In the movies, the best leading men have always been able to portray younger characters - John Wayne played iconic gunslingers into his 50s, Cary Grant was the suave romantic lead into his early 60s, and Harrison Ford will reprise Indiana Jones this spring at a spry 65. Actors like Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Nicolas Cage can easily take on parts playing men a decade or more junior to their biological ages.
The more I watch the extraordinary cultural phenomenon that is Barack Obama, the more I realize that the Senator from Illinois - the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination - is a political actor skillfully portraying a much younger character, and to rave reviews at that.
Obama will turn 47 years old before the delegates to the Democratic convention are seated in August. Yet he is leading what has been described as a generational movement of younger voters, the so-called millennials who were born in the 80s and came of age in the years after September 11, 2001. He is cast by the media as being part of that movement, a much younger voice in American politics than that of Hillary Clinton - who like a lot of leading female actors, must play her biological age pretty much straight up.
But Obama is either a Baby Boomer, according to some generational studies, or he's a Generation Xer, according to others. It's a generational tagging quandary I know pretty well, being less than a year younger than Obama. Culturally, we're either late Boomers without the groovy 1960s experience, or early Gen Xers without the 80s hair gel. Our group came of age in the 70s - we're all Watergate and punk rock, Son of Sam and Bronx is Burning, CBGB and Carter's national malaise. Reagan picked off the conservatives among us, but left the liberals with permanent case of cynicism as as we began our careers. Culturally, we were just kids when the Beatles were in their prime, but we were too old to get much out of The Breakfast Club and that 80s brat pack ilk.
Music makes us late Boomers, I think. We wore out the grooves on the Stones and the Who, and slid easily into the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Patti Smith - and all the variations on R&B, reggae, soul, and funk; we took the sound of the 50s and 60s and changed it. Not a one of us grew up on the hip hop beat. So when Obama's campaign events mash up Stevie Wonder's Sir Duke and John Fogarty's Centerfield, the Doobie Brothers' Takin' It To The Streets and Shining Star by Earth, Wind & Fire, it's a familiar late-Boomer soundtrack. The artists are a bit older than we are, but damn, we grew up on these tunes.
Likewise, the big names in Obama's campaign are just a bit older than he is - media mastermind David Axelrod is 53, as is Oprah Winfrey. Insider Valerie Jarrett is 51. Caroline Kennedy - who the media went wild for passing the "generational torch" to Senator Obama - is 50. The senior kitchen cabinet of experienced hands is much older still: Tom Daschle is 60 (same as Hillary), Illinois power broker Emil Jones is 72, and Teddy Kennedy is 75. The closest advisor of all, the dynamic Michelle Obama, is another member of the shoulder generation at 44 - either a last-minute Boomer or an early Gen-Xer. To my admittedly cursory view, there are no inner circle Obama advisors under the age of 40.
Yet, Obama's is the MySpace and Facebook campaign, easily leading support among the group of voters from 18 to 30, a more idealistic group of young voters than the one that preceded it. Obama is leading the incredibly successfully (but still maddeningly vague, in my view) campaign for "change," with a rallying cry of "yes, we can!" It all feels like a movement, feels like something bigger than a mere campaign, feels like a youth movement in American politics. And it should - because that's how it was drawn up on the storyboards. The incredibly successful strategy was designed to both attract young voters, and convince the supposedly jaded media - many of them Boomers themselves, pining for the lost movement of their youth - that something big was changing.
And at the center is an aging star playing a much younger man.
Barack Obama is often compared to John F. Kennedy, the youngest elected president, who presided over the passing of the torch to "a new generation of Americans." But there's a massive disconnect in this comparison. Kennedy was actually part of the generation he was seeking to lead, a young World War II veteran seeking to remake the national polity to serve the energies of his generational peers. Indeed, his Republican opponent in 1960, Richard Nixon, was also a member of that generation. When JFK spoke about service to his country from a generation of young Americans, he was speaking as a proud member of that generation.
In contrast, Obama has a good two decades on the very generation he has become an icon for. In movie star terms, he's Sean Connery leading the squad of younger G-men in The Untouchables.
Senator Obama himself often uses religious imagery to deal with the generational dynamic at work in his campaign. Last March, when civil rights leaders converged in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the famous march of the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965, Obama discussed two very different generations in his well-received remarks. One was the "Moses generation," that group of leaders who brought their people out of slavery but didn't quite make it to the promised land. That task fell to the "Joshua generation," a biblical reference to the son of Moses and a metaphor for Obama's own campaign and its surge of young voters and activists. The ceremony in Selma marked the accomplishments of great African-Americans, yes. But in the hands of the Obama campaign, it also served as Obama's explicit claim on the millennials as his own, his marker of authenticity.
In truth, Obama is younger than the Democrats he ran against - Clinton (60), Dodd (63), Richardson (60), Biden (65), and Edwards (54) - but he's a junior member of their generation nonetheless, a tail-end Charlie who was still using a sippy-cup when they were lighting up. And he's a true generational contrast to Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain, 71, who would be the oldest president ever elected. But it would be a stretch even to call him a Gen-Xer - Obama was a community organizer in his new hometown of Chicago in 1986 when Pretty in Pink hit the big screen, and was undoubtedly as interested in the social angst of our younger Gen-X friends as I was as a young reporter in the Bronx.
"The key to Obama's appeal to young voters," wrote Cora Currier in The Nation recently, "may be that he resembles them." And indeed, as a biracial candidate who talks often about non-partisan government solutions while making it a point to distance himself from Boomer attitudes towards government, he does. But in his growing coalition of big labor, African-American leadership, and upscale progressives, Obama also hearkens back to traditional Democratic strongholds - and his legislative record is clearly that of a Democrat from the post-industrial urban north.
In an essay for Newsweek, self-described millennial independent Andrew Romano wrote that "millions of my peers have fallen under the spell of the freshman senator from Illinois." And indeed, it's true. In every primary or caucus thus, more than 50 percent of voters under 30 have gonna for Obama. But Romano gets to the heart of it when he says that "it's not so much the strength of Obama's youth support that's significant—it's how fully and seamlessly he embodies the attitudes, aspirations and shortcomings of the generation that's rallied around him."
Indeed, it's the portrayal of millennial attitude - the "post-everything" ideal described in a New York Times essay by Yale junior Nicholas Handler - that suceeds mightly for the Obama campaign, combined as it is with an adept use of social networks, text messaging, and other new media tools. And it's a portrayal that is landing him the political equivalent of an Academy Award. Just listen to how the young Andrew Romano describes the contrast in candidates: "On one side is Clinton, the consummate baby boomer. On the other is Obama—not a late boomer, as his birth date would suggest, but the first millennial to run for president. For better and for worse."
To my ear, there are echoes in this of Toni Morrison's famous anointing of Bill Clinton as the first black president in a New Yorker essay a decade ago. Barack Obama may be coming up fast on 50 and feeling every day of it, but young voters think of him as a millennial; in other words, he is not really what he is - he is what we want him to be.
In their new book Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & the Future of American Politics, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais make the case for a rapidly-changing electorate in this country - one that favors the Democrats and more progressive public policy. According to Winograd and Hais, there are now twice as many millennials as Gen-Xers and a million more millennials alive than Baby Boomers. And I think the Obama campaign keyed in on this change at the outset, and branded their candidate - a good-looking middle-aged legislator from Illinois - as an exciting, young millennial voice.
Early last year, Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod told The Times Magazine: “If we run a conventional campaign and look like a conventional candidacy, we lose.” In the same article, Democratic media consultant Saul Shorr sums up the Axelrod plan for Obama: “What David is basically doing — and this is somewhat new for Democrats — isn’t trying to figure out how to sell policies. It’s a matter of personality. How do we sell leadership?”
It's this personality branding that works so well in short-form media, like movies, television and yes, quickie Facebook profiles and viral YouTube videos. It may well turn off real-life late Boomers like me (I'm supporting Clinton, and her brass-knuckled focus on realpolitik policy after the Bush disaster) but it's a brilliant strategy for creating at least the media-fueled illusion of a wide-ranging movement of young people. I'm writing a book called CauseWired that will examine, in part, how millennials take their new form of activism online - and how leadership and personal brands may well change how we look at social activism and politics. I agree that the strategy to "sell leadership," as Axelrod put it, is tailor-made for online marketing as well as mass rallies in basketball arenas.
One of the defining moments of this campaign thus far was the release of an online video by Jesse Dylan (Bob's son) and will.i.am (aka, William James Adams of the Black Eye Peas) that synced Obama's "Yes, we can" oratory with sung vocals by a bevy of celebrity singers, many of them millennials themselves. The four-minute video has already been watched more than four million times on YouTube. It's an incredibly effective piece of media, fitting like the missing puzzle piece to an already successful branding strategy around Barack Obama. And it stars a leading man playing a much younger part.
Barack Obama may be the same age as retired athletes like Mark Messier, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, and Dan Marino. He may have been born in the same year as middle-aged actors Eddie Murphy, Michael J. Fox, and James Gandolfini. He may share the years with well-traveled pop stars like The Edge, Melissa Etheridge, and Boy George.
But he plays a much younger candidate on television.