Most people's views of the world are shaped by the times in which they came of age. That's why we speak of a baby boom generation or a Generation X. But some people miss out on the formative experiences of most of their peers. That's the case, I think, with the Republicans' certain nominee and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. John McCain missed the 1960s. Barack Obama missed the 1980s.
That's obvious in McCain's case. He was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam between 1967 and 1973 -- the years of the march on the Pentagon, urban riots, campus rebellions and Woodstock.
He made the point himself last October when he attacked Hillary Clinton's proposal to earmark $1 million for a Woodstock museum. "I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time."
And it's part of a larger point. Much of our politics over the past two decades has seemed to be a cultural civil war between the two halves of the baby boom generation, between the cultural liberalism of Bill Clinton and the cultural conservatism of George W. Bush. The resulting polarization has embittered our politics, as the odd couple of Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel argue in their new book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America."
To most voters, McCain seems to stand above or at least aside from that culture war. His lack of fervor about issues like abortion may bother some cultural conservatives, but it is comforting to those with more ambivalent views. If elected, McCain would be the only president from the "silent generation," born between the World War II veterans who served as president from 1961 to 1993 and the two boomers who have served since then. His age and generational identity may turn out to be a political asset.
Obama, born at the tail end of the baby boom generation in 1961, didn't miss the '80s in the same sense that McCain missed the '60s. But in a decade in which Americans decided that government didn't work very well and that markets did, Obama chose to make his way outside the suddenly booming private sector.
As a community organizer in Chicago and a student at Harvard Law School, he inhabited a part of the nation where it did not seem like, in the words of the 1984 Reagan ad, "Morning in America." From then until now, he has continued to believe in big government programs -- "investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children," as he put it in his speech on race last month. And to insist on addressing the grievances he says are behind his pastor Jeremiah Wright's controversial statements.