Gore Vidal many decades before he grew old said in a television interview that the old grow angry when they accept that their youth is indeed lost, never to return. That was rich coming from Gore, who was angry most of his life, living as he did long before more tolerant times changed public sentiment towards his sexual orientation. Gore had a reason to be angry, but by all reports he was not the prototypical angry white male when he lived out his last years with more grace than Clint Eastwood and Jack Welch are displaying in their last decades. Now the times are giving us angry white men like Paul Ryan. His business suit last night during the vice presidential debate seemed a tight fit, perhaps made so by its efforts to contain youthful, muscular ire.
Eastwood, of course, is now remembered for his vulgar empty-chair routine at the Republican National Convention in Tampa that embarrassed himself and Ann Romney and her kids on national television. The Romneys all showed up excitedly to see the bonanza of a Hollywood star endorse Mitt for president. What they got instead were the rantings of an old, angry man taking license with the here and now. Only a couple months later, Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, also took fictitious liberty with reality, accusing the Bureau of Labor Statistics of cooking the numbers so that the employment rate fell just in time to benefit President Obama’s campaign for re-election.
It is not fun growing old, as Paul Ryan once he gets past his Enron stage will learn. And some men and women accept aging more ably than others. Eastwood’s and Welch’s distortion of reality is embedded in anger, and the rest of us need to understand them for what they are. The nation also needs to make sure that the influence of the elderly who are angry and the young who are angry before their time do not distort the country’s electoral and political processes, lest we all be doomed. Angry people are not visionary by definition. They are reactionary.
Welch’s recent comments – from which he does not back down – are especially hurtful to the country. Eastwood is Hollywood, so his eccentricity can be dismissed as an act of an aging spirit. But Welch’s reputation stemming from his success at GE still resonates with many in the business world. And so for him to subvert an integral part of how business leaders go about assessing the national economy and to inject doubt into an accurate reading of the economy’s standing is either willfully cynical or sadly reactionary, typical of an old man no longer young.
The Eastwood-Welch-Ryan syndrome in an aging nation with longer life spans is not a consideration to be dismissed easily. Theodore Roosevelt – who as a vigorous, youthful progressive Republican President busted the trusts (his age’s version of the SuperPacs) – helped convert America into a world power. In his old age, however, an angry TR became a raging racist.
It is easy to make fun of an eccentric Eastwood and mock Welch for his subversive sneers. But imagine hordes of people like them led by the Ryans of the new world and becoming a larger segment of American society and the electorate. For a younger HispanicLatino population, the Eastwoods, Welches and Ryans pose an actuarial threat that has to be considered in the political formulation of the future.
We shall all die in our own due time. Were we to all die gracefully when our time comes would be a blessing indeed. Something tells me that the tolerance that came too late for Gore Vidal that would have assuaged his anger even as a youth is at risk for the rest of the country.
Another author reflecting on his own times, Oscar Wilde, said youth is wasted on the young. It is replaced by unhinged anger in some men who should know better.
That’s the greater waste.
Jesse Treviño is formerly editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman.