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Private life redeems public realm.

Bill Clinton may turn out to be the best and brightest sort of person the 1960s created. But do not expect from the people he brings to power the solution to what ails us most deeply as a nation. Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service and author of Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (Viking), is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and Harper's.

The famous bratty generation of the 1960s came to full political power last month. The Peter Pan generation, my generation, which 20 years ago celebrated its moral authority with a warning against trusting anyone over 30, at last came of age. I have been thinking about Bill Clinton, this unlikely |60s hero, protege of John Kennedy. I wonder about the boy one sees in the high-school photos -- Billy Clinton or was it then William Clinton? Clearly he was the golden boy who won the medals and won the prizes and ran for student body president. I can imagine the longhairs in his high school rolling their eyes when Billy Clinton would get up to talk about the importance of school spirit, using paraphrased allusions to JFK's inaugural address ("Ask not what your school can do for you . . .").

Such a fresh face he had, such bright eyes in those boyish years, such determination in that boy shaking hands with President Kennedy on the White House lawn. Hardly the sort of face or ambition one associates now with the cynicism of the late 1960s.

I am struck today by the energy. It is his best quality and what we will notice most, I think, in coming months -- his movement, his charge, dare I say his vigor?

A friend of mine, an antiwar and gay activist from the 1960s who moved from the street to foundation and academic jobs, was more appalled than pleased recently to see a newspaper list of possible Clinton appointees. "I know almost every one of those people by first name," my friend said, bemused because he has lived his political life with a sense of being the outsider.

The notion on the college campus of the 1960s was nothing if not romantic when it came to such matters. The romance of the middle-class student was that he or she was an outsider and therefore in league with "the people." The truth was that the college campus was creating an upper-middle-class elite, male and female, white and black. What |60s types refuse to this day to recognize is that they belong to the culture of power. If you do not believe me, listen, for example, to how white, middle-class feminists obliterate considerations of social class where sexual oppression is concerned and portray themselves as one with their "working-class sisters."

Bill Clinton didn't, as we all know, go to war (nor did I). Nor did most of my middle-class friends from the |60s. We went to graduate school. We went to places like Yale with Anita and Hillary and Clarence and Bill.

When Joan Didion writes of the |60s she talks of the Haight-Ashbury and dead-end lives and rock stars with burned-out eyes. It is hard to think of Bill Clinton in those terms. Or am I the only person in America who believes him? Bill Clinton strikes me as the sort of guy who dared -- sort of -- and then didn't inhale the despair.

What Clinton knew as a young man, however, what places him truly within his generation was the breakdown of the family: an alcoholic father, a brother on drugs, divorce -- a dysfunctional family, to use the language of the Oprah Winfrey show.

Something happened in the 1960s. Along with freeways and tract houses and drugs and the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War, a tragedy hit America that we are still running from: My generation saw the breakdown of the private life.

There was mobility in the |60s. Mama got her driver's license. The daughter could go away to college. Bill Clinton could leave the shambles of his home life for the bright public world of achievement. There was for my generation the consolation of the public life in politics and in government, precisely as people talked less and less about home.

At the GOP convention in August, evangelical Protestants were at least remarkable for raising the subject of what they called "the crisis of family values." As a Christian who does not share Pat Robertson's version of the moral life, I nonetheless give evangelical Christians this much: They properly sense the turmoil of our private lives.

It is everywhere apparent in this country, in suburb and inner city. There is a great moan in the American heart. Something is wrong with the way we live. We have lost the knack or the gift of intimacy. We do not know how to love one another. All day on TV you can see and hear the lament, from Sallie Jessy Raphael to Phil Donahue: Americans describe the chaos of their personal lives. Feuding mothers-in-law. Parents who do not speak to their children. Hateful children. Skins and druggies and Madonna look-alikes. It is a circus of pain and it is turned in public into entertainment, a sort of verbal pro wrestling match.

How appropriate, of course, that when Bill Clinton went on Phil Donahue, Phil wanted to talk about the rumored infidelities, about the dark secrets. On such a show what else was there to talk about?

But the crisis is not simply within the family, it is within the city. The inability of parents and children to embrace one another as family is matched by a civic inability of Americans to embrace people on the other side of town. The mistake the evangelical right makes, I think, is not just in expecting to legislate their morality on a multicultural nation. It is that in the name of family reunification, they would divide the city against itself.

In their reliance on politics, the evangelicals remind me curiously of the secular feminists at the other end of the political spectrum. The evangelical right and the feminist left engage the struggle of values at the level of government. It is one thing to enact laws to prevent child abuse. But how we behave towards one another will ultimately not be decided by government so much as by some conversion of the soul.

Bill Clinton, of course, is a feminist. And though he portrays himself as a political moderate, his confidence in the role of government makes him truly a man of his generation. There was in the 1960s a notion that leadership attached inevitably to the best and the brightest. Within this notion was the faith that the new American political class could remake America and thus the world.

the dark side of the |60s was despair, the bright side of the |60s envisioned political power, "change" Kennedy called it then as Clinton calls it now. Clinton's notion of government is a vertical design: Change comes from the top; change trickles down.

Bill Clinton may turn out to be the best and brightest sort of person the 1960s created. But do not expect from the people he brings to power the solution to what ails us most deeply as a nation. The city exists on a horizontal axis. And in the horizontal city, families are going to have to learn the grace of loving one another and neighbors are going to have to learn to care for one another. What the sentimental ballads about love in the |60s never taught us is that private life redeems the public realm, not the other way around.
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Title Annotation:Bill Clinton administration
Author:Rodriguez, Richard
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 4, 1992
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