The Torch Is Passed To A New Generation

WASHINGTON - Sometimes, seeing really is believing. For many, it was the sight of the vanquished George Bush greeting the victorious Bill Clinton in the White House driveway Wednesday afternoon that brought home the magnitude of the change the voters had ordered three weeks ago. It is not just a change of presidents or of parties. It is a change of generations, and it spans the whole national government, not the White House alone.

Had he lived, instead of being assassinated 29 years ago today, John F. Kennedy at 75 years old might well have had some wise and witty words to help Bush and others of his generation understand and accept the situation.

When Kennedy took over from Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was 26 years younger than the president he replaced. Clinton is 22 years Bush's junior and will be the third-youngest president in the nation's history, but in terms of life experiences, the gap between Clinton and Bush is even bigger than that between the presidents involved in the 1960 transition.

Eisenhower and Kennedy both wore the country's uniform during World War II, and so did every president who followed them, down to and including Bush. Every one of them had shared the emotional bond that was forged among all Americans during the years when the United States was tested in battle against the forces of Nazism, fascism and Japanese imperialism. They all had seen the emergence of the Cold War as the military threat of expansive Soviet communism forced the United States and the West to step up to a new and deadly challenge. And they all played their parts in what Kennedy called the "long, twilight struggle" that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Now come Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, both in their mid-40s and both part of the baby boom generation. They and their peers were forged in the struggles over Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the battles over women's rights, abortion and gays - and the dawning recognition that America's economic preeminence is not a permanent legacy but something that must be earned anew in every generation.

Clearly, the government they lead will be - must be - different in its outlook and instincts from that of the previous generation. And that is all the more true because they have lots of company among those who will take up their new duties in Washington in January.

Ponder one fact, among many that leap out from Congressional Quarterly's survey of newly elected House and Senate members: Half the 121 freshman legislators who make up the largest entering class since 1948 are under 45, and younger than Clinton.

The average age of all senators and representatives is now below 53. That means the typical legislator was entering first grade the month after Japan surrendered and was coming out of college just after the Berlin Wall went up.

Looking at the freshman legislators, you can see that Clinton is, in many respects, a logical person to be their class president. They are highly educated. Almost two-thirds of them, like Clinton, hold advanced degrees. They are, like Clinton, without prior military service. Fewer than one in five of the freshmen has gone through that experience - a striking difference from the re-elected members of Congress, almost half of whom are veterans.

Even though they are, like Clinton, just beginning their Washington careers, they are, like him, thoroughly grounded in politics. More than seven out of ten of the House freshmen and nine of the 11 new senators have held previous elective office. They are more experienced, as a group, than the re-elected incumbents in Congress were when they first came to Washington.

A great many of them, like Clinton, are lawyers and Baptists. And, while Congressional Quarterly does not attempt to document it, my hunch is that most of them, too, are partners in marriages with a working spouse who has an active involvement in the way in which the elected official does his or her job.

They look to be a talented crew. Among them are the former mayors of five small, medium and large cities, and the former governors of Delaware and New Hampshire. There are dozens of veterans of the state legislatures, many of whom occupied leadership positions on committees dealing with the same budgetary, health, education, tax, crime and transportation issues on which they hope to work in Congress. Astonishingly, there are five in the freshman class who have degrees from the same small, elite Yale Law School that Bill and Hillary Clinton attended.

For better or worse, the baby boomers' generation is taking over. It will be different. David S. Broder's column appears Sunday and Wednesday on editorial pages of The Times.