A onetime editor-in-chief of National Lampoon who also spent years reporting for Rolling Stone and The Atlantic Monthly, P. J. O’Rourke is known as a conservative-minded political humorist and author of such bestsellers as Parliament of Whores. Not everyone knows that he was once a dedicated Marxist hippie type—living up to every stereotype of his postwar generation.
In this book, at once a social history and a personal memoir (albeit with some impaired memory involved), he explores, with both fiercely biting wit and fondness, the mess that the baby boomers made, and the impact they’ve had on our world.
“Dry wit that makes every chapter a delight . . . As a cultural analyst, O’Rourke’s ability and willingness to simultaneously lampoon and celebrate himself and his generation are unequaled.” —Publishers Weekly
“A terrific American memoir, in tone a beguiling mix of Jean Shepherd and Animal House.” —Christopher Buckley, author of Boomsday
“Simultaneously hilarious and brainy . . . holds a cracked magnifying glass up to the generation of Americans born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s. Sifting through demographic and economic data and combining the results with generous portions of personal memories, O’Rourke finds much to deplore in the boomer character, but even more to cherish and celebrate.” —Chicago Tribune
“A comedic and caustic cautionary tale for future generations—and, for those of us who are Boomers, a nostalgic and hilarious diversion.” —NPR
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A REGULAR OLD BABY BOOMER SPEAKS
To address America's Baby Boom is to face big, broad problems. We number more than 75 million, and we're not only diverse but take a thorny pride in our every deviation from the norm (even though we're in therapy for it). We are all alike about us each being unusual.
Fortunately we are all alike about big, broad problems too. We won't face them. There's a website for that, a support group to join, a class to take, alternative medicine, regular exercise, a book that explains it all, a celebrity on TV who's been through the same thing, or we can eliminate gluten from our diet. History is full of generations that had too many problems. We are the first generation to have too many answers.
Not a problem. Consider the people who have faced up squarely to the deepest and most perplexing conundrums of existence. Leo Tolstoy, for example. He tackled every one of them. Why are we here? What kind of life should we lead? The nature of evil. The character of love. The essence of identity. Salvation. Suffering. Death.
What did it get him? Dead, for one thing. And off his rocker for the last thirty years of his life. Plus he was saddled with a thousand-page novel about war, peace, and everything else you can think of, which he couldn't even look up on Wikipedia to get the skinny on because he hadn't written it yet. What a life. If Leo Tolstoy had been one of us he could have entered a triathlon, a Baby Boom innovation of the middle 1970s. By then we knew we couldn't run away from our problems. But if we added cycling and swimming ...
So to the problems of talking about the Baby Boom let us turn our big, broad (yet soon to be firmed up due to the triathlon for seniors that we're planning to enter) generational backsides.
Nonetheless, a difficulty remains. Most groups of people who get tagged by history as a "generation" can be described in an easy, offhand way: folks sort of the same age experiencing sort of the same things in sort of the same place, like the cast of Cheers or Seinfeld or Friends. I'm almost sure — as a result of taking Modern Literature in college — that Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Henry Miller, and Ezra Pound were roommates in a big apartment on the Left Bank in Paris in the 1920s. (If not, I give the sitcom idea free to the reader.)
But the Baby Boom has an exact definition, a precise demography. We are the children who were born during a period after World War II when the long-term trend in fertility among American women was exceeded. Our mothers began this excess abruptly in 1946. They peaked in their use of the stuff that makes babies in 1947, and thereafter they gradually tapered off until in 1964 they were taking the pill or rolling over and pretending to be asleep or telling their husbands, "Go phone the pope about where to buy rubbers."
As a generation, we are spread across the huge space of America and span so much time that the oldest Baby Boomers are sometimes the parents — usually via an oopsie — of the youngest Baby Boomers. (It's painful to think how many of those babies were put up for adoption because it was too soon for the Baby Boom to have soothed the fierce mores of society. Shame was still felt about "illegitimate" children as if the cooings, gurgles, and spit-ups of some infants conformed to established rules and regulations while the cooings, gurgles, and spit-ups of other infants weren't legal. On the other hand, in fairness, society may have had an inkling of just how hard it would be to extract child support payments from Baby Boom fathers.)
Anyway, distinctions among varieties of Baby Boomers need to be made. Geographical distinctions are peripatetically moot for us. I have a friend who says he got so stoned in the 1960s that the next thing he remembers is standing in line for a Procol Harem concert at New York's Fillmore East with a ticket in his hand for a Procol Harem concert at San Francisco's Fillmore West. Distinctions according to race, class, gender, or sexual orientation would be offensive to Baby Boom sensitivities. Furthermore they'd be beside the point because the author — much as he endeavors to be as different from everyone else as a member of the Baby Boom should be — finds himself to be hopelessly ordinary in matters of race, class, gender identification, and which section of Playboy he turned to first when he was sixteen.
But time is a distinction we all have to endure. And there are temporal variations in the Baby Boom. We have our seniors, our juniors, our sophomores, and our freshman.
The seniors were born in the late 1940s. The author is of that ilk. This book is necessarily written from the ilk's point of view. The first pronouncement of the Baby Boom is "I have to be me." It's as if we think the pronouncements of all those who came before us were something like, "I have to be Gerald and Betty Ford." Then Dad's hair began to thin and he whacked somebody with a golf ball and Mom got a little tipsy. The Baby Boom speaks the truth.
The seniors were on the bow wave of the Baby Boom's voyage of exploration. But they were also closely tethered in the wake of preceding generations. In effect the seniors were keelhauled by the Baby Boom experience and left a bit soggy and shaken. If we wound up as financial advisers trying to wear tongue studs or Trotskyites trying to organize Tea Party protests, or both, we are to be forgiven. Hillary Clinton and Cheech Marin are seniors.
The juniors were born in the early 1950s. They were often younger siblings of the seniors and came of age when parents were throwing in the towel during the "What's the Matter with Kids These Days" feature match. The juniors pursued the notions, whims, and fancies of the Baby Boom with a greater intensity. For them drugs were no longer experimental; drugs were proven. John Belushi was technically a senior, born in 1949, but, knowing John, he was probably held back a couple of grades and can be counted as a junior. From the juniors we get the teeny-boppers, the groupies, and the more ragamuffin barefoot urchins of Haight-Ashbury. They hunted up some shoes when they eventually made their way to Silicon Valley. (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both born in 1955.) But they never did find their neckties.
The sophomores were born in the late 1950s. By the time they reached adolescence the Baby Boom ethos had permeated society. Sophomores gladly accepted sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the deep philosophical underpinning thereof. But they'd seen enough of the Baby Boom in action to realize that what works in general terms doesn't always work when the bong sets fire to the beanbag chair. Circumstances had changed. In college many of the sophomores attended classes. Some even snuck off and got MBAs. I have a friend who went to Stanford in 1973. The Stanford campus is home to the redoubtable conservative Hoover Institution think tank. When my friend arrived at the school the Hoover Institution's office windows were boarded up as high as a rock could be thrown. (We're not the most athletic generation, so the windows didn't have to be boarded up too far.) That year the boards were taken down. The sophomores were the authors of The Official Preppy Handbook.
The freshmen were born in the early 1960s. All that the Baby Boom had wrought was, for them, a given. What we accomplished with blood, sweat, and tears or, really, with buds, sweat, other lubricants, and tear gas or, in actual fact, with listening to Blood, Sweat & Tears, especially "Spinning Wheel," over and over again on the record player while we stared at the amazing kaleidoscopic patterns in the linoleum, freshmen took for granted.
They felt no visceral effects from the events that formed the Baby Boom. To freshmen the Vietnam War was just something that was inexplicably on TV all the time like Ed McMahon. Feminism had gone from a pressing social issue to a Bea Arthur comedy show that their parents liked, and, by the time the freshmen were in college, feminism was an essay topic for the "Reading Shakespeare in Cultural Context" course. Hint: Lady Macbeth hit that glass ceiling hard.
Freshmen have no personal memory of the Kennedy and King assassinations, which showed the tragedy inherent in greatness and taught the Baby Boom to stop just short of it, the way Bill Clinton did. They may have suffered a momentary golden oldies pang when John Lennon was shot, thinking, maybe, "Now the original Wings will never be reunited."
The freshmen didn't witness the monumental civil rights movement. They were taught that it was monumental in school. Being taught that a thing is monumental in school turns it into an intellectually unvisited memorial, a Grant's Tomb of the mind. To the freshmen racism, sexism, and homophobia are as much slurs as facts. They don't even stop to puzzle over the evil the way I stopped at an Alabama gas station on a 1959 car trip to Florida to puzzle over the drinking fountain labeled "colored." Not that I was puzzling over evil at the moment, because I had no idea what "colored" could have to do with a drinking fountain. Colored water? Bad idea. Why would anybody want it?
And that's pretty much as far as freshmen get with moral reasoning about America. Good for them. They live in a better country. They have the luxury of fretting over things like the deficit, the one-percenters, the congressional deadlock, the fairness of the nation's health insurance system, and whether, if they spend a lot of time at the gym and get a tattoo, they stand any chance of hooking up with twenty-six-year-olds.
They're still Baby Boomers. The freshmen may be different in many ways from the Baby Boom's upper classmen, but there's no mistaking them for members of any of the younger and duller (if hotter) generations.
The tip-off is the blather, the jabber, the prattle, the natter, the gab, gas, yak, yap, baloney, blarney, bunkum, the jaw-slinging, tongue-wagging, gum-beating chin music that is the Baby Boom's gift to the world. Stephen Colbert is a freshman. So is Ann Coulter. So are Jon Stewart, Sarah Palin, Conan O'Brien, and Larry the Cable Guy.
Among prominent freshmen Baby Boomers is President Barack Obama. There was a controversy when he was running for president that showed how much of a freshman Baby Boomer President Obama is and also illustrated what an extraordinary change the Baby Boom has made in the nature of American flapdoodle.
President and Mrs. Obama were members of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Trinity's pastor until early 2008 was the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Reverend Wright had married Mr. and Mrs. Obama and baptized their children. Reverend Wright is a man of strong views, forcefully delivered, and, shall we say, not always tactfully put.
In a sermon after 9/11 Reverend Wright said, "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye ... and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yard." In another sermon he said, "The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." And, most famously, he said, "God damn America."
Now, a senior Baby Boomer, especially in the senior Baby Boom's 1960s heyday, would have been standing on a pew, clenched fist raised in the air, shouting in response with fervid suggestions for righteous action probably involving property damage at the nearby University of Chicago. A sophomore Baby Boomer, assuming the sophomore was awake early enough for a church service and could find the church, would have been nodding in stoned agreement and hoping that Trinity United's activist social ministry included free lunch. A junior Baby Boomer would have been muttering to himself, "That might be pitching things a bit high and inside." But a freshman Baby Boomer ...
The controversy played out after various news organizations and political opponents took professional umbrage at Reverend Wright's sermons with anticlimatic results. Although Senator Obama sat in the congregation, there was no indication that he paid any attention whatsoever to Reverend Wright.
The freshman Baby Boomer was born into a sea of hooey and swims about comfortably therein unaware that other environments of discourse exist. For all we know, while the Reverend Jeremiah Wright fulminated and swore, the future president was fiddling with his BlackBerry blabbing to Rahm Emanuel. It is the Baby Boom way.
Once people spoke their minds. And what awful things we heard (cf. Rev. Wright — born 1941 — above). Baby Boom speech is not mindless but there's a cardiac bypass. We speak from the heart and that's not the half of it. We speak from the gut, from the spleen, from the liver's bile ducts, out our butts, through our hats; even our T-shirts cannot shut up with the things we have to say, never mind social media and talk-radio talk-show call-in callers. We talk until the cows come home, and who keeps cows anymore. We talk of cabbages and kings, as well we might, because who among us can tell the king of Saudi Arabia from a cabbage, burnoose aside. We found drugs — speed, cocaine, Starbucks — that were talk itself in pill, powder, and custom frappuccino form.
And yet one thing that cannot be said about the Baby Boom is "It's all talk." You can't say that about a generation whose powers of language are so fundamentally transformative that one of its members ran for president using the name "Barack" when everybody knows he's called Barry.
America in the two decades after World War II was full to the point of sloshing over with motive, means, and opportunity. There was a feeling that children born into this age of high purpose, wide prosperity, and handsome prospects could be or do anything. It wasn't a fact. But facts are faint things next to feelings. Facts are acknowledged, feelings are felt.
What makes the Baby Boom different from other generations is the way everybody was feeling we could be or do anything. What unifies the Baby Boom is the way we talked everybody into letting us get away with it.CHAPTER 2
A GOOD AND HAPPY PLACE
Personally speaking (and personally is the only way our generation does speak and personally is the only way a book about the Baby Boom could be written), I think the world we've changed should be measured against the world as it was when the Baby Boom was a baby. There was a life we got before we got life by the throat. And personally speaking — in an average kind of family in an average sort of neighborhood in an average part of America — this was a pleasant life, on average.
Among the earliest memories I can summon is one of pure awe, the kind produced by our first glimpse of the Rockies or of enormous surf or, to use a more apt comparison, of anything on the screen when we got our first television. And I do mean anything. Farm Report. Mass for Shut-ins. The Today Show with Dave Garroway, coanchored by a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs. (Not as attractive as Katie Couric but as incisive.)
However, we didn't get a television until the average — 50 percent by 1953 — American household did. So I'm standing at a living room window, chin on the sill, watching the big kids walk to school.
All children, at all times, have wanted to be adults, except the Baby Boom. We wanted to be older, greater children. There were plenty of them going by my house. Every neighborhood had lots of kids in those days, though "the baby boom" was hardly under way. Come to think of it, every neighborhood had lots of parents. There was a daily parade of generations to be viewed.
I was looking at the march of the Silent Generation. Not that they were silent coming down the sidewalks. They were, I noted with envy, making the glorious racket of free individuals out and about on their own. They seemed, as well as I was able to form such a thought, to be the very personification of riotous autonomy. They did invent rock and roll, after all. Some of them built loud hotrods. Some indulged in clamorous behavior that had the nation fretting about juvenile delinquency.
The Baby Boom would have an ultimately disappointing relationship with the Silent Generation. Sometimes the relationship started with older siblings, more often with the babysitter. My babysitter would play rock and roll on our phonograph, and a boy with a ducktail haircut would visit her when the grown-ups were safely gone. Bill Haley and His Comets didn't sound like much to a child's ears, thumpy and repetitive, but the music had a kind of disturbed urgency. Children like disturbance. I urgently hoped the babysitter and the boy with a ducktail haircut would do something disturbing, like let me look at the switchblade knife that boys with ducktail haircuts were said to carry or play doctor with each other. (Maybe that happened on the couch after I'd been put to bed, but the generation that was born too late for service in World War II was also born too early for much beyond a dry hump.) As far as I could tell, the most transgressive thing they did was make popcorn without permission.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Baby Boom"
Copyright © 2014 P. J. O'Rourke.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: We Are the World,
1 A Regular Old Baby Boomer Speaks,
2 A Good and Happy Place,
3 Life as We Imagined It,
4 In the Doldrums of Fun,
5 Mere Anarchy Is Loosed,
6 Ends and Means,
7 All That Glisters,
8 Agents of Influence,
9 The Prelude,
10 The Man Is Father to the Child,
11 The Great Disconnect,
12 Era of Good Feelings,
13 The Baby Boom's Garden of Eden — Thanks for the Snake,
14 There Shall No Sign Be Given Unto This Generation,
15 Dawn's Early Light,
16 Real Life,
17 Ripeness Is All,
18 Big Damn Messy Bundle of Joy,
P.J. O'Rourke skewers our self-indulgent generation with a walk through his own formative years. Several times he gives examples of how our generation votes itself a benefit with the bill being sent to future generations. But don't trust him. He's over thirty. Oh! So am I.
The book was okay but wasn't what I thought it would be like and was a little disappointed.