If William Jefferson Clinton’s valedictory to his party was the boffo performance we have come to expect from him, it was also in many ways a predictable speech.
As might have been expected, he delivered a vindication of himself and his record, laying down stanza after stanza of statistics as if numbers made poetry. As might likewise have been expected, he thrust the old arguments of his critics back in their faces, recalling how the Republicans had predicted unemployment, recession and national doom when he narrowly pushed his first budget through a recalcitrant Congress in 1993. (“Time has not been kind to their predictions,” he said, gently putting in the knife.) As he was both obliged and pleased to do, he put his rhetoric of achievement in the service of the Democratic ticket, seeking to prove to numbed voters that there is indeed a difference between New Democrats and Bush Republicans.
And as even his antagonists have come to expect and presumably dread, he blew the joint up.
What was less predictable and far more interesting, however, were his closing remarks. Just before he bowed out, Mr. Clinton sketched his administration’s historical moment into a broader framework dating back to the conflicts of the 1960’s. Anyone who wasn’t listening carefully might have missed it, yet it had resonance in a debate that has never really ended.
Dissenting from the clichéd portrait of baby boomers as a cohort of vain, irresponsible and self-involved moral failures-the droning refrain of so many currently fashionable commentators-the President offered a defense of himself and his generation.
There is no way, of course, for Mr. Clinton to erase the memory of his own irresponsible and vain personal conduct. But for those who can for a minute set aside the national preoccupation with his libido, he suggested that the first boomer Presidency proved more responsible, more consistent with American values and less selfish in many ways than its conservative predecessors.
The President approached this touchy cultural terrain with what sounded, at first, like nothing more controversial than a brief excursion into economic history. “The last time we had an expansion this long was in the 1960’s,” he said. “I remember it well.”
Then, rather suddenly, he turned that seemingly innocuous remark into an argument about when and why the country really did go wrong. What might be termed the period of stagnation began with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the election of Richard Nixon, which “took America on a far different, more divisive course.” That dark time ended, according to him, with the election of 1992. (It’s an argument, incidentally, to which Nixon gave some credence, only in reverse; quite correctly, he regarded the Clintons with deep suspicion as his generational enemies.)
The President elided Vietnam, merely noting without judgment that it had divided and wounded the country.
By invoking the names of Kennedy and King, he shrewdly chose instead to stake his claim on the grounds of racial, sexual and economic justice.
Mr. Clinton didn’t dare claim to have achieved any of those aims. But he did seem to insist, at the very least, that his eight years in office have created an opportunity to pursue them again. When he said, “I have waited … over 30 years to see my country once again in the position to build the future of our dreams,” he was talking about the aspirations of the generation that revered the two murdered leaders-both of whose best-known rhetorical tropes spoke about dreams of a better America.
Mr. Clinton had dropped a hint of this theme in his descriptions of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, some of which didn’t appear in the printed text of his speech. The most important thing to know about both men, he said, was their lifelong commitment to civil rights and social equality: Mr. Gore as the legatee of a Southern family that fought racism, and Mr. Lieberman as a former Freedom Rider who risked his life to register black voters in the South. The President didn’t mention his own political initiation in the summer of 1966, when he returned home to Arkansas from Georgetown University to help defeat a racist candidate for governor.
And he seemed to be saying that the old struggle over segregation is connected with the unfinished business of his administration, whose economic successes have just begun to improve the lives of the nation’s poorest workers. Like him, Mr. Clinton promised, the Democratic nominees “believe the people you’re buying your soft drinks and popcorn from here at the Staples Center deserve the same chance” that privileged people have to provide education and advancement for their children.
Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman ought to say that for themselves, loudly and often. It would be good to hear that these graying “New Democrats” can still remember old dreams.