Washington literary climber Eric Liu is the king of all he surveys X CALIBER

June 27, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Washington -- On June 6, when President Clinton stood at the U.S. Military Cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, to give his commemorative D-Day speech, Eric Liu was in the audience, listening to the president read words that this young Yale graduate himself had written.

"Today, many of them are among us," the president said, referring to D-Day veterans. "Oh, they may walk with a little less spring in their step, and their ranks are growing thinner, but let us not forget, when they were young, these men saved the world."

"I looked over and saw all these old guys -- 75 to 80 years old -- listening, nodding their heads," Mr. Liu says over breakfast at a Washington cafe. "It was the first time they were being recognized. These tough-as-nails guys were shaking with tears."

It might have seemed improbable for a 25-year-old speech writer to be talking about generations of old, but then again, generations have been on Eric Liu's mind a lot the past few years. Though he may not want to save the world, he's clearly trying to change it.

In 1991, only a year out of Yale, Mr. Liu used $2,000 of his own money to start The New Progressive, a Washington magazine that publishes writings by emerging writers. He also edited the just-published "Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation" (W. W. Norton), a well-received anthology that touches on such issues as race, feminism and generational conflicts.

A few weeks ago, he was on the cover of Newsweek for its lead story, "The Myth of Generation X." He was the serious-looking guy to the right of hot-hot-hot sex columnist Anka Radakovich, who was flashing her best pouty pose.

Talk about portfolios: Eric Liu has worked on Capitol Hill as an aide to an influential senator, Democrat David Boren of rTC Oklahoma, who calls him "one of the most effective staff members I've ever had." He's been a speech writer for Bill Clinton and, for four months last year, for Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

That would be enough for most people, but Eric Liu is a young man in a hurry. A first-generation Chinese-American from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he just quit his job as a White House speech writer to enter Harvard Law School this fall, after a cross-country trip with his girlfriend. A career in civil rights work is possible, though he's not certain.

"I'd say it's been a pretty good month for Eric," his Washington-based agent, Rafe Sagalyn, said drily. "His new book comes out. The same week he's on the cover of Newsweek, he's cited by the New York Times as contributing to Bill Clinton's best speech ever. And the next week he quits the White House to go to law school. It's just frightening."

At first look, Eric Liu doesn't seem particularly impressive. He's boyish-looking, all of 5-feet-4, with wire-rim glasses and a brush crew cut straight out of the '50s. He's bright and immensely likable, reasonable and earnest.

Boy, is he earnest. It's a word that three people interviewed for this story used to describe Mr. Liu -- and one that he uses himself, with self-deprecating good humor. "My earnestness overwhelms some people," he acknowledges with a grin. "But there's no shame in being an optimist. It's my nature. I've come out of four years in Washington more idealistic than before."

"Eric is extraordinarily bright, but there are a lot of bright people in town," says Jeremy Rosner, who helped Mr. Liu land his White House job last November and himself just quit his job as a Clinton speech writer. "What separates him is his creativity and entrepreneurship, his optimism and creativity. He has that first-generation faith in America that is very refreshing. He really loves this country."

Mr. Liu's optimism is evident in "A Chinaman's Chance," his own essay in "Next." Several of the essays in "Next" have decidedly angry or skeptical tones. In "What Set You From, Fool?" African-American writer Paul Beatty writes, derisively: "The world has been force-fed the historical vicissitudes of the white man from Alley Oop cave dweller to rocket scientist."

In contrast, Mr. Liu sounds like a retro Beaver Cleaver in his essay. In "A Chinaman's Chance," he writes: "Mine must not be the first generation to lose America. Just as so many of our parents journeyed here to find their version of the American Dream, so must young Americans today journey across boundaries of race and class to rediscover one another." (Is the guy a speech writer or what?)

While a legislative assistant for Mr. Boren, he began The New Progressive because "there was this huge vacuum for a forum for young people." From the beginning, it was a serious-minded publication, its essays centering on such issues as women's rights ("The Victimization of Feminism"), student environmentalism ("Get Up, Clean Up") and the decline of America (Mr. Liu's own "The End of Progress?").

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