The Truth, Mainly - 01/18/1993

Depression-era babies won't ever hear mermaids' singing
by Leon Satterfield

Two days before the inauguration may be a bit late to bring it up, but I find myself whining a little about Bill Clinton becoming president. It's partly because I share Scott Stanfield's discomfort in being unable, for the first time in 12 years, to say "Don't blame me. I didn't vote for him." And it's partly because I share Garrison Keillor's panic at being, for the first time ever, older than our Chief Executive.

But it's mainly because my sense of fair play has been offended: Bill Clinton didn't wait his turn. Bill Clinton cut in line.

Look at this: FDR and Truman were born in the 1880s; Ike in the 1890s; LBJ in 1908; Reagan, Nixon, Ford, and JFK in the teens; Carter and Bush in the 1920s. And Bill Clinton in the 1940s.

That's right—the 1930s just got skipped over. That's the decade of my birth, and I feel protective of it. God knows, somebody needs to speak on its behalf.

Depression babies are the "Silent Generation," according to Neil Howe and William Strauss, writing in last month's .Atlantic. They say we "may become the first generation in American history never to produce a President."

Some say we deserve to be left out because we've been the least assertive generation the country has produced. We came of age between WWII and Vietnam, and we were for the most part spectators to both, too young for the war against fascism, too old to be drafted for the war in Vietnam—whatever that was against. So we watched, and between wars were cowed into silence by the McCarthyism we put up with in the 50s.

And that, our critics say, is what we do best: duck and cover while others, older or younger, run the risks.

We've even turned to earlier generations for our literary influences. If we had a representative model in the fiction we read, it was Holden Caulfield, the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye who goes a little crazy trying to keep from growing up and accepting responsibility in an imperfect adult world. If we had a representative anti-hero in the poetry we read, it was T.S. Eliot's wimpish J. Alfred Prufrock who sings an ironic lovesong to himself to avoid commitment to anyone else.

We vibrate visibly when Prufrock says "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,/And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/And in short, I was afraid." And we absolutely twitch when he says "I have heard the mermaids singing each to each./I do not think that they will sing to me."

So it's not surprising that a generation like that may be the first to fail to produce a president, now is it?

It certainly doesn't surprise us Depression babies to be talked about that way. I don't want to sound whiny, but when you're born in the 30s, you don't expect life to be fair.

"I suppose we should have expected to be deprived of the presidency," I tell my wife. "We got deprived of everything else—all the respect in the forties, all the fun in the sixties. We imbibed deprivation with our mother's milk."

"Um," she says. "You're sounding whiny again."

"When we were mere toddlers," I go on, "we were worried about where our next bowl of pablum would come from. When Bill Clinton was a toddler, he was worried about how to carry California. We never had a chance."

"Pat Buchanan and Jerry Brown were born in the 30s," she says, "and they got their chance. As I remember, you yourself got your chance when you went down to ignominious defeat as a part of the Green Ticket in the Lower South Platte Natural Resources District election in 1974. Maybe Depression babies just aren't very appealing to voters."

"And why would that be, Miss Smartypants?" I ask.

"Well, if you're at all representative," she says, "they may have imbibed more than deprivation with their mother's milk. They may have imbibed an overdose of self pity. Maybe even when they drive late-model cars and build vacation homes, they like worrying about where their next bowl of pablum is coming from. Maybe they'd rather wallow around in their sad little literary allusions than leaflet a precinct. Maybe they've become immobilized by ironies and emasculated by insecurities."

My legs cross involuntarily when she says "emasculated," and I go silent. I duck and cover. I think of mermaids singing to Bill Clinton on Wednesday and, knowing that they will not sing to me, I break the silence of my generation and whine a little.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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