By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—It seems that the presidential primary season has outlived its welcome, rather like winter in northern New England, where the snowdrifts have delayed our annual appointment with crocuses. But there are times when even frozen ground can be surprisingly fertile.
So in the middle of the wrangling between Barack and Hillary, the heated conversation about race and gender, there is a subtler dialogue about generations.
I first tuned in when Obama explained, though he did not excuse, Jeremiah Wright’s remarks, describing him as a man of a certain, segregated, age. “For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away,” he said, “nor has the anger and bitterness of those years.” Again, on television’s “The View,” Obama described Wright as “a brilliant man caught in a time warp.”
This fits into Obama’s generational narrative, the story he tells of America, the possibility that he has embodied of a post-racial era. It fits his own life as a multiracial child who went to elite schools, embraced community organizing and found amazing opportunity. Yet he also sounded like a younger man describing a Depression-era grandparent who still saves rubber bands around the kitchen doorknob. Caught in a time warp.
This is not the only generation gap in this political season. You can find another in the demographics of women supporting Hillary or Barack. In many homes and around many tables, a comfortable sisterhood has split into mothers versus daughters, feminists versus post-feminists.
Many women who came of age when Hillary Clinton delivered her Wellesley commencement speech often see her trajectory, her successes and obstacles as similar to their own. Sexism, slurs and struggles wore grooves down their memory lanes. While lightened by success, many are also attuned to slights and signs of a stalled movement. They wince when a Facebook group titled “Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich” racks up more than 43,000 “friends.”
Their daughters ,on the other hand, who grew up with greater choices and fewer hurdles, are more willing to say goodbye to all that. Those who support Obama often tell each other—and their mothers—that they are free to choose the person, not the gender. Having a lower boiling point or a lower consciousness, they say a woman in the White House is fine, but not this woman. She’s old politics caught in a time warp.
This mother-daughter divide is by no means universal, but you can see it in the argument over whether Hillary should quit the race. Many younger women describe Clinton as the woman hanging on when she should give up gracefully. But many older women hear the demand to withdraw and narrow their eyes in memory of the men who leapfrogged past them to the corner office. If she is Rocky, it’s the older Balboa.
It’s not an unusual divide. Every generation regards its own personal history as the “experience” that taught important lessons about the world. What once happened could happen again.
My 88-year-old aunt has a collection of plastic containers that will outlast all of us, but she saves them for another rainy day. Survivors of war, those who grew up poor, new immigrants—they all have “experiences” that frame their world and sometimes freeze it.
Younger people are less tied to the past until they have their own. So the older generation may be convinced of the younger generation’s naiveté. The younger may complain of their elders’ time warp.
Last week, when Texas A&M’s women’s basketball team made the final 16, a graduate remembered how a fetal pig was thrown in her dorm window back in the 1970s. Today the president of that formerly all-male military school is a woman. It would be a waste to hold onto grievances from a piggish era. It would be a shame to pretend that every school has a level playing field.
Obama often quotes William Faulkner, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” It’s not always easy to know when you are anchored by the past and when you’re trapped by it.
This campaign is ripe for such discussions. On the one hand, an African-American and a woman are contending for the presidential nomination. Chalk one up for a new era. On the other hand, the Internet is rife with offers for Hillary nutcrackers and rumors that color Barack un-American. Chalk one up for the same old, same old.
The real test is not the age of Obama’s pastor or Clinton’s supporters. It’s about the age we are living in.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group