No disparagement of the accomplishments of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” will ever be found here. They grew up amid the deprivations of mankind’s greatest economic cataclysm, too young to understand why. That sense of deferred satisfaction served them well during the war, and a profound desire never to do without again probably fueled the duration of the subsequent economic rebound.
They decided their children should not, would not, suffer these hardships. Therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare would say. The Greatest Generation’s greatest strength, their willingness to sacrifice, spawned the subsequent Baby Boomer generation’s greatest weakness, their demand for instant gratification without consequence.
Politics has given us two men to personify this thesis: George Herbert Walker Bush, forty-first president of the United States; and his son, George Walker Bush, President Forty-Three.
George H.W. Bush was a child of privilege in an era when the credo “to whom much is given, much is expected,” held sway, especially in the Puritan-influenced New England of his childhood. Bush was one of the first carrier-based fighter pilots of World War II, a war when the families of privilege considered it a matter of honor for their children to serve. He continued his national service in a number of roles, including Congress, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Vice President, and President.
Regardless of one’s opinion of his politics and policies, all can agree George H.W. Bush served his country well and faithfully. The only breath of scandal to touch him was Iran-Contra, when he claimed to be “out of the loop;” no scandal for personal gain or advantage was ever associated with his name. He lost his bid for re-election as president when he did what he thought was right for the country, reneging on his “read my lips” pledge to raise taxes. This probably cost him the presidency, and may well have led to the period of sustained economic growth shepherded by Bill Clinton.
George Walker Bush grew up in post-war boom times, in an era when privilege meant shielding your children from the burdens of your youth. The younger Bush will not (cannot?) account for his first forty years, except for selected excepts beyond his ability to shield. He went to Yale as a legacy, and was given choice duty in the National Guard while his less-fortunate peers were humping mortar plates and body bags through the rice paddies of Vietnam. As some point, even that may have become too onerous for him; the service records of the second half of his hitch are essentially unverifiable.
He firmly believes that finding God at age forty granted him a clean slate. He failed at everything he tried before politics, using his family connections to finally be elected governor of Texas as a “compassionate conservative.” The record shows little record of his compassion; Texas executions rose as quickly as its educational standards declined. He continues to show no tendency to conserve anything except what is his, or that of his friends.
He wants what he wants when he wants it, leaving the bills for future generations to pay. His “conservatism” does not extend to the environment, where today’s children will have to contend with the damage of his policies, enacted with an eye to keeping his backers happy today; later is someone else’s problem. He regularly attacks the liberties his father spent his life defending, because he gets to do what he wants. Others are either for him, or against him; there is no “loyal opposition” in his eyes. Disagreement is disloyalty.
This is not meant as an attack on Bush the Younger. The Bushes were only used here as examples of the sad state we currently inhabit, where primacy is assumed, and no sacrifice is too small to accept if it delays what we want. The Baby Boomer Generation stands on the shoulders of those who came before them and dishonors their sacrifices. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died to defend the liberty they assume as their birthright. The lack of outrage over the current violations of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Fourteenth, and who knows how many other amendments, all in the name of “protecting the homeland,” show the heirs of the Greatest Generation believe only others should sacrifice.
The greatest accomplishment of the Greatest Generation was to reshape the world they inherited and hand their children a far better place. Their greatest failure was in not passing down the values that made those accomplishments possible. It would be a sad legacy it this was the longer-lasting bequest.