What the young and successful look forward to

May 24, 1994|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Special to The Sun

Whatever else the Clinton presidency does, it has already shaped the precocious spirit of the '90s. This is no longer a country governed by old men, but one where the brightest kids in the class seem to have taken over while the teacher was out of the room.

Ever since Bill and Hillary and their entourage of 24-year-olds moved into the White House, Americans have been wondering about success and youth, and how well they go together in such different fields as politics, art, business and journalism.

Is it fun to get where you're going so fast? What does it mean for your future? Is life just a letdown after a stunning success at age 32? What are people like George Stephanopoulos going to do when they grow up?

The conventional cliche -- as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed when he wrote that there are no second acts in American lives -- is that youthful success can be a burden as well as a blessing.

Consider the story of Denny Hansen, the subject of a recent biography by his Yale classmate, author Calvin Trillin. Hansen, a Rhodes Scholar, made the cover of Life in the '50s as a symbol of the youthful promise of being in the top of the class at Yale.

Mr. Trillin and his college circle expected Hansen to be president one day, but his life didn't work out that way. Instead, in "Remembering Denny," Mr. Trillin wonders what led Hansen, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, to end his life at 55 by suicide.

But early success stories do not always end in tragedy. Consider Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence at 33 and had a pretty good career after that. Or Einstein, who had published his theory of relativity by age 25.

Plenty of precocious people fill the halls of the Clinton administration, since the president is known to favor people who remind him of himself when he was a little younger. Besides Mr. Stephanopoulos, senior adviser to President Clinton, they include Bruce Reed, who advises the president on domestic policy, and Kathleen deLaski, the first woman to serve as Pentagon press secretary.

On the question of whether their everyday work is fun, Mr. Reed and Ms. deLaski, both 34, left no doubt about it.

"It's a thrill just walking into the White House," says Mr. Reed, who keeps a list of Mr. Clinton's campaign promises taped to the wall. Ms. deLaski describes one whirlwind week of "zipping around the former Soviet Union, meeting heads of state." She sees her work as "the most interesting job I'll ever have."

34 is too old

In music, 34 would be much too late to bloom.

"In the fiddle business, if you don't have some kind of career going by 25, it's hard to start," says Cho-Liang Lin, 34, the Chinese-American violinist believed by many to be the best in the world under 40. When he made his American debut at 18, he thought it was "not a minute too early."

Looking back at the thrill of playing at Carnegie Hall and with four of the Big Five American orchestras by 21, Mr. Lin calls them "the most exciting events anyone can hope for." So, clearly, his brilliant career has been fun for him, too.

In the world of commerce, on the other hand, young entrepreneurs may sweat and struggle for a long time before they smell any roses. Alan Hirsch founded the Baltimore City Paper in 1978, when he was fresh out of Johns Hopkins Class of '77.

"Precociously stupid" is the way Mr. Hirsch sees himself in retrospect. If he and his partner, Russ Smith, "had the knowledge we acquired over eight years, we never would have tried it. We didn't know how hard and torturous it would be."

The point when things turned around, Mr. Hirsch says, was a Best of Baltimore party at the Hyatt Hotel in 1985. After that, he says, "we were no longer the City Paper who?"

Two years later, Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Smith sold the Baltimore and Washington City Papers to the tune of $4 million, when Mr. Hirsch was 31. "Before that, I was a schlepper," he says. "Then it was, Wow, you're a genius."

Pulitzer at 28

Most journalists just dream about winning a Pulitzer Prize. Sydney Freedberg won her first Pulitzer when she was 28, for a Detroit News series on suspicious shipboard deaths in the Navy. After the accolade, though, anxiety set in.

"I wish I would have been 55," Ms. Freedberg says. "Then I could have rested on my laurels. It was very hard, being so young. I wondered, will I ever echo this achievement?"

For Ms. Freedberg, there was a time when she thought the future could never equal her past. Then, as she tells the story, "I decided that this was just ridiculous. I started to have fun, go on my little crusades."

When she started to relax, she says, "I got lucky and won a Pulitzer." Again. At 37, she won her second prize for reporting in the Miami Herald on the criminal deeds of religious leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh, in 1991.

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