By Michael Kinsley, a former editor of Slate, an online political and cultural magazine (THE GUARDIAN, 09/09/06):
With the reckless self-indulgence that will always be associated with his presidency, the former US president Bill Clinton has chosen this moment to turn 60. Sixty! That’s old. And for the millions of Americans for whom Clinton was the first president younger than themselves, there is no escaping the probability that if Bill Clinton is 60, why, “I must be … oh,hell, why can’t I remember what number comes after 60?”.
John F Kennedy famously said in his inaugural address: “The torch has been passed to a new generation.” If Kennedy were alive today, he would be 89. If Lincoln were alive, he would be 197. If George Washington were still around, he would be 269, and people would be admiring the shiny longevity of his obviously false teeth the same way they admired Reagan’s wavy black hair and indulged the fiction that it wasn’t died.
But Lincoln and Washington never marketed the idea of youth as part of their public personas. Kennedy certainly did, and so did Clinton. By dying young, Kennedy was spared the inevitable punishment that time inflicts on people who rely too heavily on youth as the basis of their claims on the world.
To be sure, Clinton is not the first person to have passed through this semi-official portal into old age. His passage towards three score and ten and beyond is nowhere near the most poignant. There are greater icons of youth who have made this transition. Mick Jagger, for example, is so firmly associated with the 1960s that the irony of Jagger being in his own 60s is built-in.
But Clinton was our first yuppy president, and yuppies thought that we owned youth. Nobody else has ever been as young as us, and nobody else ever will be. The yuppy generation was about youth the way the previous generation, of the 1950s, was about conformity. (These are all absurd generalisations and media conceits, of course. But that is built into the generational game.) Remember: yuppy began life as an acronym for “young urban professional”. For Clinton to go and turn 60 is a betrayal – yet another betrayal, some might say – of his supporters and everything he is supposed to stand for (except, perhaps, welfare reform, which is ageless).
The mantra (well, one mantra) of the 60s generation (which invented, or at least popularised, the concept of the mantra) was: “never trust anyone over 30.” Thirty! Who even remembers 30? Sixty is 30 twice over. Or thereabouts. Sixty is 30 twice over! This year, people are turning 30 who weren’t even born when Bill Clinton turned 30. And we don’t trust them. But that’s because they’re young, not because they’re old. Keep those greedy fingers off our social security, kiddos, or we’ll whack you with our designer canes.
Clinton, as it happens, is more of an Elvis fan than a Stones guy. And in other ways, he belongs more in the 1950s generation than the 1960s one. Actual age-wise, he straddles the generations. Although he did turn on – without inhaling, of course – he did not tune in or drop out. He spent the 60s in careerist pursuits, such as a Rhodes scholarship, that are timeless. He wasn’t as utterly untouched by the decade that will forever define his generation as is the current president. But he will never be associated in the public mind with flower power.
Elvis was another icon of youth who died young. (If he were alive today, he’d be only 71.) People born the day he died are themselves almost 30 today. But Elvis at least offered us a condensed view of the ageing process. Although his life was cut short, he managed to look pretty used up by the end.
Clinton, by contrast, has aged well. There have been constant rumours since he left office that something is wrong with him, but there is almost no evidence to back them up. With his handsome mane of silver hair and his irritating positive attitude, he could be doing commercials for Geritol. He does not seem out of place in the new millennium. Full of energy and projects, he risks being called “spry” within a few years if he doesn’t calm down.
Meanwhile, life goes on. Today the culture is looking for a nickname to cover the generation after the generation after the generation after yuppies. First came Generation X, then Generation Y, and now? What do we call the turn-of-the-millennium generation, for whom the sacred 60s are as distant as the generation of the trenches of the first world war is to yuppies.
Despite the support that the yuppy or boomer generation gave him, Clinton did nothing during his presidency to stop or even slow a process even more inexorable – and of more urgent concern to boomers – than global warming. That is getting old. You don’t need a slideshow from Al Gore to feel that something must be done about this one before it is too late. Bill Clinton is 60. In a decade, he might be as old as 70. And that would make you and me … gosh, where did I put that abacus?