Talking ’bout my Generation X: Paul Ryan can’t be old enough to run for vice president. Can he?

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

There have been plenty of vice-presidents under 45. Theodore Roosevelt was only 42 when he ascended to the vice-presidency. Al Gore was 44. John C. Breckinridge, the vice president under James Buchanan and the youngest ever, was a mere lad of 36 when he was elected to the second highest office in the land.

These men, in my memory—or in their portraits, anyway—don’t lack dignity and authority. You’d want these middle-aged troupers in the oval foxhole with you, had you been Presidents William McKinley, Bill Clinton or James Buchanan. Voters, too, were content to have them a heartbeat away from the top job. And when McKinley’s heart was stopped by a bullet, Roosevelt, still 42, stepped in and handily outdid him as a leader.

So why is there something disturbing to me in the relative youth of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s 42-year-old running mate? Maybe it’s his birth year that strikes an upsetting chord: 1970. A Generation X birthday. Nixon, the Soviet Union, Alvin Toffler’s blockbuster bestseller “Future Shock.”

Did Ryan’s parents in Janesville, Wis., have that ubiquitous cornflower-blue paperback on their shelf, as my parents did? With its declarations that there had been too much breakneck change in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, and we Americans all had a dangerous case of spiritual whiplash?

And that’s how it hit me. It’s not that Paul Ryan is too young for anything. It’s just that he’s younger than I am. By almost six months.

The time is nigh: I’ll soon be older than our leaders. This shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. At 43 I already look up to and take orders from my chronological juniors. My boss is younger than I am, and the company’s CEO is younger by six years. What’s more, a window in my own life has gently closed without my even noticing. Having spent zero time in politics, I’m not showing any signs of miraculously becoming president, vice president or anyone’s running mate.

If the two-party battle for the presidency is generally framed as a contest of change versus experience, the age of the candidates relative to that of voters is significant. The median age of voters in the general elections in 2008 was 44, right in the sweet spot for Barack Obama’s references to Harry Potter and Bob Dylan. But I’ll speak for myself. In the past, when I heard candidates like Bob Dole run on “experience,” I knew “experience” invariably meant World War II and the scary ideal of valor and sacrifice that was best used to beat up Gen Xers like me. We were always being told to study history, or at least watch “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and respect what Boomers had rejected (eventually we rejected Boomer rejectionism and just stopped caring).

In “change,” like the kind Bill Clinton promised when I was in my 20s, I heard freedom from that history. The lazy student in me rejoiced. I wouldn’t have to study warfare or the markets or the office of the presidency. The world was all new. Hip-hop had rewritten the rules of music. Arsenio Hall had stormed late-night. We’d just start fresh.

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But what did Paul Ryan, growing up in the same years I did, hear in “experience” and “change”? He must have been as impatient with hippies as I was, but he also declined the invitation to worship the Greatest Generation, settling instead for an ideology that drew in many young men in my cohort—and, more broadly, in my generation. This Ryan found embodied in Jack Kemp, for whom he wrote speeches; Ryan has described himself as Kemp’s disciple.

Ah, Jack Kemp. Learning that Ryan was a Kemp person is the political equivalent of finding out that someone your age was really into Oasis or Guns N’ Roses; it says a lot about him.

It’s hard to overstate the allure of Kemp to a certain kind Generation X young man who found in him—and in Alan Greenspan and Newt Gingrich and especially Ronald Reagan—a father figure worthy of emulation. Kemp, true to type, read Ayn Rand and Friedrich von Hayek—muscular, individualistic stuff that made the federal government seem like nothing but kryptonite to the superhero in all of us. Kemp was, in the phrase of the time, “supply-side.” He wasn’t asking for more Social Security. What young person wants to see himself as anything other than on the side of bounty and limitless resources?

Born in 1935, Kemp was the age of my generation’s dads. He sat on the board of The Dartmouth Review, the conservative college paper that helped establish a template for making fun of liberals and underscoring a brand of libertarianism, coupled with moral seriousness, that seemed swashbuckling and manly by contrast with race-class-gender pontificating. As a reader of The Dartmouth Review at a vulnerable time, I remember thinking that Kemp “got it”—some drama involving soaring human possibility and the dreary forces that inhibit it, that my own Democratic parents, busy protesting nuclear power, did not.

I would have been all for Kemp, in fact. Had I not been hit by experience. Where as a young woman I loved the fantasy of doing everything on my own and shaking off everything that seemed to hold me back—I’m sure I described welfare as a morale-crippling handout at some point, and thought investment bankers were American heroes—now the idea of a handout or a little security or at least some health insurance sounds pretty good.

And Paul Ryan, when he talks about setting the rich free and razing social programs, strikes me as an upstart who has never suffered. He seems like a Generation X type—Alex P. Keaton all grown up, a smart aleck who hasn’t taken the measure of the financial crisis, who’s never been underwater on a house, who’s never had his heart broken.

 What a whippersnapper. He’s way too young to be vice president.