Was Clinton Cool?

Talking about my generation. And talking and talking and talking
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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 ..."

There was a sudden great changing of subject. And doubtless there have been many such sudden changings of subject in subsequent interviews with subsequent interviewers who just happened to know something about socialized medicine, voluntary service of a mandatory nature, random shuffling of government bureaucracies, incoherent foreign policy, gays in the military, peace in the Middle East, and the rest of the issues, policies, and programs of an eventful Administration during which nothing much was accomplished.

Maybe Clinton really didn't inhale. It was easy, for a moment, while he was hurriedly changing the subject, to picture him cross-legged in a circle of graduate students, making narclike fake sucking noises and hurriedly passing the joint. But it is wrong to doubt Clinton's sixties bona fides. He is one of us; in fact, he is a perfectly fitting first-President-of-our-generation one of us. The noise, sex, and dope smoke of the sixties are what is remembered, but mind-numbing earnestness and self-congratulatory sincerity were the true hallmarks of the era. (Think George Harrison.) And who, ever, is more earnest and more sincere than our own band geek? Clinton can grok. He puts a warm and guileless lock on your eyes, responds to your every gesture and expression, and concentrates so intently on you that you just know he's caring in his innermost being and you're sharing in his innermost thoughts.

The problem, it seemed to me on that day, was that Clinton is a little haphazard at picking what to care about and whom to share it with. (This turned out to be, as insights go, an understatement.) He had made an unlucky Vulcan mind-meld with me on the subject of Bangladesh. And then he turned to Hunter Thompson, of all people, and said with wholehearted fervor, "We're going to put one hundred thousand new police officers on the street."

I was up all night persuading Hunter that this was not a personal threat. Well, with Hunter one is going to be up all night anyway. But that was not a cool thing to say to the good Doctor, or a hip thing. Churchill was cooler than that. FDR was hipper. And if they had made this mistake, they would have noticed, and would have bowled for the spare. Churchill would have bought drinks until dawn. FDR would have swapped cigarette holders and let Hunter play with his wheelchair. Clinton went home to the governor's mansion, probably to check polling data.

And yet, we told ourselves, electing any member of the sixties generation to the presidency would mean a (dared we say it?) revolution—plus a big difference in who got invited to perform at the White House. Wings was better than nothing.

Politics would never be the same. Our generation was too cool to get involved in the grubby little squabbles of partisan bickering. We were too hip to spend all our time thinking about Squaresville economics, too above-it-all for endless logrolling, highbinding, and petty graft. For sure we wouldn't send troops off to someplace we'd never heard of for no discernible reason. And with our healthy lack of inhibitions and our sexually liberated attitudes, we would certainly not have an Administration remembered mainly for the kind of twisted and repressed behavior in which our parents indulged, culminating in some sordid dad-with-the-baby-sitter scene that caused an ugly divorce—or, rather, a lack of an ugly divorce, because our parents were members of the fifties generation, so they stayed together without ever speaking another civil word to each other, for the sake of the kid and also so that the family business didn't have to be busted up.

There'd be none of that. What's more, by 1996, or 2000 at the latest, all presidential candidates would be members of the sixties generation. And then everything would be hip and cool.

P. J. O'Rourke is a writer for Rolling Stone. His most recent book is Eat the Rich (1998).

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