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Are Baby-Boom Governors More Prone to Scandal?

Blagojevich, Spitzer, Sanford, McGreevey and Rowland all had one thing in common.


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Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing.

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Commented October 6, 2009

"seemed to me too simplistic to explain anything important ", "well, a lot of us did, anyway", "at l...

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The Generation Game is not something I've ever had much faith in. That's the exercise that defines people first and foremost by when they were born. You know how this works: The Greatest Generation believed in self-sacrifice and stormed Omaha Beach; the Silent Generation slumbered through the 1950s without even bothering to have opinions on most subjects; the baby boomers staged a cultural revolution in the 1960s that they still use to bore their grandchildren with old stories. The Generation Game makes for pretty good dinner-table talk, but it always has seemed to me too simplistic to explain anything important about American society.

Then again, as a charter member of the baby-boom cohort, I've never quite been able to dismiss the idea, either. Boomers were cosseted and pampered as children; that's mostly true. We kicked against authority and convention as teenagers; well, a lot of us did, anyway. We've lived adult lives of self-indulgence, and claimed comfort as a right; at least, enough of us have to give the stereotype the ring of truth. And now we're getting ready to claim old-age benefits that threaten to bankrupt our children; that's a matter of economic reality.

I've never considered myself a creature of entitlement, but I have to admit to a little guilt over belonging to a generation that stands perpetually accused of pursuing an endless string of fads, fantasies and excesses. We have made rather a mess of quite a few things.

Brooding over all this one recent afternoon, I found myself thinking about all the politicians who have embarrassed themselves these past few years, and in particular the five governors who been humiliated by their own seeming sense of invulnerability: Eliot Spitzer in New York, James McGreevey in New Jersey, Mark Sanford in South Carolina, John Rowland in Connecticut and Rod Blagojevich in Illinois. The first three were all done in by sexual indiscretions; Blagojevich and Rowland brought themselves down through simple financial greed. That's five governors in five years--one-tenth of all the governors in the country. It's depressing just to think about it. But it's hard not to think about it these days if you have strong feelings about the importance of honesty and decency in American public life.

For some reason, I looked up a little biographical data and noticed something interesting: These five disgraced governors are very nearly the same age. Blagojevich is 53, Rowland and McGreevey are 52, Spitzer is 50, and Sanford is 49. They all were born at or near the fertility peak of the baby-boom years.

My colleague Chris Swope insists that this is a coincidence, that the country is always going to have an oversupply of fiftyish governors, and the cluster of miscreants in this case is nothing more than a statistical fluke. But I can't help thinking about it in terms of the standard baby-boomer indictment: that we somehow believe we may take whatever we desire. Or, as an even more famous baby boomer said when asked why he took the risk of a dalliance with Monica Lewinsky: "I did it because I could."

Not that I want to charge every politician born in the baby-boom years with being guilty of hedonism and self-indulgence. For one thing, the population cohort is impossibly huge--roughly 65 million people at the moment, comprising individuals who are as old as 64 and others who are as young as 45. No broad-brush judgment can capture all of them. Florida's Charlie Crist was born in 1956, the same year as Rod Blagojevich, and has been a popular and effective Republican governor. Janet Napolitano was born in 1957, the same year as McGreevey, and governed so successfully as a Democrat in the reddest of red states that President Obama made her the U.S. Homeland Security secretary. So while it might be fair to say that we baby boomers have a tendency toward indiscretion and recklessness, we don't all have it, and it would be the height of folly to look at someone's birthdate and decide to vote against them.

But what about the age 50 thing? Eliot Spitzer was about to turn 50 when he began cavorting with prostitutes. Mark Sanford was coming up on his 50th birthday when he started flying down to Buenos Aires to see his Argentinian mistress. For that matter, Bill Clinton was in his 50th year when Monica Lewinsky flashed her thong underwear at him and he grabbed at the opportunity. What if it's not a question of generation but a matter of age: a special sort of mid-life crisis that hits top elected officials somewhere around age 50? Back in the 1980s, there was much talk of a mid-life crisis that affects ordinary men around the time they turn 40, leading them to do odd and sometimes self-destructive things. Maybe male politicians, blessed (or cursed) with larger portions of youthful energy and self-esteem, are disproportionately likely to run into the same problem a decade later.

That's another interesting hypothesis. But I won't push it too far, in part because I've long argued that other things being equal (as they never are), 50 is about the right age for someone to assume the mantle of leadership in a state, city or country. Politicians under 40 tend to come into office with overly ambitious promises of change and sweeping legislative agendas whose difficulty of enactment they don't seem to appreciate. Those coming into power after age 60 usually have a well-developed sense of what cannot be done, but often lack the energy and interest in new ideas to push effectively for what really is possible. Somewhere around the age of 50, politicians are more likely to possess the right combination of youthful enthusiasm and seasoned restraint. But that's not much of an argument if 50 also happens to be the age when they are drawn to self-destructive romances and hotel-room hookups with much younger women.

The current epidemic of immoral behavior notwithstanding, I'm inclined to stick with my view of the optimal age for state governors, even though I have no way to prove it. But it is only fair to note the presence of some dramatic outliers. Harold Stassen was the youngest governor elected in any state in the past century, winning the office in Minnesota in 1938, when he was only 31. And yet he was so capable that he was considered seriously as a presidential candidate in 1944, when he was barely old enough for the job. Those who remember the quixotic and often embarrassing presidential campaigns of Stassen's old age will be surprised to learn he started out as a charismatic and widely admired "boy wonder" on the political scene.

Deane Davis was 68 years old, a retired judge and insurance company president, when he took over in Vermont in 1968.Derided during his campaign as too old for the job, he showed all the signs of someone who planned to be a genial caretaker. He turned out to be a remarkable activist. Minutes after taking office, he vowed to enact a sales tax to pay for the expansion of state services and to keep the treasury solvent. Then he pushed for a land-use planning law to control what he saw as runaway development, and for a tough law against water pollution. He got them all, and has been seen ever since as one of the most effective and far-sighted governors in state history.

So there we are. Whatever I may or may not know about the appropriate age for an incoming governor, I'm pretty sure that it's not 31, and it's not 68. But it's a mistake to not realize that there are some people who possess wisdom beyond their years, and others who possess the energy of those a full generation younger. In politics, there are no hard and fast rules.

It seems to me the most reasonable conclusion is that age and generational position do make a difference in politics--they are not irrelevant to performance and deserve a place in the debate. But they are not the most important factors in determining whether a given leader succeeds, fails or humiliates himself. In the end, one must return to questions of character and individual temperament. Politicians, no matter when they were born or how old they are, receive celebrity treatment that allows them to draw the conclusion that normal rules don't apply to them, that they may behave as they wish without running much risk of getting caught. Fortunately for us, most of them don't succumb to the temptation. Sadly, a disproportionate number of them have been succumbing to it lately. We can only hope that the current cycle of self-destruction will end before it makes confirmed cynics out of even the most public-spirited American voters.


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