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Many of those who became adults in the late '60s see in Bill Clinton a mirror of their lives--both the good and the bad--because he's... : One of Them

September 16, 1993|SARA FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To most Americans, Bill Clinton may be just another struggling national leader.

But to many who entered adulthood in the political and social tumult of the late 1960s, the 42nd President of the United States is more than that. He is the epitome of the strengths and the weaknesses of their generation.

No matter whether they support him or oppose him, many of the men and women who graduated from college about the same time as Clinton--he got his diploma from Georgetown University in 1968--see their own lives mirrored in the triumphs and travails of the 47-year-old President and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

To admirers in his generation, Clinton's Administration represents a refreshing watershed in American life--a new beginning under the leadership of a young, Kennedy-esque President who embraces all the good intentions of their era. In their eyes, he is a better leader because he seems genuinely to believe in values they hold dear, including civil rights and equality of the sexes.

"All those things we preached about when we were young and idealistic--he's doing them now," said Diane Steenman, a 1968 graduate of UC Berkeley who lives in Dublin, Ohio, one of dozens of Clinton contemporaries interviewed for this story.

At the same time, many see his performance thus far as a reflection of other characteristics of their generation: a tendency toward naivete, a frequent disregard for the lessons of history and an unshakable belief in the notion that keen minds can overcome any problem.

In the words of author Jesse Kornbluth, who graduated from Harvard in 1968, the Clintons seem to reflect "both the best and the worst of my generation."

"They have a real connection to their youthful idealism. They care about people beyond their nuclear family. And because of their Southern heritage they know black people as individuals.

"The problem is, while they have been exercising their considerable intellectual prowess, others have learned more about the mundane art of management. So the Clintons find themselves in that place where good ideas don't matter and intentions are liabilities," he said.

Because Clinton and his contemporaries came of age at a time of extraordinary campus unrest inspired by the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the slayings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and a host of social changes, they have always viewed themselves as different.

That has given them a stronger-than-usual identification with members of their own generation.

"We think of ourselves as special people, those of us who were in the classes of 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1970," said Gene Bishop, a Philadelphia physician and another 1968 graduate.

So strong is the sense of identity that many members of this group feel as though they know the First Couple personally. Typically, one 1968 graduate said: "I know I'd like this guy and I suspect he'd like me."

Indeed, this generational kinship has proved stronger than political ideology in some cases. Charles H. Zimmerman, also Georgetown '68 and now a prominent member of the Kentucky Republican Party, admits he voted for the Democratic nominee because "we have more in common than what divides us."

For those coming of age in the late 1960s, it seemed--in the words of Bob Dylan--"like a flying saucer had landed." Every institution was under siege, every political truth was being challenged, every social norm was suddenly suspect.

Beginning with the Free Speech movement at Berkeley in 1964, students all across the nation were demanding the right to speak out against the Vietnam War, racism, police brutality, old sexual mores and even the educational system.

Resistance to the war touched virtually every campus during that period, as many young men rejected the notion of being drafted into a conflict they viewed as futile or immoral. Their struggle erupted on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention and culminated in 1970 with the slaying of four students by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio.

Meanwhile, the cry for civil rights in the South fueled the Black Power movement in the North. There was the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., the slayings of King and Malcolm X, the rise of the Black Panthers and the rioting in Watts; Newark, N.J.; Detroit and other urban ghettos.

Just as startling was the cultural revolution that accompanied this political upheaval. The drug culture, the sexual revolution, the quest for inner peace--these phenomena were at the heart of the music, the language and the literature of the times. It brought America the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin; "The Graduate," "Hair" and, of course, the paramount tribal gathering of the hippie generation: the Woodstock Music & Arts Faire, in Upstate New York in August, 1969.

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