I have recently learned that I am not a member of Generation X. That fact makes me more than a little sad, because claiming to being a part of such a nihilistic and rebellious generation was my badge of honor. Being a member of Generation X made me feel distinct from the Baby Boomers or Millennials. Generation X is an independent-minded, broody, generation wedged between two very loud and always present ones. Gen X is MTV and Superfriends. They are non-stop fandoms! They invented modern disaffection, modern sarcasm, and modern irony. Alas, I am told I don't belong.
According to Sarah Stankorb and Jed Oelbaum, I am a Xennial, born into the sandwich generation of 1977-1983. We are children of the end of the Cold war. We are the tail effects of the 1960's social revolution and the front end of the 90's technological revolution. We were the first children raised on computers and games like Oregon Trail, and the first to come of age as teenagers after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I guess it kind of makes sense. Generation X can claim Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and I only begin to have full memories of Reagan with the explosion of the Challenger when I was in the 3rd grade. The Millennials can claim coming up in life under Bill Clinton and W Bush, but I remember the 1980s. Therefore, as a newly baptized Xennial, I declare George H.W. Bush as OUR official President!
We spend a lot of time here at the 1988 project showcasing how 1988 was a bridge year between America's Cold War past and its 21st century future. I think then, that it is more than fitting for us to claim the President who served four years as a bridge between Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan and "Bridge to the 21st Century" Bill Clinton. He was the very symbol of our xennialism. (I am going to beat this term into the ground...so much like a Xennial). He stood in the gap for his one term as the Warsaw Pact collapsed. He helped us leap into the age of the internet and the reorganization of a post Cold War World. I also feel that same sense of being in the late 80s early 90s gap; too young to have been able to see Breakfast Club in theaters, too old to brag about my urban farm and locally sourced yarn loom. Much will be said about Bush 41, both the positive and the negative, but I think the reality is that he held the right temperament for the 4 years of transition that were ahead of us.
I say this with no disrespect to Governor Michael Dukakis who opposed him in 1988, as I have come to grow very fond of him through our years of chats. I think America was simply not ready for the ideas that Governor Dukakis was supporting at that moment in time. America had just spent 40 years in a race to prevent , what citizens were told, our elimination. That race led to a moon landing, Vietnam, atomic testing, the Rosenbergs, McCarthy, and every other mentioned character in We Didn't Start the Fire. Dukakis was pushing a social agenda that America was more agreeable to with future Presidents. We probably didn't realize it at the time, but we seemingly needed a pause from the constant adrenaline of the Cold War for a minute. George H.W. Bush may have served as that break.
He is the first President I can remember running for President. I remember a little of the 1984 campaign between Reagan and Mondale. The memory I do have is mostly this faded story I tell students about how Mondale promised America's school children milk and cookie breaks if we convinced our parents to vote for him. I don't even know if that was an actual thing, but it is my one real or imagined thread of being 7 in the 1984 campaign. (Note to readers...was the milk and cookie thing real?) I remember the whole 1988 campaign. I remember, not just because of my research work here at the 1988 project, or that I have a book specifically about the 1988 campaign, or the conversations my students and I have had with Governor Dukakis. I remember because I took those 1980s cold war movies to heart. I was a child who was deadly afraid of a Soviet invasion. I hid in my room just from the TV promos for Amerika. I was afraid of the future, growing up in a town which had an Air Force base that commanded nuclear missiles. I also remember because I was a huge fan of Family Ties, and the '88 election was all over that show. This was also the first year I began sneaking down to the basement TV to watch SNL, in order to talk about it in Sunday School the next day with my friends who were also sneaking. My mind was tuned in to Jon Lovitz playing Governor Dukakis and Dana Carvey playing "Thousand Points of Light" Bush. I remember 1988project friend, Matthew Modine as Lloyd Bentsen and the brilliant late Jan Hooks moderating the debates with Tom Hanks. I have memories of the tank ad and the Willie Horton ad.
My own relationship with President Bush is hot and cold. I don't remember everything about his Presidency except for what I now teach and research. I can't speak to my adolescent self knowing about the Iran-Contra pardons. I'm sure I was aware of the Clarence Thomas hearings, but it doesn't register as a memory. I will leave it to the pundits to debate his role in those situations, but I am here to write from the memories that still last for me of the man back then.
In 1988 Wyoming, he was the man the community around me wanted to win, so I'm sure I was a supporter, being eleven years old and all. He visited Wyoming once or twice, as Dick Cheney was one of us, and it was always big news. In my memories, his Presidency was a mostly calming and non exciting force, filled with ideas and actions designed to make very few ripples in the pond of the world. The non events make it easier to remember the events that were more emotional. The night we began bombing Iraq, I was in 8th grade and auditioning with my friends for our local Kiwanis Talent Show, Stars of Tomorrow. Being the paranoid young man I was, I had been following the CNN build up to the invasion religiously, fearful that the world was about to end. I even have in my possession a letter I wrote to a future population explaining why we saw fit to get ourselves into a war that ended most of humanity. The night the CNN screen lit up with green tracer fire, I ran from my house to Carey Jr High as fast as I could. It was a good half mile run from my house, but I wanted to tell everyone that was standing around on stage that the war had begun. I probably was imagining a real Sound of Music moment where we would have to flee the auditorium in our costumes in order to make it to Canada. I remember being so mad at President Bush. However, I also remember the relief that came with a quick victory, celebrating with the troops, and singing the chorus to "Stand Tall, Stand Proud", or at least rapping the Will Smith verse. Look it up on YouTube kids.
I remember being anxious about the handling of the Exxon Valdez and the LA Race Riots, and laughing about his vomiting on the Japanese leader. Most of my laughter probably centered around Dana Carvey and his SNL openers. The tax increase skit still kills me, as does the one where he puts on the night-vision goggles to catch Saddam. At the same time I remember how confident I felt about my survival when the Soviet Union collapsed and President Bush did not allow us to gloat. It was very much a Rocky IV type moment, with a defeated Drago being bolstered by our Italian, or Maine, Stallion George H.W. Bush. He set to work helping the Russians find their future without acting like the conquering hero. It would define my own path as I worked in service to a Russian orphanage in college. There were successes and failures. We were up when the Berlin Wall fell, we were down when Tiananmen Square protest failed, and through it all sat a quiet non-phased President Bush.
On a personal note, my friends and I met him in 1990, when we traveled to Washington DC to sing in honor of the Wyoming centennial. We attended a performance of Starlight Express at the Kennedy Center, and him and Barbara were sitting in the balcony below us. During intermission we took a chance and leaned over to speak with him. He asked us where we were from, and we told him. He laughed and commented on the great fishing in our state,told us to enjoy our time in DC and that was that. He had a wide and comforting smile.
When 1992 came around, I think the nation was ready for that next step, and President Bush represented the past. Governor Clinton swept the nation into a cult of personality frenzy. He campaigned on many of the same platforms from the Dukakis election, the same one that introduced him to America as a speaker at the '88 Democratic Convention. He came to Wyoming, which almost never happens with any Democratic presidential candidate, as our 3 votes are usually pretty solid in the Republican camp. I feel like the day I went to his rally with my friend, I was a Bush supporter. When I pretended to be a foreign exchange student to get up front and shake his hand, I think I was still a Bush supporter, despite his charm and the gentle way he laughed when told him how I made it up there to meet him. I was a Bush supporter, but I referred to Clinton, as "Mr President", because the writing was on the wall I guess. I do remember being mad at President Bush and thinking about supporting Ross Perot, as did many people. That anger translated into a split vote in the Republican party and a victory for Clinton.
I know there are many who will point out Mr. Bush's shortcomings or his possible covert programs. However, I will remember him today for what he meant to younger me. Our gap generation was not old enough to vote, but we could see that our gap President had served the role he needed to serve. He had guided us through a massive cultural and political shift. He had held our hands as we became teenagers in a world that would be littered with fallout from unfixed Cold War business, a rising threat of terror, and the promise of instant communication and information. I could criticize and demean the man for his failed tax promise or civil rights reforms, but this week as he is laid to rest...that "wouldn't be prudent". Today, we thank you sir for your public servant's heart.