WASHINGTON — How did so flawed a man as Newt Gingrich get to the top of his party in the 1990s? For that matter, how did so flawed a man as Bill Clinton get to the top of our government in the 1990s? And — here I am giving you a hint to the answer for the above questions — how did so flawed a man as Dominique Strauss-Kahn get to the top of the International Monetary Fund and of French politics? All are about the same age. All have similar, shall we say, recreations. The answer is that they came from what is called the 1960s Generation. Now they are gone. There will be temporary reprises — more court appearances for DSK, an occasional public appearance for Bill, some more catastrophic missteps on the campaign trail for Newt — but for all intents and purposes they are history.
In Europe and in America the 1960s Generation was pretty much the same. It was composed of student hustlers who became national political hustlers. Some were rock prodigies who continued as rock prodigies, rather pathetically into middle age and, rather absurdly, beyond. They did not amount to a majority of their generation but they claimed to typify it, and their cheerleaders went along with the sham. They were called the most idealistic generation ever and the call was close. Other idealistic generations, for instance the generation that founded this country, fared better. Unfortunately, the 1960s Generation was flawed from the start and never overcame its flaws.
Let us hope that we have seen the last of them. The other morning in the New York Times David Hajdu, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University, marked Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday by noting how many voices from the 1960s had recently turned 70. John Lennon (RIP), Joan Baez, Paul Simon, and George Clinton, were mentioned. Next year, Hajdu reverently enthused, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Brian Wilson, and Lou Reed will achieve their 70th. How long can this go on? Will no one from a younger generation note the obvious, to wit, in the arts and in politics the 1960s Generation was a bust.
There are no Faulkners, no Hemingways, no Fitzgeralds. There are no Aaron Coplands or a Virgil Thompson. In drama there is David Mamet, but that is about it. In Europe there may be a little more life in the 1960s has-beens but not much.
Newt is an especially loathsome figure, at least in his last phase, the presidential campaigner. Congressman Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has taken on the biggest challenge facing America since World War II and the Cold War, our enormous entitlement and budget overhang. In a way it is a graver challenge than World War II and the Cold War, because cowardly politicians can duck it for a few more years. Then the bond markets and the credit raters will step in, and it will be too late for America. Our years of prosperity will be over. Possibly even our years of national security will be gone. Ryan has faced the threat manfully and he has the Republicans in Congress with him for now.
So in his first week on the campaign trail, Newt undercut Ryan, and in his remarks on Ryan’s plan to overhaul Medicare, the would-be Republican presidential nominee has given the Democrats a soundbite that they will play over and again: a corpulent Gingrich denouncing “right-wing extremism,” and holding forth against Chairman Ryan’s “right-wing social engineering.” Of course, it is not social engineering. Rather, Ryan wishes to control costs by his policy of “Premium Support,” a fixed-dollar subsidy allowing senior citizens to purchase private insurance options. The poor get adjustments on their premiums according to their need. The cost of healthcare will be controlled by market principles and consumer choice. Finally, the program will not go into effect for ten years so we will have plenty of time to fine-tune it. For people 55 years of age and older, nothing will change with their Medicare.
Paul Ryan is going to campaign for his 2012 budget one way or the other. President Barack Obama has made him the most popular Republican in the country. The boob Gingrich has seconded the notion. Ryan might as well go whole hog. Campaign for the 2012 budget and for the presidency. There are increasing numbers of conservatives and independents pulling for him.