His humor is as timeless as Mark Twain’s and as topical as tonight’s 11 o’clock news. The crowd, many of them still processing word of the impending retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, heard Russell support the election of Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson: “I’m rooting for that African cardinal. Too bad he has enemies spreading rumors that he was born in Hawaii.”
A former Marine himself, Russell expressed no objection to the decision to allow gays to serve openly in the Corps. The only real change he has seen: Now each morning, the Marine bugler, instead of sounding reveille, “plays show tunes.”
The current House of Representatives is chronically incapable of reaching an accommodation. Even though a large majority on Capitol Hill supported making Cinco de Mayo, the annual celebration of Mexican heritage, a holiday, they “couldn’t agree on a date.”
But there is authentic wisdom in this humor. Speaking self-deprecatingly of his own generation, those born between 1925 and 1945, Russell observed: Sandwiched between the deservedly heralded “Greatest Generation” (1900-1924) and the over-ballyhooed baby-boomer generation (1946-1964), “we did not have a title. We had no label. ... We wore T-shirts. But we were so dull we did not have enough imagination to put any message” on our plain, white T-shirts.
Actually, Russell’s (and my) age cohort did have a name. Time magazine called us the Silent Generation, and it stuck. Unlike the Greatest Generation, we did not fight and win World War II. We were too young. But unlike the boomers, we were children of the Depression and the war and we learned — some would say, were brainwashed — to submerge our own wants and needs to the common good. Korea was our generation’s war, but half of us were too young for it.
Still, the “Silents” were mercifully free of self-esteem and, luckily, not addicted to self-expression. We were taught and — yes, mostly silently — accepted self-sacrifice. Three out of four of our era’s males wore the country’s uniform in military service. Remember that in 1955 the U.S. military, then numbering nearly 3 million, was more than twice as large as it is today. This was at a time when the entire national draft pool barely totaled 7 million.
We were not terribly introspective because, I would submit, nobody told us how damn “interesting” we were, and precious few of us came to that conclusion independently.
We were not, I concede, remotely as sensitive as the generation that followed ours. Many, if not most, of us actually bought our elders’ argument that what matters in the final analysis is what you give rather than what you get. America would have to wait, because we were not up to it, for a liberated and enlightened generation who could elevate non-judgmentalism and uninhibited tolerance to high cosmic values.
Unlike the boomers — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — and the Greatest Generation — John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — the Silent Generation failed to produce a U.S. president. But we did produce Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood.
This, of course, turns out as always to be the price you pay for spending a couple of hours with the relentlessly provocative Mark Russell: Whether you want to or not, he makes you laugh, and he makes you think.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.