The year 1999 seems a world away. When I first arrived in the U.S. as a freshman, it was at the height of the economic boom. You heard stories of EECS majors dropping out of school, getting that “one” idea and being showered with millions of dollars in venture capital and stock options. H-1B visas were touted as the new face of American immigration, allowing an influx of talented and skilled individuals to further help fuel the new economy, without discriminating according to country of origin. Everybody and their mother, it seemed, owned stock and the Dow and the NASDAQ kept on defying the laws of gravity.

Paul Wong
Babawole Akin Aina

It was a time of prosperity, when anything seemed possible if you had the guts, the brains and the will. No one seemed to embody this era more than William Jefferson Clinton. President Clinton, in my mind, was living proof of how far the U.S. had come. I have always been fascinated with the story of how a poor but very bright Arkansas boy, only slightly above the white trash scale in the eyes of his detractors, beat poverty, social prejudices and a difficult childhood to become President of the United States and the greatest American politician of his generation.

For a young freshman with outsized ambitions, “Slick Willie” was most definitely a source of inspiration. I had no connections here; no large trust fund to draw on; my parents, my home and my connections are 5,000 miles away. All that I and many others ever have are our intellects and a voracious appetite for success. I am still not entirely sure if those are enough, but they certainly worked wonders for Mr. Clinton. He went from Arkansas on academic and music scholarships to Georgetown University, left Georgetown as a Rhodes scholar and went on to Yale University for a Law degree. A few years later, he was to be elected governor of the State of Arkansas at age 32, the youngest Governor ever. Fourteen years later, in 1992, he was elected the 43rd president of the United States and at age 46, one of the youngest presidents in history.

The man was simply quite amazing at what he did. He did not mangle words, could tango with the best of them intellectually and politically and was incredibly charming. He brought a pragmatism that had been abandoned by the left and showed that market economics could coexist with government activism. His administration displayed both concern for the environment and a ruthless focus on the economy, with enviable results on both counts.

Perhaps the best thing about the Clinton years were the fact that they symbolized opportunity, for whomever, whether in the form of affirmative action for young Blacks and Hispanics, increased immigration opportunities for skilled workers, freer trade the world over or a much more liberal social climate. However, in retrospect, what less could one expect from a man who had grown up poor in the South? The poor in America are a minority of some sorts. It is also an economic fact that opportunity cures poverty.

Now two years onwards, much has changed – and I am not referring to changes wrought by Sept. 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism. Even before then, it seemed that the idea of meritocracy had jumped ship. A gentleman’s C average, it seems, is good enough for both Harvard Business School and the White House, when one is accompanied by the proper last name. Religion is once again being pushed down the throats of the unwilling with conservatives up in arms when the Secretary of State makes a common sense statement regarding contraception on television. Affirmative action is on the ropes and tellingly, those who oppose it are not proposing viable alternatives to fix educational disparities, they just want to kill it and be done with it. Economic protectionism has once again become a tool to gain votes at the expense of both economic welfare and ideological integrity.

All is not lost however. American society is different because of the change caused by the Clinton years, despite the mudslinging, misguided and malicious attacks that his opponents resorted to towards the end. The country is not as puritanical as Republicans would have you believe. Nor will the recession of the past year erase the economic gains of the Clinton era, which resulted in the largest creation of wealth in history, across all social classes. Government still matters, no matter what conservatives scream, and it has a responsibility to provide opportunities to all members of society. Most of all, while the idea of the American meritocracy has been watered down, it still exists and is waiting to be proven by the next slick kid with a quick brain and a large dream.

Babawole Akin Aina can be reached at babawole@umich.edu.

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