One last mission for the World War II generation. With that theme, Bob Dole launched his bid for the presidency last week in New Hampshire. The gambit, which at once invokes his war record while defusing the age issue, has been widely noted as politically brilliant. What has been less widely noted is how deeply ironic it is.

Generational politics - appealing not to the classic identities of race, class, geography, ethnicity or even ideology, but to birth cohorts - was in recent times a project of Pat Caddell, once Jimmy Carter's pollster.In the early '80s, he sold Sen. Gary Hart and then Joe Biden on the idea that the key to winning the White House was winning the baby boomers. They had a distinct experience - the '60s, rock music, Vietnam protest, Kennedy nostalgia, "idealism" - and were coming of age politically, argued Caddell. The candidate who could appeal to them, identify with them, could ride them into the White House.

Hart tried the generational theme in 1984, Biden in 1988. Both failed. Dukakis did not dare try it, being not quite the right age and hard to pass off as a '60s hipster. It took Bill Clinton - anti-war demonstrator, sax-player, one-time dabbler in dope - to become the first authentic boomer candidate.

Accordingly, Clinton ran the first successful generational campaign since John Kennedy. He turned his relative youth from a liability into a promise of creativity, openness and vigor. His campaign of "change" identified Bush and his Cold War generation as an anachronism: Their battles won, these old warriors were adrift, clueless in a new world.

Which brings us to irony No. 1. Clinton has so botched his presidency and soiled his promise that Dole astutely begins this campaign by challenging Clinton on exactly the grounds on which Clinton had successfully challenged Bush.

Let's have that generational argument again, says Dole. I'll play the old guy and we'll revisit the issue: How has this untested, eager, young gang done in the face of the new world it was so anxious to lead?

Do you want four more years of indecision abroad and weakness at home, managed by a White House staff even younger and more incompetent (Zoe, Kimba, Guinier, Elders, now Dr. Foster) than their boss?

Or would you like one more go around with the old generation, George Bush's generation, the generation that, as The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne notes, brought you victory in World War II, postwar prosperity and victory again in the Cold War?

And there is yet another irony in Dole's seizing the generational issue: Dole's generation isn't just George Bush's but John Kennedy's, too. And Kennedy occupies an important place in the history both of generational politics and of Bill Clinton.

In our era, it was Kennedy who invented generational politics, promising youth and "vigah" after Eisenhower stagnation, congratulating his cohort (and himself) in his inaugural address that the "torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century." (Eisenhower was born in 1890.)

This could be excused as the pride of lieutenants taking over from five-star generals. But it was more than a rhetorical flourish. It became a theme: This was an administration of inspiration and creativity, of new directions and New Frontiers. Of touch football, not golf.

That myth has outlasted the years and so dominates our nostalgic recollection of Camelot that one subplot of nearly every subsequent presidential race has been who could best represent himself as the JFK of his time. "I served with Jack Kennedy. . . . You're no Jack Kennedy," said Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle. Quayle never recovered. From that, no one recovers.

In 1992, Clinton won the Kennedy contest hands down. At the Democratic convention, the famous film of his handshake with Kennedy represented the symbolic passing of the mantle to the rightful heir.

Arthur Schlesinger's theory of 30-year political cycles ratified the association: Clinton's accession would recapitulate Kennedy's inauguration of a vigorous, creative liberalism, much as Kennedy recapitulated FDR's. Clinton's subsequent adoption of Kennedy mannerisms and habits (up to and including his Massachusetts summers) serve to keep this connection alive.

Dole's invoking his own history and war heroism serves to recast Clinton's cherished Kennedy connection as a flimsy metaphor built on party affiliation, self-conscious imitation and a single encounter.

Hence the final irony of Dole's unusual generational appeal. Its subtext reads: I'm the true Kennedy contemporary. My connection to him is real, not metaphorical. We - born six years apart, fellow heroes of World War II - are in fact of the same generation. Want one more go with that generation, the generation that saw us safely through Hitler, Stalin and all the demons of our time? I'm the one.