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Twentysomething Charlatans

Third Millennium Tries to Snatch a Generation's Voice

By D. RICHARD De silva

Who says twentysomethings have no political voice? Now baby busters have a gaggle of youth-oriented, political group to choose from. One of them, Third Millennium, bills itself as a "post-partisan group for twentysomethings," and presumes to speak for a generation of 80 million people between the ages of 16 and 31.

On Tuesday, it will launch a generational counteroffensive against the American association for Retired People's "Generations United" conference in Washington, D.C Formed at RFK's Hickory Hill farm in Virginia last spring, Third Millennium has laid claim to the future of Americans politics. "if I were a politician and I were not concerned about this organization and the generation, I would do so at my peril," warns the group's spokesperson Deroy Murdock. Third Millennium has effectively snatched the voice of the generation. The creation of 20 former Students for Reagan, writers, publicists, and the son of a Kennedy, the group has built a media machine from a pithy agenda and the support of two foundations.

What its missing, however, is a base of popular support and a set of issues to match the concerns of the generation. None of the group's leaders have track records in public service. None them even has the blessing of a substantial grass-roots group on which to build a mandate. So if the generation is actually mobilizing for change, Third Millennium doesn't seem to represent it.

Nevertheless, the national media has already recognized Third Millennium and other pretenders to the generational mantle with magazine covers and reams of newsprint. The group's glitzy kick-off press conference last July marked a "new generation's arrival," gushed the Dallas Morning News. A new Kennedy (RFK's son, Douglas, who is one of the group's co-founders) was ready to lead a new progressive era, reported a New York tabloid. Third Millennium's founders have even been compared to the leaders of students for a Democratic Society, which participated in the Social revolution of the 1960s. and Newsweek sent me to New York to report on this band of young visionaries.

Savvy young American who have been marketed to since they could say "Atari" may not be as easy to convince. "Young people want something that's packaged in a way that they can understand and is compelling, but when they rip open the package they want something real," says Rob Nelson, 29, the T-shirt and acid-washed jeans poster boy of Lead or Leave, another upstart youth group.

So far, the Third Millennium package hasn't sold well. After a summer of hot press only 1,000 people inquired about membership to Third Millennium, half of whom joined. In the six months since, another 600 have joined. According to the estimates of the group's executive director, Richard Thau, that comes out to only one new member for every story about the group that's run since July.

Press coverage and clever soundbites only take an organization so far, according to youth leaders from large grass-roots groups like the Urban League, Campus Greenvote and the NAACP. And groups like the United States Associations (USAA), which has 350 member campuses, 3.5 million members and registered 200,000 young voters in 1992, may lack the media savvy of Third Millennium, but they can still make legislators sit up and listen. "Third Millennium can't get 30,00 students to write in to their Congressmen like we can," says USSA president Tchiyuka Cornelius.

Third Millennium's agenda doesn't even coincide with the concerns of the young people it purports to represent. The group, which was the brainchild of neoconservative pop historian Bill Strauss, jumped on a Perot-style, deficit-hawkish platform pledging to combat "fiscal child abuse" but failed to articulate exactly where cuts other than social security and Medicare should be made. it tossed aside what the group's leaders call "fringe" issues like abortion and health care even though they affect most young people.

Third Millennium picked safe stances: cut the deficit, reduce crime and clean up the environment. Its few social policy recommendations betray neoconservative leanings in assailing affirmative action, calling for 200,000 more police to clean up inner cities and more regulations to protect the environment.

Even there, the group seems to have struck out. Young people are comfortable with affirmative action, according to a poll conducted last year by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research; they believe education and not more police are the answer to crime; and though they are deeply concerned about the environment, most don't believe more government regulations are in order.

The neoconservative bent of Third Millennium was evident from its inception. In fact Third Millennium's ranks are packed with friends of co-founder Bob Lukefahr from the Madison Center in Washington D.C., which funds over 100 neoconservative college publications nationwide, and Jon Karl from Freedom House in New York, the pro-democracy, human-rights watchdog which gave the group seed money. "The reason people who were invited were invited was largely an accident of rolodexes," says Lukefahr the invitation list of original founders at Hickory Hill. "Everybody can't be included. We tried to include as many bleeders as possible." Half of the liberal who were invited declined. "They just wanted us to give them some legitimacy," explains Jonathan S. Cohn '91, a former Crimson president and writer for the American Prospect. And two prominent liberals who signed the Third Millennium declaration, Rob Nelson and Jon Cowan of Lead or Leave, later repudiated any affiliation with the group.

Sidestepping a bread-and-butter youth agenda, Third Millennium is focused on hot- button media issues. "the whole group is feeding off the boomer media and telling them exactly what they want to hear ," says Who Cares? magazine associate editor Heather McLeod '89, who refused an invitation to co-found the group. A clear message makes for a better soundbite. And with a carefully tailored agenda, Third Millennium went to where the spotlight was.

Established groups like the USSA struggle for publicity because their wide-ranging agenda includes substantive, but relatively obscure issues which are difficult to market. "How are you going to frame Pell grant entitlements in a sexy package?" asks Cornelius And the danger in such a media-intensive political arena for young politicos is that the message becomes the end and not the means of pursuing and agenda. "[S]ometimes they forget that media coverage is only a means of furthering their goals," says Kristin Grimm, a PR consultant at Fenton Communications who works with youth groups.

Self-promotion may not be the only force at work Some young leaders accuse neoconservative, pop historian Strauss of using Third Millennium to publicize his polemical twentysomething book 13thgen. The group's kick-off press conference was originally planned for early March to coincide with the opening for 13thgen but drafting the Third Millennium declaration took longer than expected. "I see Third Millennium as a big publicity stunt for his book." says McLeod.

It's not just that the founders of Third Millennium know how to use the media for their ends. They are the media. a tight-knit, well-connected bunch, they hail from publications like The Wall Street Journal and the now-defunct Spy magazine. Seven of the first 20 members were Lukefahr's fellow editors at the twentysomething journal Diversity and Division.And co-founder Douglas Kennedy, a former MTV reporter, has been a lightning rod for attention because he is RFK's son.

Whether Third Millennium can enjoy the same popularity among the general popularity among the general population as it has in the national media remains to be seen. The group is attracting members, but seems to be duplicating homogeneity rather than tapping into the generation's multifaceted diversity.

One of its youngest members, J.D. LaRock '95-'93, 19, read about the organization in New York News day. He called and joined up. LaRock, a former speechwriter and neoconservative wunderkind, who graduated from Harvard in two years, is from New York and says he fits right into the Third Millennium circle. "I hope we won't be a one-shot deal, have a sight," he said. If that happens, then this group of publicists and journalists will have to go back to being, well, publicists and journalists.

D. Richard de Silva '94 former Associate Managing Editor of The Crimson, was an intern with Newsweek last summer.

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