What's to like about Clinton?

Thomas Caplan

November 12, 1992|By Thomas Caplan

TWENTY-EIGHT years ago I campaigned for a new friend, a boy whom fate, working through the alphabet, had settled a few doors from mine on the second-floor corridor of Georgetown University's Loyola Hall.

My friend was running for president of our freshman class on a platform advocating a newsletter, a class council, referendums on important issues, an improvement in student parking and the involvement of all members of our class in work on the homecoming float and freshman dance.

For the past 13 months, in so many sections of this country, I have encountered the faces of that long-ago autumn, weathered only a bit, in the successful campaign of the same man, this time for president of the United States.

Over the decades, day by day, evening by evening, Bill Clinton has forged that imaginative connection, upon which real friendship is always based, with so many people that we have become known by an acronym, FOBs, or Friends of Bill. Yet, lost in such blithe categorization is an answer to the question: Why? What about Bill Clinton has inspired the devotion of so many?

A week ago Wednesday, in the brilliant Southern November morning following the Clinton victory, some of us, including his college roommates and many of his oldest friends from Arkansas, gathered at the home of Carolyn Staley, who had been his next-door neighbor when they were children in Hot Springs.

In the stillness which had replaced the jubilation of the night before, it seemed worth looking at the man whose circumstances and responsibilities had changed so utterly even as his essential nature remained constant, worth enumerating the qualities we had known and which the country had already begun -- but only begun -- to appreciate.

Bill Clinton has achieved his grand version of the American dream exactly because he is so honestly and resolutely intent upon extending that dream to others. Deriving from the selfless spirit of his mother and from his own deeply religious nature, his most profound instinct is to help other people recognize and realize their inherent potential -- to include all students, each student, in work on the float or at the dance.

Potential, to him, is a sacred trust whose development and exercise we owe not just to ourselves, but to the inheritors of the world which will soon enough follow us. Those with public responsibilities are thus duty-bound to encourage rather than stifle it. This is the way he has lived his life and exercised his powers. Few beyond his circle of friends yet grasp how complete and natural his empathy is. Far from a handy politician's trick, a firm handshake or the ability to fix eye contact, it is the essence of a personality which is more artistic than analytical in its grasp of another's emotional fiber and context.

Early in this campaign, traveling across New Hampshire and then, after midnight, toward the lights of New York, I watched him, in just under 40 hours, read the eyes and the worry lines around them, hear the stories of Americans who lived from the top to the bottom, from what might be called the center to what might be called the fringes (depending on definition) of national life, always learning rather than judging, expanding his sense of others' circumstances and talents and so of the incomparable diversity which has always been America's strength.

It is fashionable to conclude that this election was settled on the issue of the economy, but there is an even more fundamental question, giving rise to a more persistent and painful apprehension, which, I believe, the electorate understood and addressed. Put simply, it is whether the idea of America, the enabling dream of Jefferson and Madison and Lincoln, will subsume the origins and situations of its people or whether, in some ultimate cataclysm, it will fracture beneath the weight of our differences. This is an old, but newly urgent, concern -- for us and for those elsewhere who would model their societies on ours.

One preliminary sign of hope flashed through Little Rock election night. By dusk, a fine mist was all that remained of a timid rain. On West Markham Street, an enormous television, half a story high, had been erected, and crowds of celebrants, heading for or from parties, paused for early bulletins.

As states, first from the eastern and then central time zones, fell into the Clinton column, what was held in common seemed to outweigh the differences among strangers who passed one another, often breaking into unexpected smiles or laughter. Arkansas farmers, big-city politicians, friends from the candidate's youth, curious lawyers from Washington, homemakers and shop assistants, reporters from all over the world, met one another's eyes even in passing, their separate backgrounds and aspirations momentarily less salient than their common victory, purpose and presence at an instant of American history.

I heard someone say that we could be returning to the nation we had been 30 years ago when John Kennedy was president and people felt confident about the future. "That would be good for the kids," another said. "They've never known that, really."

And another sign: After the final presidential debate, we drove an hour and a quarter from East Lansing to Ann Arbor where, just before 11 o'clock on a night which would bring snow, thousands stood along the streets and in the quadrangle of the University of Michigan. Some were using candles to illuminate a new sign: "Unite the States!"

I watched Bill Clinton, who had spent every instant of the last year trying to do just that, bite his lip and pause. Our breaths rose before us. He could not hold back his tear.

Thomas Caplan is a novelist who lives in Baltimore.

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