WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Word that Bill Clinton was headed to the hospital for bypass surgery must have caught a lot of 1960s youth -- as the phrase had it -- off guard.
Many of the aging 1960s youth had no idea that they were aging. They still dress like youth, at least during leisure hours. They listen to the same 1960s music -- for four decades! And, alas, they act like youths, at least socially. Now comes word that one of the 1960s' most famous arrested adolescents had four arteries almost completely blocked by fatty materials. What about all that jogging he did? What about his superior knowledge of healthcare? What about the "all-nighters" he famously "pulled" at the White House and in finishing his memoirs -- memoirs that have all the defects of youth and none of the attributes of maturity?
Well, my 1960s compeers, we are all getting on in years and in artery blockage. The knees creak. The skin sags. Cosmetic ministrations and hair coloring can deceive the public but not the physiology. The 1960s generation celebrated youth more noisily and enduringly than any other generation in American history, and now its Boy President is recovering from quadruple bypass surgery. I wish him well, but as he heads off into old age I would be remiss if I did not note that he and his champions of eternal youth have for years denied old age its achievements, and now they will be living out an old age that they themselves have created -- an old age bereft of the respect old age once commanded. No one is likely to call Bill Clinton a wise old man. No one will note his dignity or sage advice.
Soon he will again be appearing in one of his silly beach shirts and wearing shorts. He will be smiling and quoting from rock and roll songs. He will be telling us whoppers again that only an adolescent would bother with. Rush Limbaugh, the Will Rogers of our time, jokingly ran a tape of one of Clinton's surgeons announcing to the world that the former president was sedated but capable of "arousal." Rush ran the risible tape more than once, and doubtless his audience got the joke. Clinton's two terms may not be remembered for thwarting terrorism or making any geopolitical leaps, but they will be remembered for transforming the White House into Animal House, just the kind of achievement one would expect from 1960s youth.
Paul Johnson, the venerable British historian, recently remarked that he could not think of any other generation in history that had had so many baleful effects on so many institutions.
He was, of course, not talking about the whole 1960s generation. Its engineers, scientists and many of its leaders in commerce have contributed constructively to society. George W. Bush is a 1960s youth, and he has risen to the challenges of adulthood. He beat alcoholism, became a good father and husband, did not flinch from the challenges facing his presidency.
No, Johnson is thinking (as I am) of the left-wing students of the 1960s who rebelled against authority and promised to "reform" all the hoary institutions of their parents. They thrived from campus politics to national politics. They came to dominate the Democratic Party, and as we can see in watching the megalomania of the Kerry campaign, they have proved to be political incompetents when faced with the real challenges of history.
Jean-Francois Kerry is doing badly in this campaign because he is displaying all the excesses of his 1960s left-wing contemporaries. He windsurfs, rides motorcycles, tosses footballs, all for the narcissistic photo-ops that he first learned about in his youth, when he filmed his service in Vietnam and heaved medals in street demonstrations. He dramatically comes down on both sides of issues such as the war in Iraq. He plays the role of the 1960s arrested adolescent, fuming at his opponents, proclaiming bathos and bewildering the electorate.
Now from the press corps emits the alarm that his peer, Bill Clinton, will not be able to campaign for him. Many in the press corps are themselves from the ranks of the 1960 left-wing students. They have convinced themselves that Clinton is the greatest politician of his generation, though he never won a majority in either presidential campaign and only succeeded in his presidency when he adopted Republican policies.
My guess is that in a decade historians will be looking back and see someone else as the greatest politician of the 1960s generation. He will be the president who revised American foreign policy to meet the challenge of our time, terrorism, with a policy of pre-emption. He will be the president who institutionalized the Reagan Revolution. Now who might that fellow be?