Echoes of the famous cry, "Don't trust anyone over 30," rebuke the boomers who took it as words to live by. Not only are many of them closing in on 60, they may soon be asked to put their trust in a president over 70.
When John McCain's tongue slipped the other day to say that Iranians are training al-Qaida insurgents when he meant they were training "extremists," few doubted his mastery of the details of terrorism, but his critics suggested the slip was a sign of aging. The video clip played continuously for days, watched by many who hadn't caught the mistake in the first place. How would his age play against an "inexperienced" Barack Obama or an "experienced" Hillary Clinton? Others asked whether remembering things that never happened was better than forgetting a detail of something that did.
John McCain's biography -- written in the fire of war when the boomers were playing with matches in the safety of an indulgent culture -- is grounded in the virtues of an earlier era when patriotism was not an empty word. He was a child during World War II, when good and evil were everywhere understood; he grew up during the Cold War when it was clear that those who did not share the values of the West could kill us all. His courage and character were formed in a family of military men, and when he graduated from the Naval Academy he went to war without flinching.
Biography, like culture, is not destiny, but it makes a difference. Can we believe the insistence of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that pulling pell-mell out of Iraq reflects a deep understanding of the chaos and consequences of what they would leave behind? John McCain separated himself from the Democratic candidates in a speech last week emphasizing the importance of paying the wages of war today to avoid paying higher wages tomorrow. "Any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House," he said, "for he or she does not take seriously enough the first and most basic duty a president has -- to protect the lives of the American people."
One of his strengths is his reputation as a straight shooter; for most of his critics, that reputation trumps another reputation as an unpredictable maverick. Like all pols, he occasionally plays politics; and like all successful pols, he occasionally plays politics well. His scrappiness seems to emanate from authenticity. Having matured in a wizened way, he occasionally seems an exile from a time before euphemism became the politically correct substitute for plain speech. He has a bit of Harry Truman's bluntness at a time when liberals are changing their label to "progressives" and reevaluating their naivete.