Yes, his nominee for Attorney General enraged the masses. No, the middle class will not get its promised tax cut. Yes, he carried out his threat to resurrect Fleetwood Mac. But the people aren't going to jump down his throat at every little thing. Because feeling good about Bill feels good.
Virtually since the day he was elected, various consumer confidence surveys tell us, the number of Americans cheered up by Clinton has exceeded the number that actually voted for him. They're optimistic, the polls add, despite their suspicion that they're going to be disappointed.
Welcome to the era of neo-cynicism, the latest philosophical step for the generation now in power. For those who came of age around the same time as Bill, the first phase was idealism (you remember that). Then came the descent into cynicism, with its chronic distrust of authority and its television-induced, advertising-conditioned irony.
While such attitudes are fine as long as someone else is in power, they don't hold up when it's one of your own at the top. Hence the evolution of neo-cynicism, a way to preserve smart-assed disillusionment but at the same time feel positive. The neo-cynic admits idealism is no longer possible, but it is nevertheless desirable, even necessary. For the neo-cynic, hope is an act of will.
Hope, of course, was the key message of the recently concluded inaugural week. And in the hope department, the shindig was an event-marketer's dream. The H-word was on the lips of everyone in Washington that week: the mobilized armies of cabbies and waiters; the FOFOBs on line at the Inaugural Store; the VIP wives slouched against their minks in posh hotel lobbies.
Souvenir vendors did brisk business on street corners selling T-shirts emblazoned with the new presidential icon, a sax and shades image of Bill that touted 'da Prez' as 'the cure for the blues.'
But most people could not utter the word hope without sounding apologetic, as if they were violating their own best judgment. A 28-year-old staffer at a Clinton-connected media consulting firm acknowledged that 'da Prez' had a lot to live up to, and added that she didn't believe he would be able to. 'But you know what?' she said defiantly, 'I don't care. I want to be happy. I want to be excited.'
If you're wondering whether you're a neo-cynic, take this test. Which souvenir button would you rather possess from the Clinton inauguration? The one that proclaims, 'I still believe in a place called Hope'? Or the one that says, 'Inhale to the Chief'? If you're not a member of that small minority of true believers and you answered the former, you are an old-fashioned cynic, a collector of kitsch and a watcher of Gilligan's Island reruns. If you picked the second, you're a proper neo-cynic. Yeah, we suspect Bill bent the truth for the sake of political expediency. But we really don't expect any better from politicians. Besides, the button's kind of funny.
The neo-cynicism crosses generations. If it didn't, Bill Clinton would never have become president, not with the bimbo baggage and the questions about his draft status. But neo-cynicism can be very forgiving, precisely because it expects the worst. At the same time, you couldn't invent a more fitting leader for the age than Bill.
He is the Hugs President, the uber-Oprah, the sax-blowing, camera-conscious glad-hander who provokes our skepticism but survives it because he is not a neo-cynic himself. For although Clinton stands as a symbol of his generation, he is also an anamoly. Like a boy in a bubble, Bill's ambition has insulated him from the neo-cynicism that infected his peers.
That's why he's president. And that's why his slickness is almost as good as sincerity. Neo-cynicism, itself almost as good as sincerity, is all about making do with lesser versions of the real thing.
Along those lines, another word heard a lot during the inauguration was 'Kennedy.' Said a cab driver in her 50s, 'It hasn't been like this since Kennedy.' And at the swearing-in ceremony, when Billy Graham stumbled over 'President-elect Ken . . . Clinton,' the huge crowd gasped and giggled nervously at this mass consciousness-sized Freudian slip. Yet I doubt anyone in that crowd believed we were about to embark on Camelot II.
We already know that Bill Clinton is no John Kennedy. But we also know that John Kennedy was no John Kennedy, either. There is no 'real thing.' A cynic would say that means no leaders are possible. A neo-cynic would insist it means we make leaders when we need them.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)