Project Fortress: The Torch and Tapestry of Generations
Providence Magazine, July 2023
Here’s an oddity: Polls paint a grim picture for both of the prohibitive favorites in next year’s election: 70 percent of Americans don’t want President Joe Biden to seek reelection. And an identical 70 percent of Americans don’t want former President Donald Trump to run again. Perhaps related: 68 percent of Americans believe Biden is too old to serve a second term, and 57 percent say Trump is too old.
This is not just about the relentless effects of aging, or the desire among voters for something new, or Trump-Biden fatigue. (One or both of these men have been on a presidential ticket every year since 2008; Biden began running for president in 1988; Trump has been in the national spotlight since the early 1980s). This is also about national security and historical trends.
Biden deserves credit for his handling of the most pressing national-security challenge since his inauguration: Russia’s criminal war against Ukraine. Biden and his team have employed U.S. intelligence creatively, even preemptively; held NATO together and added to NATO’s ranks; bolstered NATO’s eastern flank; persuaded Japan, South Korea and Australia to pitch in; delivered weapons and aid to Ukraine; and whittled down one of America’s chief strategic threats—all without the loss of American personnel and all for a tiny fraction of the U.S. defense budget.
However, Biden has done precious little to help Americans understand how and why America’s security is connected to Ukraine’s sovereignty (which it absolutely is). Making that case requires consistent and sustained communication with the public—use of the bully pulpit, Oval Office addresses, public outreach. That’s an essential part of the commander-in-chief’s job. It pays to recall that President Franklin Roosevelt’s first fireside chat related to the war in Europe was in September 1939. Each of his next four were about the war, even though the U.S. was not at war. More recently, President George W. Bush regularly discussed the progress and setbacks of the war on terror with the American people.
Biden hasn’t attempted a public-information campaign to sustain support for the effort in Ukraine. One is left with the sense that he may not have the energy or endurance to carry that heavy rhetorical burden. With Xi Jinping taking aim at Taiwan, Ali Khamenei plowing toward the nuclear club, Kim Jong-Un firing off threats and missiles, al Qaeda and ISIS reconstituting in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and Vladimir Putin wounded and cornered, voters recognize that the coming years will require much more from the commander-in-chief.
Biden’s recent tumble at the Air Force Academy will only reinforce concerns about his age. That may be unfair. Presidents, after all, are human. They trip and fall, collapse and faint. The important thing, as scripture reminds us, is having the will to get back up after the fall. Still, there’s a danger, especially for presidents, when a moment of human frailty—a fall, a flash of anger or arrogance or pettiness, a once-hidden weakness—comes to symbolize something more. Precisely because presidents are human like the rest of us, we know that they age like the rest of us—perhaps even more rapidly than the rest of us—and we know that the effects of aging make it harder to do what we once did.
If Biden lacks the energy but has the convictions to confront the axis of autocrats, it seems the converse holds for Trump.
Trump devoted much-needed resources to strengthening the military, and he laid the groundwork for a bipartisan bulwark against Xi’s China. However, Trump routinely conveyed an unsettling deference to, even affinity for, authoritarian leaders (and continues to do so); negotiated the terrible Afghanistan pullout deal that was terribly executed by his successor; undermined NATO by word and deed; and in his final days as president, sledgehammered America’s constitutional order and tarnished America’s international standing.
Trump conducted an oxymoronic 60-day post-election campaign, whipped up a firestorm against institutions charged with confirming election results, pressured a state election official to “find 11,780 votes,” and hosted a rally that many in attendance viewed as a trigger for what transpired on January 6, 2021.
That shameful day gave the enemies of America a vast arsenal of fresh ammunition to use in the battle for hearts and minds now being waged between the Free World and a growing authoritarian bloc.
Xi’s foreign ministry suggested “the beacon has fallen”—a backhand at America’s title of “beacon of democracy.” A PRC state media outlet pointed to the “political coup…in the American continent” as proof that “bubbles of ‘democracy and freedom’ have burst.” Another PRC media outlet mockingly asked if January 6 was the beginning of a “Washington Spring”—a reference to the movement that shook the communist bloc in 1968 (“Prague Spring”) and similar events in the Middle East/North Africa in 2011 (“Arab Spring”).
A Russian lawmaker yelped that “American democracy is limping…America no longer charts the course and so has lost all right to set it.”
A government-backed paper in Egypt—a frontline state in the tug-of-war between liberal democracy and business-suit autocracy—saw in the January 6 siege “the sacrifice of American democracy, the death of its liberty, and the plummeting of the values it has ceaselessly tried to export around the world.”
“The United States has fallen to the level of Latin American countries,” a Brazilian newspaper jabbed, drawing a stinging comparison between America and a banana republic.
“After something like this,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine sighed, “it would be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy.”
One gets the sense that many Americans have a similar concern—a worry that an America led by the man who sparked January 6 quite simply cannot lead the Free World.
Another important factor contributing to the public’s reaction to a Biden-Trump rematch is history. It’s about time for a new generation to take the mantle of leadership—literally.
A clear pattern emerges over the past 125 years: Each generation leads for about 30 years and is allotted about five presidents before the next generation takes over.
For example, between 1897 and 1925, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding served as president. They were born between 1843 and 1865.
Between 1925 and 1961, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower—born between 1872 and 1890—served in the White House.
Between 1961 and 1993, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush served as president. They were born between 1908 and 1924. Kennedy made a point of emphasizing this, declaring: “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans born in this century.” (The World War II generation has two “extra” presidents due to an assassination and a resignation.)
Finally, the three decades between 1993 and today enfold Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. All but one of these men were born between 1946 and 1964—the Baby Boomer years. Biden, born in late 1942, is technically not part of the Baby Boomer Generation, but he’s just barely outside that giant generation and is far too young to be included in the World War II Generation. (Biden will likely be the only president from the Silent Generation, a tiny cohort of 19 million Americans born between 1928 and 1945.) Even so, the pattern generally holds: about five presidents spanning about 30 years.
In short, voters sense that now is the time to pass the torch.
There are many leaders ready and waiting—on both sides of the aisle—from the post-postwar generation commonly labeled “Generation X”: Chris Sununu, Cory Booker, Gavin Newsom, Andy Beshear, Hakeem Jeffries, Gretchen Whitmer, Kristi Noem, Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Todd Young. This generational passing of the torch has already occurred in other nations: Zelensky in Ukraine, Sunak in Britain, Macron in France, Trudeau in Canada, Duda in Poland, Kallas in Estonia and Simonyte in Lithuania are members of Generation X. (Born in 1964, Vice President Kamala Harris is a Baby Boomer.)
Generation X may be uniquely suited to lead at this moment in history because this moment in history looks and feels strikingly similar to the time into which Generation X was born. The men and women of Generation X grew up and came of age during the Cold War, which means they have some Cold War “muscle memory.” They remember the tensions and trials of that “long twilight struggle.” They remember a world of concrete walls and armed blocs and hair-trigger threats and tyrants on the march—a world like today. And yet, they entered adulthood as the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Soviet Empire imploded and the Cold War ended—with the Free World triumphant—which means they remember a world of open markets, open networks and open horizons, “a world transformed.” Generation X knows firsthand those heady days when freedom and the Free World were ascendant. With steady and strong leadership, those days can return.
This may be taken as ageist or ungrateful. It is neither. It is simply expressing a fact of life—and more accurately, the different roles we are called to play in different phases of life. As scripture reminds us, there is a time for every season under heaven: a time to prepare, a time to lead, a time to pass the torch.
The wisdom that comes with age is a resource that’s in desperately short supply. The silver-haired among us are storehouses of this precious resource. And as the torch is passed, there are ways to share this resource and serve this country outside the Oval Office. Hoover served decades after his presidency—which ended in 1933—deep into the 1950s. He was still weighing in on political issues in his 80s. Both Truman—who lived to his 88th year—and Eisenhower counseled presidents long after leaving office. Even in the final months of his life, Nixon was advising Clinton via detailed memos and in one-on-one meetings. Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, is still providing counsel at 100. All of them served their country in important ways after leaving office. And one gets the sense that all of them recognized it was time for another generation to shoulder the immense burden of leading the Free World.
There are 206 references to “generation” in the Bible. Indeed, two of the ways the Lord reveals Himself to us is through the language of generations—“Our Father” and “Son of Man.” One message to take from this is that generations are connected, linked and dependent on each other.
In a sense, generations are like a great tapestry comprised of individual threads of yarn—with different features and characteristics, to be sure—but interwoven at those seams where one generation gives way to another. As Kennedy put it, in the very same breath that he referenced his generation, “We are the heirs of that first revolution.”
That we once represented TR’s generation, then FDR’s, then Kennedy’s, then Biden’s and Trump’s, now mine, and soon enough yet another generation “born in this century.”