In my mother’s telling, I exist because of the March on Washington.
Her account went something like this: In 1963, she was a student at Goddard College, an experimental school in Vermont that attracted the forerunners of the hippies. My father had come to Goddard the previous year, and though my mom first noticed him throwing peas in the dining hall (this seems to be an inherited trait) she didn’t meet him, she said, until that day on the Mall 50 years ago this week, when Goddard students who had arrived separately executed a daft plan to meet near the Washington Monument.
Alas, my father, when I asked him about it last week, had no such recollection. My mother died five years ago, so I’ll never know whether her account — my founding narrative — is apocryphal, or whether memory of it has been clouded by things people did to their minds in the ’60s. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whether they first met that day or not, my future parents, 20 years old at the time, were both there for the signal event of their generation.
“I can still see the scene,” my father told me, recalling his spot along the south side of the reflecting pool from which he could see the speakers at the Lincoln Memorial and hear the speeches clearly. “When people talk about Martin Luther King, that’s my connection. It’s a small connection — no handshake or anything — but I’m proud to have been there.”
I envy him that connection, to a cause that stirred so many Americans and defined a generation. My generation has no equivalent.
I was born five years after the March on Washington and three weeks after King’s assassination. My mother told me that in those grim days of April 1968, she wondered whether she had done the right thing bringing a child into the world. I grew up on Joan Baez and The Kingston Trio. A poster hung in my bedroom informed me: “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” My first political memories were of the George McGovern campaign and of a boycott of Nestle for pushing infant formula on kids in poor countries.
But this culture was my parents’, not mine. There have been many noble causes in my time — the fight against apartheid, for gay rights and for environmentalism — but none captured my generation or required the sort of sacrifice the civil-rights movement did.
John McCain, in his campaigns for the presidency, spoke of the importance of “a cause greater than self-interest.” The one-time prisoner of war, who refused his Vietnamese captors’ offer of release to avoid giving them propaganda value, knows something about that.
But what about those born after 1955, who turned 18 after the Vietnam War draft had been suspended? For the first time in decades — perhaps for the first time in history — Americans came of age without an existential threat to the nation and without massive social upheaval at home. For us, the waning Cold War was just a theoretical threat, and the vestigial air-raid drills at school a curiosity. When we were prepared to sacrifice for the country after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush told us to go shopping. We grew up soft: unthreatened, unchallenged and uninspired. We lacked a cause greater than self.
The effects on our politics has been profound. Without any concept of actual combat or crisis, a new crop of leaders — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin — treats governing as a fight to the death, with no possibility of a negotiated peace. Without a transcendent social struggle calling us to seek justice as Americans, they substitute factional causes — Repeal Obamacare! Taxed Enough Already! — or manufactured crises over debt limits and government shutdowns. Though the problem is more pronounced on the right today, the generational drift is nonpartisan. President Obama has extraordinary talents but shows no ability to unify the nation in common purpose or to devote sustained energy to a cause greater than his own.
Certainly, there are young leaders serving in the capital who are as enlightened as those of any previous generation, just as there are volunteer warriors fighting for America as bravely as any conscript ever did. But as a whole, my generation, untested by actual trial, is squandering American greatness by turning routine give-and-take into warfare.
Tom Brokaw justifiably called the cohort that survived the Great Depression and fought the Second World War the greatest generation. I’m afraid that my generation will someday be called the weakest.
DANA MILBANK is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.