Warning of a nation threatened by destructive cynicism, President Clinton on Friday urged UCLA students to take responsibility for rebuilding the nation as an earlier generation took responsibility from the ashes of World War II.
Clinton, the featured speaker at a ceremony commemorating UCLA’s 75th birthday, said that he envies a generation that is beginning its adulthood “at the edge of a new century.” But he warned the audience of 9,000 at Pauley Pavilion that, while he saw a generation of “seekers” before him, they face not only wrenching change but a dangerous turn in public attitudes.
The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and President John F. Kennedy “made us believe that citizenship is a wonderful thing,” Clinton said. If President Kennedy were alive today, however, he would “be absolutely shocked at the pessimism, the negativism, the destructive tone of public discourse in America today.”
And while he spoke of the future’s bright opportunities, he painted the nation again and again in dark tones that seemed to suggest his own deepening frustration at the attacks on his own programs and himself.
“This country was not built by bad-mouthing,” Clinton said. “We cannot afford to engage in the citizenship of division and distraction and destruction.”
He cited linguist Deborah Tannen’s contention that the nation has been caught up in a “culture of critique.”
“One sure way to get instant public standing in our popular culture is to slam somebody else,” he said. “If you work on bringing people together and you talk about it, you’re likely to elicit a yawn. But if you bad-mouth people, you can get yourself a talk show.”
Clinton was beginning a two-day swing to politically vital California, the 12th of his presidency. The trip will allow him to attend to several governmental and partisan chores.
He stopped earlier Friday in San Bernardino to talk about defense conversion at the former Norton Air Force Base and attended a $1-million fund-raiser Friday night in Beverly Hills for Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Today he is scheduled to take part in an Armed Forces Day ceremony at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento before attending a second Democratic fund-raiser.
Draped in gray and black academic robes, Clinton described how the nation faced a pivotal moment 75 years ago when newly founded UCLA was a two-year teachers’ college at the end of a dirt road from Hollywood. Then the nation’s hottest novelist was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was writing about a “lost generation” that had grown up to find “all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”
That America, Clinton said, withdrew from the world, refusing to “prepare our people to live in the world as it was.” He said young Americans should not follow that example but the model set by the young people who will be honored at the June 6 D-day commemoration in Normandy.
The invasion of Nazi-held France in 1944 was “the work of citizen soldiers who were mostly between the ages of 18 and 25, people who had grown up in the false prosperity of the ‘20s and the bitter prosperity of the ‘30s,” he said. Suggesting a parallel with the 1990s, he said, they were “people who read books and saw movies that portrayed them as slackers and the future as dark and cynical.”
But they “rallied to a cause larger than themselves,” Clinton said. And he appealed to the UCLA audience to do the same.
Clinton cited California’s particular troubles and promise. He said that in Los Angeles County, “you’ve experienced earthquakes of all kinds, not just the real earthquake of January but social and economic upheavals.” But, calling the state “America’s last frontier,” he said that California is still “America’s America, the cutting edge of a nation, still a symbol of hope and optimism throughout the world.”
Clinton said that the nation needs to find a way to restore the more civil discourse that prevailed at the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The address was one of a series of speeches that Clinton has given this month in which he has urged Americans, particularly young ones, to accept their responsibilities to their communities and families. With an almost evangelical tone, the speeches have suggested that Americans must do as individuals what government cannot do for them to rebuild communities that have been afflicted with the myriad ailments of the modern age.
He has called on his audiences to consider child-bearing as a “solemn responsibility,” to put aside ethnic hatred and to take responsibility for their own livelihoods.
In San Bernardino, Clinton hailed the government and private efforts that are turning a 2,100-acre air base into a 1,300-acre facility that will have several commercial and governmental uses.
The base was ordered closed by the George Bush Administration in 1988 and shut down for military use last March. This month, the Pentagon announced that it had been chosen as the location for a military accounting center that will employ 750 people.
Clinton said that he knows how “a small investment like this can really jump-start a whole economy and what it can do to the psychology of a community.”
Feinstein, sharing the San Bernardino platform with Clinton, thanked him for the federal gov ernment’s efforts but promised that she would continue to press to delay scheduled California military base closings.
“Some of us think we must importune the President to give us some breathing room,” she said. “We’re going to continue to importune you, Mr. President.”
Clinton offered colorful praise to Feinstein and to Sen. Barbara Boxer, who also was on the platform, for their efforts on behalf of the state.
“If you’ve never been worked on by Feinstein and Boxer at one time, just imagine if someone took a huge fingernail file and applied it to your head,” he said.
“Sooner or later, you just say: All right, whatever you want, take it and run.”
The local development authority is laying plans for commercial development of 620 acres of the air base property. Later this year, the federal government will give up ownership of additional acres so that they can be used for parkland, and homeless and educational facilities.
The two fund-raisers are expected to raise about $1 million each. The first was in a big-top tent erected at the Beverly Hills home of Ron Burkle, a grocery chain owner who is a trustee of the Democratic National Committee.
About 125 party supporters who raised or contributed at least $5,000 were invited to a reception with Clinton. For dinner, the group joined another 600 people who had contributed or raised $1,000. After the dinner, Clinton and Feinstein spoke.
Feinstein credited the President for his work on behalf of California, saying: “I was born and bred in California, and I’ve never seen a President who has cared so much about this state.”
Clinton described Feinstein as one of the Senate’s most active and influential leaders. “This senator, in a remarkably short time, has become a leader on the economy, on crime, on the environment and on immigration,” he said. “That’s an amazing record. And she has had the courage to challenge her colleagues and her President.”
Clinton also defended his 1993 budget, which included a $241-billion tax increase. Feinstein’s vote for the budget has brought her criticism from one of her Republican challengers in the Senate race.
“My fellow Americans, there are only three ways to get the deficit down: One is to raise taxes, one is to cut spending and one is to grow the economy. We did all three with this economic plan. Yes, Sen. Feinstein voted for the bill, and so did Sen. Boxer, and if either of them had not, we would not have had this bill. We would have had more rhetoric,” Clinton said.
The night’s program was emceed by actress Sally Field, and included music by Natalie Cole.
Proceeds from the Burkle event will be divided among Feinstein’s campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the California combined Democratic campaign.
Clinton’s visit to the state comes amid signs that his popularity among Californians has been dropping. The independent Field Poll found in a survey released Friday that 38% of Californians think Clinton is doing a good or excellent job, down five percentage points from an earlier poll.