Was Clinton Cool?

Talking about my generation. And talking and talking and talking

In 1992, for the first time, a member of the sixties generation was running for President of the United States. And during that presidential campaign the measure of the man was taken on a sixties yardstick of hip and cool. Ur-hip, echt-cool Rolling Stone magazine, the sixties' most influential and durable media voice, conducted a group interview (how sixties) with Governor Bill Clinton in Little Rock. The interviewers were Jann Wenner, who, as the founder and owner of Rolling Stone, had been the arbiter of what was hip and what was cool for twenty-odd years; William Greider, the hip leftish political journalist who had quit The Washington Post to prove to Rolling Stone readers how hip and cool engagement with practical politics could be; Hunter S. Thompson, hipness and coolness itself; and I. Never mind that by 1992 I was over the sixties, wore neckties by preference, and stared with dreamy transfixion for hours at the stock-market ticker rather than the lava lamp, and that my illegal drug of choice was a Cohiba. No member of the sixties generation ever fully recovers from hip and cool.

We met Governor Clinton at hip, cool (well, hip and cool for Little Rock) Doe's restaurant. He was laid-back. He was out-front. We asked him a question that we felt no other presidential candidate in the history of America had ever properly answered: "Who's your favorite Beatle?"

There were four aspects—"avatars," we used to say—to the sixties. Each idea or event of the period seemed to have the nature of one of the Beatles: John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, or Paul McCartney. That is, everything in the sixties was either brilliant but troubled, earnest but flaky, stupid, or Paul McCartney.

"Paul McCartney," Clinton said.

Hunter Thompson had brought Clinton a present, a saxophone reed of some especially cool and hip type. Hunter explained to the first President of our generation the very hip, cool provenance of this thing. Clinton looked blank.

First Paul McCartney, then the saxophone. Was the whole saxophone thing just an affectation? And the Ray-Ban Wayfarers and the bluesman's snap-brim fez too? Would Clinton really go out on the Truman Balcony and blow some bebop if things got rough during his White House sojourn? Or ... was Clinton a band geek? Maybe he got the saxophone because the tuba was already taken. Even in the sixties there were such people—sycophantic mama's boys who tended toward pudge and hung around the career counselor's office asking "You got any of those Rhodes scholarship application things?" These fellows tended to marry the girls who helped them with their law-school homework, move back to town, and turn out to be real operators.

No, no, we told ourselves. Clinton had dodged the draft. Really dodged it. Did everything but show up at the draft physical wearing a cashmere twin set with cultured pearls. He was one of us. It's just that we were riffing on him, and he didn't dig it. He was, as we said in the old days, "heavy into things." (He did eat an awful lot of french fries during the interview.) Clinton wanted to talk about issues, policies, programs.

And talk he did. Brilliantly. He had all the details. He knew the facts and figures. This was amazing to us hipsters. Here was somebody who had been listening in class while the rest of us were trying to calculate to the centimeter how short a miniskirt had to be before the Tri-Delt in the next row was sitting on nothing at all. But Clinton was known to let it all hang out in the skirt department, too. Groovy.

Clinton kept talking. It seemed he'd done reading for extra credit besides. And he was able to remember something from dorm bull sessions other than how to build a beer bong. He was a regular Whole Earth Catalog of political ideas: a health-care system with the infinite efficiency of a solar-powered wigwam; a reinvention of government as mind-blowingly original as the geodesic dome; the greening of America with an ecologically oriented national-service program that would make Woodstock look like merely a music concert in the mud. He explained. He gave examples. And he knew what he was talking about—until he talked about something I knew.

I'd just been to Bangladesh, where I had toured the Grameen Bank, founded by the Third World development guru Muhammad Yunus. Clinton proposed using the Grameen's programs of microcredit and cooperative lending to fight poverty in American inner cities. The Grameen Bank lends $30 or $40 to groups of Bangladeshi village women so that they can buy pedal-operated sewing machines to make napkins, place mats, and decorative pillow cases to sell to tourists, in case Bangladesh ever gets any. I had a hard time picturing this in Compton or the South Bronx. Also, the crack fad was raging just then. Enormous drug deals were being transacted in the nation's slums. Was scarcity of capital really at the core of America's poverty problems? When Clinton finished talking about microcredit, I said, "I've just been to Bangladesh, where I toured the Grameen ..."

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