When President John Kennedy famously urged Americans to ask what they could do for their country, Bill Clinton and thousands of other young Americans marked the course of their careers into politics and public service.
When President Clinton made the same plea in 1992 and '94, extolling the nobility of public service and promising more student loans, America's young adults voted for him en masse. And today, volunteerism is at historic levels.
Whether America's youths ever truly embraced Mr. Clinton as a nouveau Kennedy is an open question. But now that Clinton's image is tarnished by charges of perjury and abuse of power, there are no signs that younger voters are abandoning their foundering leader and the ideals he touted.
According to a number of recent polls, Americans aged 18 to 29 regard Clinton much as the rest of Americans do: as an effective leader and politician but a bit of a scamp. A walk through the shady quadrangles of the University of Texas in Austin reveals that college students aren't abandoning their belief in public service or political aspirations just because their idealist in chief is in trouble.
"For me personally, this scandal hasn't changed my view of politics as a profession," says Jason Bair, a first-year graduate student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT and a self-described moderate Republican who approves of Clinton's job performance overall. "But then, for a lot of public-affairs students, maybe we're at that point in our lives where we think we can do a better job than the people who are currently running politics."
Turn the clock back 25 years, and these words could have been spoken by Clinton himself about a soon-to-resign President Nixon. But experts say there are vast differences between the political aspirations of Clinton's baby-boom generation and those of today's college students. Foremost among them is the fact that today's young idealists put more faith in individual action and less faith in the federal government as an engine for social change.
"We have seen a growing disenchantment with government, but if anything, that's spurred people to do more volunteering rather than less," says Diana DiNitto, a professor of social work at UT. Clinton can be credited with launching AmeriCorps and pushing a host of other volunteer programs, but today's youths "feel this kind of program is more effective at the local level."
Like Americans of all ages, young adults assess Clinton's troubles with deep ambivalence. According to a Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today, 74 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 thought Clinton had committed perjury and 60 percent disapproved of his handling of the Monica Lewinsky affair. But similar to the rest of the American populace, 64 percent approved of Clinton's job performance, and 63 percent said he should not leave office.
Their ambivalence extends to the federal government as well. In a 1996 poll, conducted by the National Election Studies department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 46 percent of Americans born after 1975 said they could trust Washington to "do the right thing most of the time." Clinton's generation, born between 1943 and 1958, was more skeptical: Only 33 percent trusted Washington most of the time.
IF this sounds like yet another sigh of "whatever!" from Generation X, forget about it. Out on UT's quadrangles, where students scurry past information tables about animal cruelty, ballroom dancing, and Baptist youth groups, students say they continue to see public service as a noble cause, no matter what happens to Clinton.
Elizabeth Hubnik, a senior in psychology, volunteers as a court advocate for children in cases of neglect or abuse. "My motivation is the children," she says. "Clinton has had no effect on me one way or another."
Matthew Hartman, a senior in English who founded a tutoring and mentoring group that serves local high schools, says Clinton deserves credit for pushing volunteering, but "he could have done much more." And while he doesn't believe Clinton's crimes come close to those of the Watergate era, he adds, "I don't think he [Clinton] realizes how much he has hurt this country."
At a table for the Hyde Park Baptist Church, Jennifer Traxel says Clinton's personal behavior is grounds for his removal. "Back in the Nixon scandal, Clinton said he should resign because he lied to the American people. I think he should take his own advice," she says
If such voices are muted in the political process, it may be because young adults don't vote as regularly as older adults do. In the Gallup poll, 71 percent of young adults said they had given "only a little" thought to the November election; only 29 of 185 respondents called themselves "likely voters." But experts say voting is only one of many ways that today's young adults show concern for their communities.
"If you take college students as a group, we've seen a tremendous growth in alternative spring breaks; instead of going to Fort Lauderdale, they do Habitat for Humanity," says Virginia Sapiro, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and director of a survey of young people's attitudes on government for the American National Election Study.
"But you'll notice, that's being led by Jimmy Carter, not Bill Clinton," she adds. "Bill Clinton would not have been successful in pushing AmeriCorps or Teach for America unless it was already seen as a fun thing to do."
The story is the same for those students who aspire to become the politicians, lobbyists, and community activists of tomorrow. Enrollment at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs, for instance, has remained steady and applications continue to be highly competitive.
Kim Upshaw, a master's degree student in public affairs, plans to work for an anti-poverty group. She says young people will always be drawn toward idealistic causes, as long as there are problems that need solving.
But she worries that the increasing scrutiny of a politician's private life will discourage many qualified people from seeking elective office. "If you are raising the bar so high that no one who ever told a lie can run for office," Ms. Upshaw says, "then only the egomaniacs who really can feel that scrutiny is worthwhile will run." She sighs. "That would be unfortunate."