Something recently dawned on me. We had four consecutive presidents from my generation, the baby boomers (generally thought of as being born between 1946 and 1964), before we backed up for the current one, who was born in 1942. That's 28 years of baby boomer presidential leadership: two Democrats, one Republican and an "other." By now we should be able to draw some conclusions about how they did.
If you advertised for the position of baby boomer president, William Jefferson Clinton (young at the time; born in 1946) would probably be the kind of person you'd want. He came from a humble background but was highly educated; he fancied himself a visionary, new-age thinker, and he was a brilliant politician.
He was also lucky. The 1990s brought a booming economy (due mostly to demographics — thanks again, boomers!) and huge budget surpluses. He was easily re-elected with an opportunity to propel the country into the next millennium on the proper trajectory. Instead, he will be remembered more for what the meaning of "is" is — and for continuing policies started under President Ronald Reagan that enabled our income inequality today.
Clinton ended up being an empty suit.
After Clinton, George W. Bush (born 1946) was quite a change. He was the first president in 112 years to lose the popular vote — by 500,000 — but win the Electoral College. He carried the title of "compassionate conservative" on his sleeve and said all the right things. As usual for Republicans, he offered tax cuts for the rich, but his response to 9/11 showed a depth of character that was as positive as it was unexpected, given his slacker reputation. In short, W. seemed to be the exact opposite — and more desirable — example of a baby boomer. And then … the disastrous Iraq war.
It was wrong in all aspects: wrong decision, wrong time, wrong strategy and wrong execution. Suddenly, America's future became a lot less certain, with two wars and huge deficits. Despite all that, he won re-election. Proof of what? You guessed it: American voters are dopes. More proof? A collapsing economy and "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," on Hurricane Katrina.
Bush, too, was an empty suit.
Hope and change.
Could anyone be more different from Bush (or Clinton) than Barack Obama? (Born 1961.) Obama came in with great fanfare — the whole hope-and-change thing: our first Black president. Very laid back, he was a great speaker and a very good politician. After the disaster of the Bush years, a battered economy, two inherited wars and the cretinous Mitch McConnell-led Republicans, he probably did as well as he could.
However, he continued those unnecessary wars and approved drone attacks on people in foreign countries. Meanwhile, income inequality continued to grow, and aside from a flawed health care act, little else was accomplished. Worse, not a single sociopath banker went to jail or even lost a bonus on his watch.
Yet another baby boomer president was rewarded with a second term. Nice guy, but in the end he was just another empty suit.
Finally, it's not unusual for Americans to elect people (all men so far) to the presidency who are congenitally unqualified for the position — we are nothing if not optimists — but nothing like Donald J. Trump! (Born 1946.) Losing the popular vote by 3 million — like Bush Jr. — he, too, won only by the Electoral College. An extraordinary liar (even by politician's standards), plagued by the Dunning-Kruger effect, an off-the-scale narcissist, a total lack of morality (again, against the low standards of politicians) and no noticeable ability or interest in management. Finally, on Jan. 6 he single-handedly encouraged an assault on the government in a way not experienced in our 233 years as a republic.
He did strike a chord with a large minority of Americans who have (rightly) felt marginalized or forgotten. Sadly, not only did he not help them, he took advantage of their adoration. Even worse, he imbued them with a distrust of democracy that will plague us for years. His signal achievement was to make all previous (and current) presidents look better.
Oddly (but luckily), he didn't get re-elected. (No, really, he did not get re-elected!)
"Empty suit" does not describe his presidency.
In summary ...
People sometimes forget that JFK was the first president born in the 20th century. He was far from perfect but brought youthful energy and a 20th-century mind-set to the office. I had high hopes for my generation, that our "best and brightest" would do the same for the 21st century. I thought we — the luckiest generation in the history of the world — would repay our good fortune by being good stewards of our country. Instead, we decided to pull up the ladder behind us, and offered empty suits (or worse) to the country. Great sigh.
Guess we'll see you soon, Gen Xers. Good luck.
D. Roger Pederson lives in Minneapolis.