Forty years ago this June, I graduated from high school in the class of 1976. We were the official bicentennial class. Our yearbook ends with a letter from President Gerald Ford that says, “As you leave high school in the bicentennial year, you should also be conscious of the heritage of courage, faith, vision and vitality bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers.”
Teenagers are at their very best making fun of corny stuff like this and we did. There was nothing cool about being in the bicentennial class and nothing meaningful. Certainly, that was my public posture as a deeply committed smart ass.
Secretly, I did think being in the class of ’76 had a certain distinction. I was what would now be called a “political junkie,” though mostly in private. From elementary school on, I followed politics in the same dorky way I followed sports. I poured over statistics, election results, bios and newspaper stories. I devoured “The Almanac of American Politics,” which was first published in 1972. I made lists of my predictions in Senate and gubernatorial elections and had favorite politicians.
I doubt any of my classmates shared my interest, but all of my friends had a deep and emotional awareness of politics and news. It was impossible not to then. I don’t have a sense if high school kids are much different today.
Many kids in the class of ’76 had siblings or relatives who either went to Vietnam or got out of it somehow, the more common path in our prosperous community. Lots of them dabbled in protests; some were seriously involved. “Generation gap” arguments wrecked a lot of dinners when we were growing up. That was certainly true at our house.
It was the events of 1968, when I was 9, that made politics and news parts of the world to which I would always pay close attention.
I lived in a suburb of Chicago and read the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune every morning. We watched “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” every single night. Besides Time and Newsweek, those were about the only news sources around.
The Vietnam War loomed over everything but I read and watched everything I could about the race riots, the civil rights movement and the election. I was scared, mad but mostly saddened by the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Really sad. I watched every minute of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I despised the racist presidential candidate, George Wallace. These are vivid memories.
Years later, after I had covered Congress and politics for many years, I always thought of 1968 when people talked about how polarized politics and the country had become. It seemed to me that riots in the streets and mass protests were the stuff of real, deep polarization. The conflicts were over the most vital issues - war and peace, nuclear weapons, segregation and basic civil right for minorities and women. Though serious, the allegedly polarizing issues of today are smaller than in 1968. But the political arguments in the media and among politicians are more obnoxious and vicious. Perhaps it is the politicians and partisans who are badly polarized, not the proverbial silent majority.
By 1976, it was Watergate that shaped how my cronies and I saw the world. If you think people mistrust politicians now, invoke the spirits of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew for perspective.
There was, however, great idealism and optimism in our reactions to Watergate and Vietnam. Dork that I was, I had a new set of favorite politicians, the good guys of Watergate: Barbara Jordan, Sam Ervin and Howard Baker.
I volunteered for the Democrat running for the House in my district and worked on campaigns in college. The more engaged of us tended to gravitate to specific issues more than campaign politics, particularly environmentalism and feminism.
The presidential election in that bicentennial year - the first we could vote in - was uninspiring to my class, as I recall. I thought it was a disaster. Gerald Ford was not an option. I pulled for Jerry Brown from California, but he didn’t get in the race until it was too late.
Jimmy Carter was beyond my realm of comprehension then. I had never heard the phrase “born again” until Carter came around. I thought he was probably a religious kook and that it was offensive to bring so much God talk into a presidential election. The class of ’76 deserved better.
The class of 2016 deserves better, too.
And that may be our fault, the class of ’76 and our baby boom cohort. When it comes to public service, civic life and government, we’ve not been the Greatest Generation our parents were. We’re more like the Me Generation, just as we were tagged decades ago.
We did a decent job expanding and protecting civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. We helped elect the first black president, who will likely go down as the finest leader of our generation.
We also created the largest inequalities of wealth and income in American history. We have not restored the trust in government lost in the 1970s. And now one of our own, Donald Trump, is dragging politics to new lows.
The very first votes the class of 2016 casts could end up being their most important. I do hope they can find their own idealism amidst this depressing presidential election. And I hope millennials can hold on to their high hopes more firmly than we bicentennials have.
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC.