Out of America: Youth falls out of favour at the court of Bill Clinton

WASHINGTON - Youth is a blunder, wrote Benjamin Disraeli back in 1844. A century and a half later Clinton's White House, once the chaotic kingdom of the young, seems to have reached the same conclusion. This summer has been a roll-call of misery for the administration: Paula Jones; Haiti; Whitewater hearings; humiliating legislative snarl-ups over crime and health care; and tumbling approval ratings.

But it has been an especially wretched time for the thirty- and forty-something Wunderkinder who were to be the cutting edge of the Clinton Revolution. Some have been shown the door, and others will be soon. Vacancy advertisements, however, carry a crucial proviso: if you are under 50 and without at least a decade of experience in Washington, don't bother to apply. The Revolution has fizzled. The consequence is a generational change in reverse.

The decline and fall of the brash young courtiers began in the spring of 1993, when David Gergen, image-maker to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan turned bland savant, was summoned to lend his insider's wisdom to an already faltering Clinton cause. The White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers (then 32, now 33), and other Young Turks from the campaign are said to have wept at the appointment of a man who embodied everything they had successfully run against in 1992.

Mr Gergen's first six months at the White House were Mr Clinton's best, including bullseyes on a deficit reduction package, Nafta and Gatt. But if things were bad in mid-1993, they are far worse now. And the workaholic whizz- kids are in worse odour than ever.

First and most obvious, they are kept off television. Take George Stephanopoulos, whose cool political judgement has made him perhaps one of the President's closest advisers. But those skills are no longer aired in public; for all his icy composure, Mr Stephanopoulos looks even younger than his 33 years. His gravitas comes over as cockiness. These days, the defence of the administration is left to the new White House Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, 56, a former California congressman and budget director who exudes charm and button- down efficiency in equal measure; and 76-year-old worldly- wise Lloyd Cutler, the White House Counsel.

But Mr Stephanopoulos' job is not in danger - which is more than can be said for some of his contemporaries. If Mr Panetta has his way, Dee Dee Myers' days are numbered. Just 37, David Wilhelm is to walk the plank as Democratic party chairman: his effective replacement is another hardbitten ex-congressman called Tony Coelho, safely over the 50 barrier.

Whitewater is about to claim more heads: certainly that of Roger Altman, the Deputy Treasury Secretary, and possibly the hapless Joshua Steiner, the 28- year-old Treasury Chief of Staff of disavowed diary fame, whose squirming before his Senate inquisitors even aroused the maternal instincts of one of them. 'When I look at you,' said California's Barbara Boxer, 'I see the exuberance of youth, the exaggeration of youth, the loveliness of youth, along with some of the problems of youth.' Americans might be excused for wondering, should people like that be running the country?

In fact, youth is the the preferred hallmark of Democratic administrations. Jody Powell was only a couple of years older than Ms Myers when he became Jimmy Carter's White House press secretary. JFK, Clinton's model, gave the job to Pierre Salinger, then 35, while Teddy Sorensen, President Kennedy's speechwriter, counsellor and confidant - the Stephanopoulos of his day - was just 32 at Camelot's dawn in January 1961.

There is further consolation for the threatened thirty-somethings. Boy wonders, too, can metamorphose into gurus. Take Clark Clifford, now a frail 87, but long the doyen of Washington's Democratic insiders. It is easy to forget that almost half a century ago, Mr Clifford was a young star at the court of Harry Truman. In her position, Ms Myers is remarkable because of her sex, not her age.

But unlike her, those youngsters of a bygone age did not fear for their jobs. They did not have Mr Clinton. Today's search for weathered authority has come about because he projects so little himself. Would JFK, Jimmy Carter or Harry Truman have answered a question on television, as Mr Clinton did earlier this year, whether his underpants were briefs or boxer shorts? Would anyone have dared ask? You cannot blame the infant prodigies for everything.

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