PRINT February 1993

American Myths

Bill Clinton

FAIRYTALES CAN COME TRUE, it can happen to you. . . . But maybe not exactly the way you’d wish. Ever since 1972, if not before, a substantial chunk of the American population has been waiting for the ’60s revival. Now, as presaged by Madonna’s “hippie look” emblazoned on Vogue’s October cover, and by Spike Lee’s simultaneous placement of Malcolm’s X on half the baseball caps in America, that moment is finally upon us—albeit in the affable, overweight person of President Bill Clinton, the Baby Boomer voted most likely to succeed.

Talkin’ ’bout his generation: “It’s awesome to see somebody who looks like me, and who has been given this tremendous burden. I feel it all the more, because I could be in those shoes,” gushed Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner to a New York Times reporter at the magazine’s 25th-anniversary party, held within two weeks of the Clinton victory. Not only had candidate Clinton graced the cover of Rolling Stone (and submitted to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzoid questions), he had posed on a Harley in a black leather jacket, sung “Shout” with Whoopi Goldberg, gone on MTV and said he should have inhaled, and, most dramatically, picked up his sax to play “Heartbreak Hotel” for the audience of The Arsenio Hall Show.

Reminding the Republican Convention that not every boomer smoked pot, demonstrated against the government, and enlisted in the sexual revolution, Marilyn Quayle seemed to realize that in 1992 as in 1968, the battle was between SDS hippies and ROTC straights. And at least one expert suggested that the Republicans orchestrate a generational end-run, associating Clinton with (as the recent JFK biography has it) Reckless Youth by creating a mock Wonder Years for him complete with tremulous voice-over, some old duck-and-cover footage, and the #1 pop song during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This latter presented a problem: the three biggest hits in late October 1962 were Bobby Pickett’s gruesome “Monster Mash,” the Crystals’ antiestablishment “He’s a Rebel,” and—even worse from the Bush perspective—the Contours’ plaintive “Do You Love Me?”

Bush elected to play the sternly befuddled dad, accusing his rival of espousing “Elvis economics,” and of making Elvis-like visitations on various sides of various issues. Had “ol’ Bush,” as Clinton took to calling the president, paid less attention to the New Hampshire primary and more to the U.S. Post Office’s stamp plebiscite—in which the hot young Elvis resoundingly trounced the fat, aging, Nixon-endorsed Elvis—he might have been more careful. The so-called Elvis Strategy backfired. Actually, Bill Clinton was only ten when Elvis first rocked the nation, in 1956—his adolescent role model was more likely the first political Elvis, JFK. Still, it’s possible, as British rock critic Simon Frith speculated, that Clinton has actually read Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train—presumably a presidential first.

Before the Democratic Convention, where Al Gore told the delegates that he had always dreamed of being Elvis’ warm-up act, New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd had already characterized the campaign as a struggle between “touchy-feelie” Democrats and “blood and guts” Republicans. It was rock ’n’ roll versus Sgt. Rock, King Elvis against Duke Wayne. You could choose a lover or a fighter—and in the campaign’s final days, of Bush reinforced the point by repeatedly using the work “lust” to characterize his opponent’s desire for power.

We’re all vulgar Hegelians on this bus. There is nothing more inevitable than an election after the fact—witness Clinton’s coronation by a fawning Ted Koppel on the night of November 4. To Koppel, Clinton already looked different—he had suddenly acquired presidential aura. Similarly, Newsweek’s postelection wrap-up upgraded that old newsreel footage of a teenage Clinton meeting Kennedy “from mere advertising to the realm of prophetic history.” Even Ronald Reagan rewarded the lad with a big jar of red white and blue jellybeans.

In retrospect, the campaign was full of portents. (Dylanologists everywhere should appreciate the significance of a president whose father died in an accident out on Highway 61.) Not only did the Vietnam War reemerge as an actual (or imaginary) issue for the first time in twenty years, there was the peculiar ’60s/’90s synthesis effected by Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts. (Would liberal critics have received this folk-singing “rebel conservative” so rapturously if the movie had opened on the heels of the Democratic convention, with a hunky pair of blow-dry boomers heading the ticket?) The ghost of Malcolm X rose up to eclipse Jesse Jackson, and the new, sexy Natty Bumppo impersonated by Daniel Day Lewis in Michael Mann’s post-MTV Last of the Mohicans offered a worthy comrade to the Democratic pair whom Newsweek positioned as “young guns.”

When the newsweeklies repeatedly noted that Clinton and Gore looked more formidable standing together than either had looked alone, they reiterated a certain Baby Boom logic—the generational megalomania that “mistook its demographic proliferation for political power,” as Stanley Aronowitz once put it. Growing up watching Howdy Doody and Band Stand, Bill and Hill and Al and Tipper were all to varying degrees products of the youth culture that, in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, was a substitute proletarian internationalism. But though Clinton was in D.C. for the October 1967 March on the Pentagon, he didn’t march. Though he was in England for the release of the White Album, he has never commented on “Helter-Skelter.” Still at Oxford during the apocalyptic spring of 1970—where he grew a beard, and hair over his ears—he missed Kent State, and arrived in New Haven after the trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale. Clinton’s experience of the Movement was mainly working for “peace” candidates in 1970 and for George McGovern two years later. Even so, on the 29th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, a New York Times Magazine cover story revealed that “the ties that bind Bill Clinton’s circle of friends were forged Big Chill–style two decades ago in the tragic suicide of the future President’s best friend,” fellow Rhodes scholar and draft-resister Frank Aller—whose picture Clinton keeps on the wall of his study.

Was it a coincidence that Kevin Costner (who played The Big Chill’s sacred corpse and was then cut out of the movie) was an early defection from the Bush camp? Is it significant that Bush’s defeat was echoed by the death of the last of the World War II heroes, Superman? (Of course, we can confidently predict that Superman will be reborn—perhaps even in time for Clinton’s inauguration.) As Clinton orchestrated his climb to the top, Spike Lee and Oliver Stone committed to expensive celluloid the counterculture’s conventional wisdom: Amerikkka is racist, Vietnam sucked, the Music mattered, Kennedy was putsched. (Stone may have backed Jerry Brown, but the “revelation” of JFK surely helped deflect first-time voters away from the Republican ticket.) That thing called the ’60s is poised to reenter history.

The morning after Clinton’s victory, the papers reported that the newly anointed president spent election afternoon watching “an old John Wayne movie” on TV. It was, in fact, a young John Wayne movie, the 1939 Allegheny Uprising, in which the then 32-year-old star led a revolt against Brit bully George Sanders—the George Bush of some prerevolutionary, 18th-century ’68.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum and writes film criticism for The Village Voice, New York. Vulgar Modernism, a collection of his essays from the ’80s, was published last year by Temple University Press, Philadelphia.