Clinton In Crisis: Few find joy in a nation that loses its innocence

THE BABY BOOMERS: Wendy Wasserstein's generation had found its own champion. Now its liberal agenda is forever tarnished

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THE NIGHT William Jefferson Clinton was elected, my lawyer called me weeping: "This is the first time there's been one of us in the White House." He was beside himself with anticipation. "Finally I feel truly reflected in the government. I think it's our time."

My lawyer is the chairman of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. He is a graduate of Harvard College. Among the baby boomers, my lawyer and Bill Clinton were singled out early as "the best and the brightest". Like myself, they are members of a narcissistically arrogant generation who once chanted "don't trust anyone over 30" and are now rounding 50.

My lawyer's contention has always been that "once we're in charge things will be better''. When Bill Clinton was elected he saw in The White House for the first time in his adult life a true advocate of a liberal agenda: gays in the military, national health care and increased endowment for the arts. Happy days were here again.

With Bill Clinton, the generation who were too young to demythologise Kennedy, had finally found their way back into the mainstream. In fact, Bill Clinton shook hands with John F Kennedy when he was a high school student.The link was forever made .

Until the election of Bill Clinton, John Kennedy was the only president I secretly thought of as mine. Coming of age during the years of Nixon, Bush and Reagan, one looked at the presidency as the home of Republican patriarchs at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Though my liberal Ivy League contemporaries who became investment bankers and movie studio presidents accrued fortunes during these years, their own political identity was in search of a candidate. Nice Jimmy Carter from Plains, Georgia, wasn't us. He didn't have that Ivy League or Rhodes scholar cachet.

If there are six degrees of separation between leaders and constituents, as far as Bill Clinton and his liberal intelligentsia following were concerned it seemed at most, three. The set designer of my play The Heidi Chronicles, can still remember Bill Clinton's lunch card number from when he worked as a drama student behind the cash register at Yale Law School cafeteria. The artistic director of Lincoln Centre's best friend from Harvard was Hillary Clinton's law school room mate. Now a family court judge, she remembers when the impressive Hillary and Bill began to date.

A year into his first term, I was invited to a small dinner at The White House, which included Julia Roberts and Toni Morrison. The President was seated beside the distinguished author but immediately after sought out the starlet. He invited her and her then husband Lyle Lovett to the Oval Office. My date and I were standing nearby and the invitation was extended.

The President was glowing. It was a week after Yasser Arafat and Itzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn. Clearly, this was a man who was relishing his position. He leaned back against the unimposing desk and said: "This was Jack Kennedy's.'' For all of us, the cycle was complete.

A friend of mine called me this week to ask if as a dramatist I thought the recent events were tragic. The tragedy here is not Miss Lewinsky, her mother, or even the man who shook Jack Kennedy's hand. The tragedy is this is the President of the United States who we are eagerly dishing, The tragedy is that somehow we've been brought to this place. There are no heroic proportions to The Jerry Springer Show.

Three weeks ago the English director Nicholas Hytner and I went to a fundraiser for the Democratic National Party at my brother's home on Long Island. It was mostly a gathering of investment bankers, much like my brother, at a $25,000 a plate dinner. Mr Hytner and I were "comped" as the artistic fringe.

That evening there was no mention of Monica or her dress. The President sat beside the director of Goldman Sachs and pressed him for guidance about Japan. After dinner, Bill Clinton took questions about Russia, Japan, and our own economy. When he left, the bankers commented on Mr Clinton's intelligence: "He's extremely impressive." The Goldman Sachs futurologist nodded his head.

In many ways, it was a relief to remember the reason why the majority of Americans elected him. As I looked at my brother, who is Bill Clinton's age, I wondered if this presidency would become our political legacy. In our time our man who seemed so deft, so agile at swimming through political tides, was now at best treading water.

Last week Bill Clinton visited Florida and conned us with the story of the young boy he met who said he wanted to grow up to be president. At the same time, I was visiting Nicholas Hytner in London and his 10-year- old nephew came by for tea. Nick showed Joe, who had recently completed a poem on the nature of God, a photo of the President with his arms around us taken at my brother's party. Immediately the 10-year-old burst out laughing. He had heard all about Monica's dress.

Bill Clinton took polls in shopping malls before he dared make an unpopular policy statement. He revamped his position on welfare with the doggedness of an ear to the ground Hollywood studio executive. He even managed to tell the country that we would all heal from his most recent apology. Bill Clinton is now sorrier than sorry, but he could not maintain the respect of a 10-year-old intelligent Englishman.

He has provided us with topics for every kind of would-be pundit, agent, and website opinion maker. But what will be indelible is that this presidency will have linked any shred of my lawyer's liberal agenda, from gay rights to arts advocacy, with a seamy scandal. The President who so expediently spun his way from the far left has now seriously undermined the centre.

t Wendy Wasserstein, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright, lives in New York.

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