and who could blame them? Unless you were born in 1946 or 1947, and therefore really can’t deny it, it seems like no one wants to be associated with the Boomers these days.

I’m of the strong opinion that there are only two American Generations spanning the years when G.I.’s returned from World War II (beginning with the first soldiers coming home in 1943) through approximately 1980 — the Baby Boomers and what we often call Generation X.

From what I’ve studied, I believe Barack Obama’s birthyear of 1961 marks the start of Generation X, based primarily on the work of Strauss & Howe, and for at least two other reasons: JFK taking office that year, and the legalization of The Pill for birth control in June 1960, which would impact babies born starting in 1961. No, I’m not naïve enough to think that birth control didn’t begin until then, only that it was at long-last government sanctioned and kicked off the sexual revolution that lasted essentially until the early- to mid-1980s — impacting most of Gen X’s parents — and ending roughly when the tragedy of AIDS finally hit home with mainstream America following Rock Hudson’s death, and later, Magic Johnson’s stunning retirement press conference. Connected to this, American birth rates declined from a peak in 1957, with a little uptick in 1961, falling off dramatically, past Roe v. Wade and well on into the Seventies.

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A silent generation’s warrior proud

Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.

—Sen. John McCain, Nov. 4, 2008

In the end, Sen. John McCain gave perhaps his best speech of his campaign in conceding sometime after 11 p.m. last night, immediately encouraging healing the divisions of a long race and pledging to work together with the new president. He quieted supporters who booed the new president, and came off, at long last, as the classy veteran he had been before the Republican National Convention.

In losing, the McCain of old, the honorable statesman, was free once more. It’s weird, but it’s almost like that scene at the end of Return of the Jedi when Luke takes off Darth Vader’s mask and reveals the good man underneath all the harsh exterior. Except for, like, the burning-his-face-in-a-volcano part. And the whiny Anakin-ness of the prequels. And the asthmatic mask. And the choking of the rebel officer. And the always dressed in black like a Morissey fan. And the abject evilness for 30 years. And … well, let’s say we just forget I made this comparison. Move along. Move along. (Though, shit, I wasn’t the only one to think of this comparison, showing that us Star Wars geeks are legion, and I’m not even touching (for now) CNN’s Princess Leia-like hologram.)

Instead, recall that earlier I compared McCain to another venerable senator who tried but fell short of the White House. I meant, and still do mean, the comparison to Henry Clay as a compliment.

It’s odd, but since the Republic Convention in August, we’ve seen an angry, bitter McCain that observers hardly recognized. And this despite, as Christopher Beam noted in two articles on Slate, McCain himself holding back on some attacks (perhaps leaving it to his surrogates, “rogue” or not). As Beam wrote, it almost seemed “there was a hint of repentance about negative campaigning.” Last night’s speech perhaps signals a return to the self-styled Maverick of old, instead of a misdirected candidate and his rogue sidekick.

McCain is still a great hero who merely peaked at the wrong time — removing all other candidates, if you offered me a choice eight years ago between Sen. McCain and then-Gov. George W. Bush, I’d have voted for McCain every day of the week and twice on Tuesday.

McCain’s defeat all but assures that the country will never elect a president from the Silent Generation, the first generation (as defined by Strauss & Howe) that never had its own chief executive. That hardly diminishes the accomplishments of the generation of those born in the middle of the Roaring Twenties through the Great Depression and World War II, the generation of Martin Luther King Jr., Sandra Day O’Connor, Colin Powell, Jesse Jackson, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Elvis Presley, George Carlin, Paul Newman, and Sen. John S. McCain. Read the rest of this entry »

Steve Dunleavy, last of the newspaper soloists? A Writer’s Paper sets

When I first came around, there was some very good newspapermen in New York. But increasingly, they started leaning on this Columbia School of Journalism thing. That you wanted your mom to be proud. That it was a profession.
Journalism is a craft, like being a master plumber. We wore white collars, but we were blue collar.

—Steve Dunleavy

Sad week for the newspaper business, and here I am bemoaning the loss of two conservative institutions in the New York media landscape.

Steve Dunleavy and the New York Sun are, politically, polar opposites of where we stand, but nevertheless we mourn their passing from the news scene.

Dunleavy, now retired, was far from sainthood. He was a man whose tactics, particularly once he reached television’s platform, helped contribute to the Public’s perception of the Devil Media (ironically, the same Public that too-often too-broadly paints the entire media as overly liberal).

And yet, we mourn his retirement still. The New York Times gave him a nice send-off written by Tim Arango and enthused about one of the last true Tabloid Reporters in the two-fisted blue-collar sense exiting the stage.

Even Jimmy Breslin, his one-time rival who first led and then competed with Dunleavy on the Son of Sam story in 1977, had this to say about Dunleavy in the Times’ article:

“In a time of listless reporting, he climbed stairs. And he wrote simple declarative sentences that people could read, as opposed to these 52-word gems that moan, ‘I went to college! I went to graduate school college! Where do I put the period?’ ”

Pete Hamill, another of the last of the great New York columnists, said:

“He always had this energy. I always thought he was writing his columns like he was double-parked. He was a tabloid guy in every fiber of his body. If it didn’t have conflict, he didn’t want to write it.”

Since Breslin, Hamill and Dunleavy — all three from the Silent Generation — were at their height writing on a daily or semi-daily basis, there have been scant few great cityside columnist-reporters in New York. Other than the departed Mike McAlary, a Baby Boomer who died young 10 years ago at 41, I can’t think of another recent columnist that fits the Tab mold, particularly from the next two generations. That’s a reality and an indictment of the dying newspaper business in the last 20 years, which, of course, dovetails with the rise of the Master’s Degree-trained “journalist” (rather than “reporter”) and the rise of the MBAs and Marketers running the newsroom.

Great soloists, as I believe Hamill once called newspaper columnists, are now largely off the scene.

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RIP Paul Newman — ‘Let ’em know you’re there!’

The Baby is not nearly old enough to watch Slap Shot — not even a cleaned-up-for-commercial-TV version — but when he is, we’ll enjoy it together, especially the memorable performance of the incomparable Paul Newman, who died yesterday.

For several years I skated on a beer-league hockey team, and quoting Reg Dunlop and the Hansons was practically required, maybe even more so than having a decent shot. In fact, I was practically the worst player on the team — I had a shit shot and my skating was subpar — but I could more than hold my own in quoting the best sports movie of all time in the locker room or (mostly) on the bench. Ironically, about four days ago, I couldn’t get “They brought their fucking toys with them!” out of my head.

Newman could skate for real, and he made Reg seem believable enough to be a hockey player that could wear a fur coat and still rip up the arena organist’s sheet music and rail, “Don’t ever play ‘Lady of Spain’ again!”

So here’s to you, Mr. Newman, and to Reg Dunlop and Cool Hand Luke and Fast Eddie and all your other memorable roles. Read Terry Frei’s tribute, and also Deadspin’s (which rightly tags him “racing enthusiast, actor, badass”), and Joe Posnanski’s, too (who says he “might have been the best sports actor in the history of Hollywood”), then raise a glass of Canadian Club and water and say a toast to old-time hockey, “like when I got started, you know?”

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John McCain and Henry Clay

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. Read the rest of this entry »