A presidential embrace with attitude

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The Independent Online
ON THE night of Bill Clinton's election victory, millions of Americans saw the young President-elect turn to Senator Al Gore, his successful running mate, and enfold him in an emotional embrace. Nothing could have announced more effectively the coming to power of the Vietnam generation in the United States. The Great Embrace broke one of the last social taboos in American public life. It would be easier to imagine Ronald Reagan, George Bush or even John F Kennedy trampling on the American flag than to picture them hugging their vice-presidents on national television.

While few Americans are put off now by the sight of movie stars and athletes embracing at triumphant moments, the 'serious' worlds of business and public affairs have been saddled by the heritage of Puritan (both large and small P) admonitions against showing emotion: frontiersmen do not cry; they touch, but only to shake hands.

Among the more shocking (to our elders) traits of Sixties youth was the 'in- touch-with-feelings' mode that permeated every aspect of their lifestyles. That generation has long since abandoned putting flowers in its hair - growing up to become mortgage-paying adults - yet it left a permanent mark of emotional candour on American culture. To see a US president who is unafraid of showing affection with someone other than his wife is to realise that Washington is now under the control of a new - to use a Nineties term - attitude.

Bill Clinton was no counterculture child. But he participated in anti-war protests, tried to dodge the draft and possesses enough of the cultural and psychological baggage of that era to show that growing up in the Sixties was as crucial a formative experience for members of his generation as the Second World War was for his predecessors. Besides the Great Embrace, several other clues suggest the different political culture that the world will have to deal with from Washington.

With Mr Clinton's post-election promise, now partly fulfilled, to make his administration and circle of top advisers 'look like America', he sought to end the divisions of class, gender and race that turned much of American politics into a minefield during the Seventies and Eighties. He also spoke of bringing 'our people together as never before' to make 'our diversity a source of strength in a world . . . where everyone counts and everyone is a part of America's family'.

These words contain most of the points originally placed on the national agenda by the alternative politics of 30 years earlier. As those who thought about such things then realised, the contradiction between America's unchallenged power overseas and its failure to develop a just society at home would exact a terrible price. By turning its attention away from unfinished social business to fight the Cold War, the post-war Establishment lost its moral authority in the eyes of those campaigning for civil rights and an end to a costly conflict in South-east Asia.

The 1992 election suggests that this perspective has at last found its way into mainstream America. Americans voted in an overwhelming majority for Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, the two candidates who campaigned against 'elitist' politics. The leaders of the Sixties generation similarly traced their roots to the populist egalitarianism of an earlier America. The Clinton administration will therefore look and sound uncannily familiar to anyone who marched in the streets of Paris or Berlin in 1968. It will also for ever alter international perceptions of America as dominated by a Wasp male establishment.

Even as their peers are coming to power, however, exhilaration among Clinton supporters 'of a certain age' is matched by an unmistakable queasiness. Mr Clinton's election, wrote someone named Matt Rohde in the New York Times, 'is unsettling confirmation that we can no longer move back in with Mom and Dad if things get difficult'.

The author, a visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University in New York, is a bona fide member of the Sixties generation.