Great Democratic presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy extolled young people as a national inspiration deserving expansive investment. Bill Clinton led a relentless panic attack against the young, backed by crackdown policies and fiscal divestiture. Though blessed with a flush economy and treasury, Clinton's grim legacy is massive child destitution, record homelessness, our worst adult drug abuse crisis ever, and a public needlessly frightened of a generation of good kids.
Clinton's promising presidency began with initiatives to establish national health insurance, resurrect the superlative youth conservation corps, ban gun possession by violent adults and cut taxes for working families. But congressional and electoral setbacks quickly reduced Clinton to demagoguery: demonizing the young and poor, petty moral hypocrisies, crowd-pleasing curealls, sadly lost opportunities.
During the '90s, the most ludicrous anti-youth denigrations became high-level wisdom. Clinton's 1994 Welfare Reform Task Force fabricated a "Democratic family values" image blaming poor teenage mothers for every conceivable social problem, and Republicans gleefully helped Clinton dismantle traditional federal entitlements guaranteeing children healthy living standards. The result: Young people benefited less from the economic boom and remain dangerously vulnerable to a coming downturn.
Clinton's drug policy czar, Barry McCaffrey, escalated the Democratic "war on drugs" by hyping teen drug abuse as "exploding" while adult rates declined. Drug Abuse Warning Network reports showed adult drug deaths, hospitalizations, serious crime and imprisonments skyrocketed to record heights while teens remained low risk. Administration crime consultant James Alan Fox recklessly terrorized policymakers and citizens with wild exaggerations of murderous adolescent sociopaths; yet FBI reports showed youths committed just 7 percent of murders while masses of "middle-aged superpredators" drove the crime surge of the 1980s and early 1990s. The president histrionically painted isolated school gunboys as typical of today's students, yet was largely silent on the domestic violence scourge that killed 10,000 kids during his reign.
Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno popularized the debunked demographic fallacy that more teens threaten more mayhem; crime reports showed more kids brought less violence. White House AIDS officials declared teens the fastest growing HIV-infected population; U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports showed teens the fastest declining HIV infectees. Clinton and his minions trumpeted youth curfews, boot camps, prosecuting youths as adults, executing 16-year-olds, school uniforms, mass drug testing, V-chips, movie censorship, flashy anti-drug messages, abstinence-only sex education, and zero tolerance. Careful research shows these panaceas are worthless to counterproductive.
Clinton's greatest shame is not his sexual liaison with an insecure young subordinate, but his shallow meanness in vilifying a good youth generation struggling with unstable adults and a hostile political climate.
Amid grown-up disinvestment and chaos, the younger generation shows quarter-century declines in crime and drug abuse, improved school performance and renewed civic spirit. Kids held families together even as adults unhinged. The same interests whose self-serving prejudices created more misery for young people now clamor for credit for improving teen behaviors they hampered. Youth themselves deserve the credit, along with the good parents and good youth programs that realized that the officialdom bewailing "this generation at risk" was really profiteering from risk.
Clinton the Democrat betrayed the young and poor, championing values that channeled hundreds of billions of dollars to corporate welfare, while relegating youths to be served by volunteers, messages and cops. May George Bush the conservative contravene expectations by restoring solid public investment and confidence in our fine young people.
Mike Males, Justice Policy Institute senior researcher, authored "Kids and Guns: How Politicians, Experts, and the Media Fabricate Fear of Youth". firstname.lastname@example.org.