10. Howdy Doody
I can hear you… “What? Are you nuts? How can you put a puppet on a list of the greatest influences on our nation’s largest, and presently most influential, generation?”
Well, ignoring the fact that Howdy Doody was not a” puppet” (he was a marionette), having Howdy Doody on the list makes perfect sense. The baby boomers are what sociologists call “a cohort group” — i.e., a group of people who share, and are bound together by, a common set of experiences during a defined period.
What was the first shared experience that the boomers – the cohort group born between 1946 and 1964 – uniquely had in common? Watching TV. And what was their earliest shared favorite television program? Howdy Doody. I rest my case.
9. Dr. Benjamin Spock
The Benjamin Spock on our list, not to be confused with the pointy-eared fellow with a similar name, also encouraged people – parents in particular – to go where no one had gone before: to the psychology textbook when making parenting decisions. And just in case they did not have the time to do so themselves, he synthesized the psychological teachings he had studied (and seen practiced while caring for people with schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis) into basic guidelines for parents, the baby boomers’ parents.
High on his “to-do” list for parents were such things as not being troubled when a child acted strangely, feeding the child whenever they demanded it, and accepting that parenting principally means mothering – providing endless love, not old-fashioned fatherly discipline.
Dr. Spock’s famed book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which eventually sold over fifty million copies, came out in 1946. Gee, what a coincidence. Who else deserves equal credit for starting off baby boomers so they’d become all that they are?
8. Maynard G. Krebs
Yes, we’re back to TV. And yes, TV was that important in molding the character of the baby boom generation.
Think of all the ways Maynard G. Krebs’s character, as seen on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, is reflected by the generation who grew up thinking he was “cool.” And thinking, we might add, like no generation before them, that being “cool” was important.
Maynard was the fun-loving, work-shirking, always expecting-things-to-work-out-fine hipster buddy of the show’s love-hungry, wealth-seeking, central character, Dobie Gillis.
Says Wikipedia: “Dobie Gillis is significant as the first American network television program to feature teenagers as its lead characters, rather than as supporting characters.” And in so doing, it became the model for the baby boomers’ ultimate dream: having adolescents run the world (starting, of course, with the baby boomers themselves).
7. Margaret Sanger
No, it matters not that the majority of baby boomers may be unfamiliar with the name Margaret Sanger. After all, most Americans (two-thirds in fact) can’t name a single Supreme Court justice. What does matter is that Margaret Sanger, more than any other person, made the baby boomers’ favorite revolution – the sexual revolution – possible.
Her thoughts and words – outside of the mainstream to the point of being viewed as scandalous during most of her lifetime — are today echoed almost everywhere. She spoke of women’s “reproductive rights” and fought for the right of every woman to have complete control of her own body – especially the right to control conception. Indeed it was Margaret Sanger, as much as any chemist, who gave the baby boomer generation (and generations since) “The Pill.”
Would the baby boomer generation be the baby boomer generation without her? Not a chance.
Timothy Leary was one serious dude. From 1955 to 1958, Leary was director of psychiatric research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. He then went on to become a lecturer in clinical psychology at Harvard University. Along the way, though, he developed a, shall we say, “serious interest” in the effects of psychedelic drugs on the human mind. For this, the totally uncool Harvard University board of directors fired him. Poor Timothy!
Not a man to become easily discouraged, Leary took his ideas directly to the baby boomers. “Turn on. Tune in. Drop out,” he told them. And many did just that.
The political establishment at the time, however, was as uncool as the administration at Harvard. A particularly uncool President Nixon declared Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” But baby boomers knew better and so they, in large numbers, followed Leary on his trips to nowhere.
What else can we do but join those boomers in a loud declaration of “Oh, wow!”?
5. “Che” Guevara
When we put “Che” Guevara on our list of those who most influenced the baby boomer generation we put quotation marks around the name “Che,” it being a nickname. But in truth we could put quotation marks around his entire name, thusly: “Che Guevara.” Because what influenced the baby boomers so greatly was not the actual activities of the man, but his created image.
“Che Guevara” was a man of the people. He rode a motorcycle. He brought medicine and schooling to the disenfranchised. “Che” Guevara — the real man — did these things too, but he also led numerous mass killings, jailed people who disagreed with him, and reportedly took great pleasure in doing both.
Still, you have to admire those “Che” T-shirts. And, as most boomers will tell you, his long hair and beard made him very, very cool.
4. John Lennon
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one / I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one”
Those words, as well as any, characterize the baby boomers’ fondest hopes and aspirations. But just as John Lennon found them difficult to live up to, so did and do the boomers.
“Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.”
Again, nice words, whether sincerely sung at Lennon’s 72 acre Surrey Estate with its splendid gardens and manmade lake, or in any of the five apartments he and his second wife, Yoko Ono, kept at one time in New York City’s fabulously exclusive Dakota apartment building.
And so the boomers, having learned from a true master, were able to change from hippies to yuppies without the blink of an eye or, for that matter, seemingly any awareness that they had changed at all.
3. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is a genuinely unique musical talent. He has no great voice in the classical sense, but an amazing ability to put meaning into the words he sings — his own words — and possessing a chameleon-like ability to change styles – from folk, to rock, to deeply religious, and then back again – without ever losing a sense of self.
This is a gift also seen in the boomers, who have been forced to change, as all people must, but without, in some sense, changing at all. No, instead they demand — and get — the world around them to change to whatever they, for the moment, have become.
It is easy to criticize – even to mock – the spoken aspirations of the baby boomers as hypocritical and so often seemingly self-serving. But given the right leadership they have also shown themselves willing and able to do great things. And that they did, when such leadership was found in the person of Martin Luther King, Jr.
When King’s birthday was made into a federal holiday, some, mostly older, Americans argued that it was inappropriate – that doing so was merely a “token” being given to placate angry African-Americans. But baby boomers for the most part disagreed. And the changes King brought to America, which they greatly supported and continue to support – that of equality under law for all citizens — remains, perhaps, the greatest achievement of the baby boom generation.
1. John F. Kennedy
JFK was not a baby boomer; he was a member of the World War II generation. But his presidency, in some real senses, foreshadowed what the boomer cohort most yearned for (and has, some would say, most tragically lost): a practical, united idealism.
America has never been as united as it was during his short time as the nation’s leader. Yes, there were differences – in some cases large differences — in the goals of various segments of American society. But underlying those goals was this common thread: belief in America’s greatness, belief in America’s founding principles, belief that with America’s active leadership all humankind could, and would, reach a better place.
No, JFK’s America was not the idyllic “Camelot” that many imagine or pretend it to have been. But it was the closest any baby boomer had seen to such a thing, and thus it became the model for all their future political aspirations.
For this reason JFK, more than any other person, is responsible for making the baby boomer generation who and what they have become.