When Bill Clinton took the podium to address the country in January 1993, I was moved to tears. Here, then, was my first president.
My parents had had all the presidents up to that point. Here was a man of my generation. Married to the working mother of a school-aged child who was his educational and professional equal. To someone like me.
Clinton acknowledged the passing of the “greatest generation” when he thanked outgoing President George H.W. Bush for his 50 years of service to the country. And then he described how our generation, “raised in the shadow of the Cold War,” would rise on this new morning to preserve and enhance the world for our children.
“Anyone who has ever watched a child’s eyes wander into sleep knows what posterity is. Posterity is the world to come ... from whom we have borrowed our planet and to whom we bear sacred responsibility.”
I was watching children wander into sleep in those days. I knew that sacred responsibility.
But when he held that news conference in January 1998 and said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” I cried again. Tears of rage and betrayal. I knew just looking at him that he was lying. And I wrote a column saying exactly that.
When he finally confessed to his wife, and to us, in August, I felt nothing but cold fury. He was dead to me. And all the promise of his administration was dead, too.
But like the college boyfriend who cheated on you and broke your heart, the years have dulled the pain and the loss, and you find yourself meeting for coffee and feeling that old black magic again.
And so it was seeing Clinton on stage with comedic newsman Stephen Colbert in front of a bunch of college kids who have no memory of stained navy blue dresses and phone sex and impeachment. Colbert introduced him as “the most beloved living president other than Martin Sheen” of “The West Wing,” and I had to laugh, as he no doubt intended. Exactly.
Thanks to Clinton, redemption is now as much a part of presidential history as cherry trees and log cabins. When he took command of the Democratic National Convention last summer for one of the greatest “arithmetic” lessons ever, his brain power wowed me again.
He took the stage at the Clinton Global Initiative University to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow),” which had been his 1992 campaign theme. He sat next to Colbert, clearly wary of the unpredictable faux Republican right-winger, who had warned him against using any of the famous Clinton charm on him.
Colbert asked him why he was working so hard to save the world when he might be enjoying the time off after working so hard as president. What’s in it for you? Colbert wanted to know.
He said that he wanted to leave the world a better place for the grandchildren he hoped to have, but then he added: “I’m good at it, and it makes me happy.”
Clinton did what Colbert predicted he would do. Ask him how he is doing, and 15 minutes later you are listening to him talk about micro loans to people in Sumatra. Bottom line: He believes doing good in the world will create opportunities for the United States.
“It makes me happy, I do it because I’d be a slug if I didn’t do it considering the life I have had, the life the American people have given me. I think I am just doing what I should do, and it makes me happy.”
At this point, Colbert, who had promised to use a mirror to deflect the power of Clinton’s charm, picked up the mirror.
I didn’t have a mirror to protect me, and I was charmed. Charmed by the humility of his message and how right he is that we are citizens of the world, not just citizens of the United States.
He was weak, flawed and arrogant. Perhaps he still is. But Bill Clinton is still my president.