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Baby-boomer Bill Clinton: A Generation Takes Power

11 minute read
Walter Shapiro

“. . . the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace . . .” — John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961

These stirring words commemorated the last time that one generation ceded power to the next. The 22-year age chasm between President-elect Bill Clinton and George Bush is the second largest in U.S. electoral history, surpassed only by the 27 years separating Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower. But this generational conceit is unlikely to be updated as a theme for Clinton’s Inaugural Address. Imagine a hapless Clinton speechwriter struggling to reduce the baby-boomer life experience to tough-minded Kennedyesque cadences. No way would the incoming President dare tell the unvarnished generational truth: “Again, the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born after World War II, nurtured in prosperity, aroused by Vietnam, sustained by rock ‘n’ roll, tested by drugs and promiscuity, embraced by the media and belatedly betrayed by the nation’s decline in living standards.”

At 46, Clinton will be the third youngest President in history, out-youthed only by Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt. For 40 years, World War II was a dominant life experience for eight Presidents in a row. All of them served in uniform — even Ronald Reagan, who sometimes also projected the fantasy that he had seen the horrors of combat. Clinton was not born until a year after Japan surrendered. “World War II is as far away from Bill Clinton’s generation as World War I was for George Bush’s generation,” observes Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. “What is happening is that the first half of this century is receding in our institutional memory.”

As the nation’s first baby-boomer President, Clinton will bring to the Oval Office a fresh mental map of generational impressions. Gone are the Andrews Sisters, Kilroy and the Berlin blockade. In their place come Father Knows Best, Elvis, 1960s folk music (Chelsea Clinton was named after the Joni Mitchell song Chelsea Morning), Vietnam protests, the 1972 George McGovern crusade and Watergate. Despite the politically exaggerated privation of his childhood, Clinton came of age at a moment of exceptional national privilege, when a studious young leader from Hot Springs, Arkansas, could aspire to an elite educational odyssey that carried him from Georgetown to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship to Yale Law School. America of the 1960s worked for Clinton in ways that many children of today’s hard-pressed middle class can scarcely imagine.

A President, if artful, can transcend mere policy and become an avatar of an era. What difference will the final ascension of the baby-boom generation make in terms of the American spirit, the cultural zeitgeist? The irresistible Kennedy parallel would suggest that the symbolism of a Clinton presidency could someday outweigh its concrete accomplishments. From fashion (a continually bareheaded J.F.K. decapitated the hat industry) to sports (touch football and 50-mile hikes) to dallying with movie stars (Marilyn Monroe suggestively cooing “Happy birthday, Mr. President”), Kennedy defined a style that was half Harvard and half James Bond. But J.F.K. spoke for a generation that craved a larger-than-life icon, a President who legitimized both its bravery in World War II and its man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit struggles to create the affluent society.

Baby boomers lack this palpable hunger for acceptance. “Unlike the Kennedy era,” says Nicholas Lemann, author of The Promised Land, “Clinton’s generation has already had its chance to make its tastes the country’s tastes.” Has it ever. Baby boomers — especially the older ones like Clinton who were born in the 1940s — have been pop-cultural imperialists since before Woodstock; the rest of America, like it or not, has had to endure their collective self-absorption as they metamorphosed from hippies to yuppies to competitive parenting. What is possibly left for them to gain from a Clinton presidency, other than perhaps good government? Hard to picture Clinton’s peers celebrating their empowerment with buttons that defiantly declare DON’T TRUST ANYONE OVER 50. Or angrily marching on the White House chanting, “Hey, hey, Billy C., you’ve got a good job, how about me?”

The ascension of Clinton gives older baby boomers a psychological gift that some of them will be loath to accept — irrefutable proof that they are mature adults. Like the Doonesbury character Zonker Harris, baby boomers have been indulging in the longest adolescence since Archie and Veronica. True, parenthood has tamed many of their rebellious impulses. But the full awareness of the fleetingness of youth — even with Stairmasters and cosmetic surgery — was postponed as long as the World War II generation walked the corridors of power. “Instead of being able to feel like we’re still kids and having to look up at the generation running things, suddenly there’s a guy your age who is President of the United States,” says Paul Hirsch, a sociologist at Northwestern University. “This is the first time that the country has symbolically acknowledged that we baby boomers have it all figured out.”

Every President ages in office — and soon baby boomers will glimpse their own mortality in the new care lines on Clinton’s face, in the slow droop of his jowls and in his Sisyphean struggles against the thickening of middle life. “I look at Clinton in his dumpy running shorts,” sniffs marketing consultant Judith Langer. “He symbolizes the baby-boom generation: they think health, but they don’t always resist that chocolate-chip cookie.” In the waning days of the campaign, Clinton’s reading glasses (for baby boomers the scariest word in the English language is suddenly bifocals) began to make a frequent appearance on the nightly news. As for the Vice President-elect, Al Gore, just 19 months Clinton’s junior, the passage of the years will probably be reckoned by the growth of the small bald spot in his still dark brown hair. For what is Gore profited, if he shall gain the second highest office in the land and yet be tempted by Rogaine?

At a moment when the American libido seems to oscillate between Puritanism and rampant exhibitionism, how significant is it that for the first time in more than 30 years the nation has elected a President with sex appeal? The last six Presidents — Bush, Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson — combined do not conjure up enough erotic energy to fill a single room at the No-Tell Motel. Forget Gennifer Flowers — this is not the moment to descend into the muck of her sleazy allegations. Rather, the swooning and the cooing on the rope lines during the last breathless days of the Clinton campaign were unavoidably reminiscent of Kennedy. In Louisville, Kentucky, the scene seemed out of Beatlemania. Women screamed when Clinton reached for their hands as loudspeakers blared out the Fab Four singing, “When I saw her standing there.” Cheryl Russell, editor of The Boomer Report, a monthly newsletter on consumer trends, captures a new dimension in the national psyche when she confides, “Every woman I know is having sex dreams about Bill Clinton. We’re finally getting a President our own age who we can imagine having sex with. I don’t recall anyone having sex dreams about Michael Dukakis.”

If Reagan was shaped by Hollywood and Bush influenced by the prep-school verities of his youth, then for Clinton the seminal moments probably came at Oxford and Yale. He was there during the early, heady days of one of the most influential social movements of his lifetime — the birth of modern feminism. Hillary is part of that legacy; few men of an older political generation would feel comfortable with wives who earned far more than they did. Sometimes lost < amid the Hillary hype is a larger truth: Clinton, like many baby boomers, feels comfortable around intelligent women. Politics has always been a locker- room sport, but in the Clinton campaign the role of women transcended tokenism and approached equal power.

For all their activism, the Clintons are apt to play a surprisingly modest role as national tastemakers. They are far more likely to reflect baby-boomer trends than to shape them. Sure, there are fearless forecasts from marketing gurus. “Elvis memorabilia is going to go up to a whole new level,” predicts Brad Edmondson, the editor in chief of American Demographics. “Remember Ronald Reagan and jelly beans. Jimmy Carter and peanuts.” He may be right; too bad Graceland (privately owned) is not traded on the stock exchange.

Beyond Elvis and the saxophone, Clinton’s musical taste is broad but bland. Early in the campaign, he sat down with Rolling Stone for a lengthy interview about pop music. Among his favorites: Judy Collins, Dolly Parton, Michael Bolton, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, the Temptations, the Beatles and Stan Getz. Nothing, in short, that cannot be easily found in a prominent place in any shopping-mall music store in America. This middle-of- the-road eclecticism is typical of Clinton’s generation, lost in the rock- is-dead wilderness, casting about for a musical resting place between rap and heavy metal. If the President-elect has an unorthodox musical passion, it lies in his deep appreciation for black gospel and rhythm and blues. Unlike almost all white politicians of any generation, Clinton gets the beat consistently right.

Moreover, he understands the potency of pop-culture icons. In Chicago last month, Clinton discovered he was staying in the same hotel as the band U2. Taking advantage of his own celebrity, the candidate went up to the band’s suite and hung out for a while, finding a common ground in swapping stories about life on the road. Afterward he dragged the band along in his motorcade to a Chicago Bears game. A pro football game and U2 — that pretty well sums up culture in the age of Clinton.

When it comes to fashion, both Clintons might best be described as conscientious objectors. “I don’t think he even knows who Armani is,” marvels an aide somewhat hyperbolically. Clinton’s suits are still bought off the rack from Dillard’s, a down-home Little Rock department store. In his casual wear, Clinton favors jeans and khakis, not even bothering to follow his generation in its mid-life enthusiasm for the Gap and Banana Republic. The President-elect’s constant battles with his weight might influence fashion were not Levi’s already hitting it big with Dockers, which are cut with a baby boomer’s sagging physique in mind. “Bill Clinton is half hip and half hick,” explains Steve Rabinowitz, one of the traveling staff members on the campaign plane. “You want to write about the hip part, but sometimes the hick part gets in the way.”

If nesting were not already a certified baby-boomer trend, President Clinton might get the credit for popularizing it. “This will be a very family- oriented Administration,” predicts Derek Shearer, a longtime Clinton friend and economic adviser. “You’ll see a lot of couples with kids at the White House.” Equally visible will be the lights burning long after midnight in the White House family quarters; Clinton’s idea of a good time is staying up late playing hearts with friends or discussing Hawaii’s health-care system. A valid test for the limits of presidential leadership by example will be whether the nation begins to emulate Clinton’s nocturnal body clock. Aides joke that Clinton runs on “Elvis standard time,” valiantly struggling to avoid any event that requires his presence before 9 a.m. Never will power breakfasts have such a militant foe in the Oval Office.

A few weeks ago, on his campaign plane, Clinton allowed himself a moment of introspection about what his election would mean to a generation whose first political act was both protesting — and serving in — an unpopular war. “If I win,” he said softly, “it will finally close the book on Vietnam.” Whether marching in the streets or marching in uniform, Vietnam introduced baby boomers to the sober realities of power. Another generation chose Vietnam as a battleground, but in very personal terms Clinton and his peers had to face the consequences of that decision. Now a child of postwar prosperity has ascended to the presidency. How both Bill Clinton and his generation adjust to their newfound power will determine the fate not only of the baby boomers but of the nation itself.

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