Do We Really Think Money Is Dirty?

April 05, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Now we're getting down to the nitty-gritty. We're talking money. Money-losing. Money-making. Money-grubbing. Bill and Hillary's money, money, money.

When this couple walked onto the national stage two years ago, they carried with them all the baggage of the 1960s from its music to its message.

There was her change-the-world commencement speech at Wellesley. There was his anti-Vietnam letter from Oxford.

He had held marijuana to his lips. She had held onto her own name. Hillary became a surrogate for how we feel about the changing roles of women and Bill became a surrogate for how we feel about marriages that go bump in the night.

I never knew whether the first baby-boom couple to get to the White House would open up the old wounds of the 1960s or heal them. But with all the generational issues they roused -- sex, drugs and war -- I forgot about the M word. I forgot about Money.

If the much analyzed and mythologized Sixties Generation was anti anything, it was anti-materialism. The worst insult that one college radical could sling at another was that he had ''sold out,'' with all the implications of a cash register.

Now the Clintons are being accused -- and I use the word advisedly -- of being interested in money. The attention on their income circa 1979 is supposedly focused on whether they did anything legally or financially improper. But the rap is that it was morally improper for the do-good couple to go for the gold.

Hillary's short, successful ride on the beef that turned a $1,000 stake into a $100,000 windfall has changed her from Saint Hillary to Queen Midas. The Wall Street Journal, which has criticized her as a closet socialist, now gleefully trashes her as a closet capitalist.

David Gergen came back from a meeting with journalists -- mostly baby boomers themselves -- reporting their questions: ''How is it she went out there and made all the money? Is she just into money? Was she out there money-grubbing?''

The Clintons in turn are proving their membership in the Sixties by claiming virtue in the money they didn't make. The president and his men repeatedly talk about his modest governor's salary and her financial sacrifice to serve the public weal.

Well, for many in the Sixties, it was politically incorrect to care about money. The theme of ''The Big Chill'' was the big sellout, or at least the big accommodation. The most scorned member of the peer group was Yippie-turned-Yuppie Jerry Rubin.

As Sixties chronicler Todd Gitlin says, ''We were political reformers, not saints. When the great upheaval flattened out, most of us resumed the careers that we were on track for. And the rest of our lives have been lived in a peculiar double consciousness. On the one hand you feel like a world changer. On the other hand, you're a family person, a home owner. You draw lines in complicated ways.''

The Clintons were not the only ones of their generation or their persuasion to draw lines. They were not the only ones to be deeply critical of the Reagan years while adding comfortably to their own bank accounts. But as Gitlin says ruefully, ''those who claimed that they wanted to change the world are held up to a higher moral standard than others.''

There may be something of a double standard as well in the judging of Hillary Clinton. As the University of Massachusetts' Ralph Whitehead says, ''Our model of a public-spirited woman is Mother Teresa and our model of a public-spirited man is Lee Iacocca.''

But even today many men and women who want to do well while doing good or at least not bad find models in a Ben and Jerry making ice cream in Vermont or a Tom making toothpaste in Maine. They search for a ''socially responsible investment'' or a ''green company'' that also turns a nice profit. And they find the tension between finances and values a real one.

It is the curse of the Sixties generation to be continually judged by what they said and believed at 19 or 20 years old. It's also the challenge that makes them look over their own shoulders and worry about the compromises life presents. Which ones do you make? Which ones do you reject?

If the Clintons made money on beef 15 years ago, it wasn't a character flaw. Making a profit doesn't make a hypocrite. The trouble with the '80s wasn't that a Michael Milken made a fortune, but that he did so while wrecking other lives.

The Clintons have often tried to straddle the fault lines of their generation. Smoking without inhaling. Draft avoiding without evading. Pragmatism with idealism. Now the fault line is the bottom line.

Sex, drugs, war. That was the easy stuff. It's money that remains the touchiest moral matter long after the Age of Aquarius.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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