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Boomers may be defined by a farce

At 9 a.m. the war museum is already swarming with tourists drawn here, away from the sun and surf, to the place once known as Wai Momi, "Water of Pearl."

The mood this morning is far more subdued than the patterns on Aloha shirts. Across the sparkling bay, a gleaming white memorial stands over the corpse of the USS Arizona, a watery coffin for the young sailors trapped there on their last languid Sunday morning 57 years ago, on the day World War II began.

The oil from this ship, we are told, still oozes to the surface like old memories.

It is an odd time to be in Hawaii _ far too green for this New Englander's image of Christmas. An ocean and a continent away, the first president of the baby boom generation has just been dishonored. Here we honor the World War II generation.

In Washington, Dec. 19, 1998, Impeachment Day, goes down in history as a moment that divided our country. Here, Dec. 7, 1941, is remembered as a day that united our elders.

It is not just Pearl Harbor that frames my generational lens this morning. Lately, the World War II generation has enjoyed _ if that is the right verb _ a comeback of sorts in bookstores, cineplexes, living room dialogues.

Last summer, Saving Private Ryan, with its cast of baby boomer actors playing their parents at D-Day, was a grim and runaway hit. It opened eyes and conversations among grandparents, parents and children.

This week, Tom Brokaw's homage to his father's cohort tops the best-seller list with its declaration that they were The Greatest Generation. Respectfully, Brokaw explains, "I realized that they had been all around me as I was growing up and that I had failed to appreciate what they had been through and what they had accomplished."

The boomer generation especially, 79-million strong, has belatedly turned its attention to its elders. Perhaps that sense of history comes with age. The boomers are turning 50 at the rate of one every seven seconds. We are old enough now to be the parents of boys who went off to World War II, old enough now to realize how young they were.

But it is also, inevitably, the sorry disappointment in this boomer president that casts a generational shadow, the sour disappointment in this Congress that leaves us dismayed.

Our parents in Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous phrase "had a rendezvous with destiny." But we arrive at middle age full of self-doubt and dissension.

Six years ago, the 46-year-old Bill Clinton defeated the 68-year-old World War II veteran George Bush. It was the most striking generational change since the 43-year-old John F. Kennedy replaced the 70-year-old Dwight Eisenhower. It had taken a long time for the Youth Generation to take charge.

Everything that united the World War II Americans seemed to divide their postwar children. Parents were united by their "good war." Children were divided by the war over the Vietnam War. They shared respect for authority. We disagreed about whether to take power or challenge it. Boomers argued about sex, drugs, even rock 'n' roll.

In 1992 and again in 1996, when Clinton ran against the last World War II warrior, Bob Dole, it seemed as if this man who had lived on all the fault lines of the baby boomer conflicts could make peace. Indeed, he seemed to be searching for a center that would hold.

But now, the great divide over the great impeachment has split open old cultural war wounds. Adultery, invasion of privacy, lying, hypocrisy, right and left, right and wrong. Our parents fought against a foreign enemy; we are hit by sniper attacks of an uncivil civil war.

I am not nostalgic for my parents' war, nor do I share the benign hyperbole that baptizes them "the greatest generation that any society had produced."

Only those who know the end of that "good war" could be envious of its beginnings. Our parents had flaws, and so did their leaders. We have been spared the "rendezvous with destiny" that destined so many of them to die young.

But what strikes me this morning as I look over the "water of pearls" is how serious, how important their struggle was. By comparison, the impeachment conflict that threatens to define our wasteful generation is frivolous, foolhardy. A matter of sex and lies.

In the end, this is the lingering generation gap. What happened here to our elders was high drama. What is happening in Washington on our watch is the lowest sort of farce.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

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