PHILADELPHIA -- Gov. Bill Clinton, now on a glide path to the Democratic presidential nomination but still plagued by his reputation as "Slick Willie," found a way here the other day to combat it.
He came to the famed Wharton School of Business and rather than telling the faculty and students what they usually hear from politicians -- how great the school is -- he pointedly reminded them of the prominent business villains who have graduated from it.
The Arkansas governor called Wharton "a powerful symbol of where our country went wrong in the 1980s . . . where Michael Milken got the idea to use junk bonds to leverage corporate buyouts" and where Donald Trump, "who glorified the art of the deal," learned his moves. Photos of both hung on the school's "Wall of Fame," he noted, "until Trump went bankrupt and Milken was on his way to jail."
Clinton deplored the fact that by 1987, 25 percent of Wharton's graduating class was going into high-paying investment banking "rather than in the apparently less glamorous work of creating jobs, goods and services to make America richer." He closed by challenging the students to help "bring an end to the something-for-nothing ethic of the '80s."
Somewhat surprisingly, the students applauded Clinton loud and long for his candor, which did not seem to square with his "Slick Willie" reputation of pandering to any constituency in sight.
Clinton aides said later that the decision to bait the lion in his own den was in part a calculation that the lion of the 1990s -- the current Wharton student body -- has already changed considerably in its outlook about personal goals and responsibilities.
On the most practical level, one campaign strategist says, the big-money jobs in investment banking, junk-bond dealing and the rest are not out there anymore. But the negative publicity generated by the Milkens and the Trumps, and the general decline in business morality, he says, have also persuaded many of today's business students that their own career house does indeed need cleaning up. Hence the positive reaction to Clinton's little lecture.
The Wharton speech was not the first time a political candidate has gone to voters and scolded them for a lack of civic responsibility, but it is rare. Among the most memorable was the penchant of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in his ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign to do just that.
Kennedy would go to a medical school, tell the students and interns how privileged they were, and challenge them to eschew lucrative private practices in favor of working with the poor. Repeatedly in the midst of the Vietnam War, he would ask draft-deferred students who opposed it whether they felt guilty knowing that other Americans, particularly minorities and the poor, were fighting and dying while they were safe on their campuses.
On nearly all of those occasions, Kennedy would get wild applause and, at least among college students who voted, strong support for his candor. It is obviously Clinton's hope that this sort of challenging talk will produce the same kind of support.
Candor in politics, however, can be a tricky tactic, as Walter Mondale found out in 1984 when he told voters in his 1984 nomination acceptance speech that fiscal reality would require him, if elected, to raise taxes.
In the Wharton speech, Clinton listed a number of examples in which President Bush tailored policy positions or proposals under political pressure from GOP challenger Patrick Buchanan and from Clinton himself. He noted that at about the same time he was speaking at Wharton, Bush was in nearby Allentown proposing more college student loans -- a year after having cut some student loans from his own budget proposal to Congress.
"Now," he went on, "they say I'm slick." The Wharton students laughed and applauded the line.
Here in Pennsylvania, his victory in the April 28 primary over Jerry Brown is now widely expected, with or without the future MBA vote. But if candor can combat the "Slick Willie" reputation, it can have utility for Clinton beyond the primary here.