NINETY-FIVE DAYS BEFORE his first national election, Bill Clinton stepped into the back room of Doe’s Eat Place, a café in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a few minutes before noon on Friday, July 31st, and the governor, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, khakis and running shoes, seemed relaxed but tired. He began the conversation by explaining the provenance of Doe’s — it’s a knockoff, of sorts, of a steak-and-seafood shack in the Mississippi Delta. Nearly two and a half hours later, he answered the last two questions: Paul was his favorite Beatle, and he voted for, even campaigned for, the Young Elvis stamp. What follows is the conversation that occurred in between, along with accounts from correspondents Greider, O’Rourke and Thompson.
Wenner: I was struck at the convention, after the acceptance speech, with all of you up there not only dancing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” but singing along with it. It warmed my heart, and I thought, “This is truly a generational ticket.”
Thompson: Remember, Carter memorized all of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.
Wenner: But when he was asked to name his favorite Dylan song, he couldn’t. He said, “I can’t; there’s too many.” And pressed to name two or three, he still couldn’t give two or three.
Thompson: But he did quote Dylan in his Law Day speech. He cited Dylan and Reinhold Niebuhr as his two influences. It seduced me.
O’Rourke: Seduced you? You were out the door and —
Thompson: Yeah. I was a believer. Excuse me, I didn’t mean to —
Yeah. Sometimes I think you can overdo this generational business. I hadn’t thought about it quite as much until we were up there singing. I wanted to use that song all during the primary. It captured what I wanted to say about the country and the campaign.
The postwar generation was raised with this sense of unlimited possibility. And then, of course, it was rent by the war in Vietnam and the civil-rights years. I think fundamentally people in our generation are much more idealistic than a lot of others have been, ’cause we were raised to believe things were possible, that we can make a difference.
At the convention I felt a sense of real optimism and hope. A lot of my mail is from people who just have a sense that maybe the government can be made to work again, maybe the country can be made to succeed again, maybe things can happen again.
I was in Spokane [Washington] the other day. I’d never been there before, but one of the guys I lived with at Oxford, who was a Vietnam War resister, was from Spokane. I met a guy who’d been in his high-school class, and we started talking about him. And all of a sudden the years were melting away, and I could see this guy felt, well, maybe we’re all going to be able to do something good, make this all come out all right after all.
And then I met with a group of citizens. There was this woman there about my age, and she said explicitly, “You’ve got to go in there and redeem the Sixties generation.”
Wenner: People have been saying that Sixties idealism is dead, that it didn’t work out, it was a wrong idea.
No. It didn’t all work out, but we did a lot of good.
Wenner: What did we do that was good?
I think that a lot of the young people crossed racial lines in fighting for equal opportunity, for civil rights. Fundamentally, I still believe the opposition to the Vietnam War was accurate. It was the right position for the country. But there were also problems with it — excesses and perceived excesses. The country began to be pretty divided in the late Sixties and still is today.
Wenner: How badly do you think Vietnam hurt this generation, the experience of growing up mistrusting the government, of being cynical about government itself?
Vietnam did cause us to doubt the government, but it also caused a lot of self-doubt. People who went and sacrificed and thought it was right, then came home to a culture that said it was wrong. People who opposed the war — though most of us still think we were right — we were World War II babies. We wanted to serve our country; we wanted to be part of patriotic wars; we wanted to believe in sacrifice. We paid quite a price as a generation for the impact Vietnam had on the country.
Greider: Has 1992 seemed as weird to you as it has to us? Not the ups and downs of the race so much as the flash points of anger and antipolitics, which you’ve been a target of and also benefited from.
I think by and large that’s healthy. I think the American people are saying: “Pox on both your houses. This deal’s not working for the average person. We may not know exactly what changes we want, but we want some fundamental changes.” People are desperately yearning to go beyond the established political debate.
O’Rourke: But are people looking to politics to solve problems that maybe can’t be solved politically?
I think there’s a tendency to do that. If you compare our performance with other countries’, you see that you can’t run a country like ours without a more activist government. Still, I think it’s a mistake and a trap for the Democrats to pretend all our problems can be solved by the political system. Or by the national government.