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Why Clinton Chose Maya Angelou to Read at his Inauguration

Moses Robinson/WireImage

No tedium vitae in the capital this week. The torch is being passed. Better the torch be passed than the past be torched, I'm sure; but still this is a fine moment to insist on the limitations of generational analysis. Twentysomething, thirtysomething, fortysomething: Were there ever emptier attributes? The new general descriptions make the old general descriptions look positively individuating. A generation is a singularly paltry prop for an identity, unless you wish to be known for, and have your reasons and your desires explained by, the popular culture to which you surrendered as a child. In this country, generational analysis is largely a series of references to video and vinyl, with the objective of making an audience seem like a community. This suits the entertainment business fine, and it relieves the pundits of anything more strenuous in the way of cultural analysis. Its effect, however, is to deny the most obvious characteristic of every generation, which is diversity. Everyone who admired Napoleon Solo and Country Joe and the Fish is not like everyone else who admired Napoleon Solo and Country Joe and the Fish. Or, to put it more painfully, the first of his generation to find himself in national office was not Bill Clinton or Al Gore, it was Dan Quayle.

This inauguration is a succession, but for that reason it is also worth remarking that being next is not the same thing as being young. We, I mean those of us who are more or less the new president's age, are not young anymore; or at least we are not anymore the youngest, which is what seemed to matter the most. Therefore the tone of some of this revelry troubles me. It is self-adoring in the customary way. Having mistaken fun for history, we are now mistaking history for fun. But this is not Yasgur's farm, this is South-Central and Sarajevo; and the ones who will err, if they err, will be us. I know this sounds solemn, but it should also come as a relief. Who wants forever to be promising? Promise is tiresome and time is passing. And it will not hurt us to learn that leaders and teachers are always rattled, and improvising, and anxious for the understanding of those who come after them (that is, after us).

I do not mena to sugggeest, of course, that Clinton is lacking in seriousness. The saxophonist-in-chief is positively square in his consecration to public service and its institutions. Sometimes I think that Clinton was not the oldest young person in the campaign, but the youngest old person. (The hellion appears to have no trouble with business as usual; Covenant and Burling, his administration might be called.) His seriousness seems to consist, however, in a combination of ambition and pedantry. There is something spiritually thin about Clinton. Finally his constant talk—at last we have a president who speaks in sentences, but all the time—leaves only an impression of articulateness. Detail has mastered him as much as he has mastered detail. He has the common touch, but it looks a lot like massified networking; and his populism looks like a need for the love of every living American.

The most disturbing quality about Clinton, however, is his indifference to contradiction. Not excluding the political middle by not excluding the logical middle: that appears to be the Clinton strategy. And so be can hold in his mind, simultaneously and sincerely, notions that cannot really he held together. The deficit must be reduced, but there must he growth; economic policy will come first, but foreign policy will not come second; the rules about lobbyists will be a light unto the nations, but Ron Brown will be the secretary of commerce; the capital does not understand the country, but (as he told his first meeting with Democratic congressmen) "Washington works better than the country understands"; the persecution of gays in the military must end immediately, but it must end incrementally; the daughter will go to Sidwell Friends, but (in the words of Jean-Paul Belmondo, I mean George Stephanopoulos) "they didn't reject public schools"; and so on. I do not doubt that some of these contradictions denote an admirable attempt to transcend intellectual and political convention. But I suspect that many of them denote a personal inclination toward the deferral of decision. The fear of excluding can then represent itself as a love of including, and make indecision seem like the spirit of inquiry.

It is not leadership to tell people what they want to hear. It is leadership to tell people what they do not want to bear, and to give them a reason to listen. I do not doubt that Clinton has a skill for making friends. I hope that he has a skill for making enemies. And I am not referring to Senator Dole. (Anybody can make an enemy of Senator Dole.) The philosophical and political differences within the Democratic Party were not reconciled by Clinton's nomination, they were postponed by the prospect of his victory. But he has won, and they are back. And the truth is that a lot of those differences cannot be reconciled. All the Democrats, new and old, cannot be right. The big tent is good for politics, but it is bad for government.

Last and in Washington least, culture. It turns out that philistinism is a bipartisan phenomenon. Sensitive souls were shaken a few months ago to learn that Clinton's favorite musician is Kenny G. (His "sax adviser," said the spokesperson in Little Rock; copy editors, stay quick.) Much more discouraging was Clinton's choice of poet for his inauguration. In this respect, certainly, he is no Jack Kennedy. Among all the poets of America, black and white, he chose Maya Angelou, who is sort of a cross between Rod McKuen and Maxine Waters. The other day there arrived in the office a book of "Holocaust Poems," on the back of which I discovered this blurb by Angelou: "Falling firm Heaven is a painful and poignant offering which reminds me that none of us has survived the Holocaust without scars." Us? This first person plural is not empathy, it is impertinence. I hasten to assure the poet inaugurate that I survived Jim Crow without a scratch. And to thank her, I guess, for reminding me, as William Rehnquist dusts off his Bible and Mick Fleetwood unpacks his drums, that a counterfeit community is worse than no community at all.