Exactly 30 years ago, Bill Clinton was engaged in his first run for political office, challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt for the congressional seat in Northwest Arkansas. Then, as now, the district was safely Republican, but Clinton came within a few percentage points of an upset, and thereby cemented his status as a promising politician.
He was only 28 at the time, and as he ascended rapidly in state politics - attorney general at 30, governor at 32 - Clinton's youth became an inextricable part of his persona. George Fisher, the legendary cartoonist, portrayed Clinton as a boy on a tricycle for years, and his boyish image remains to this day.
Which is why it was so shocking to hear the news of Clinton's heart trouble last weekend. He doesn't seem to old enough to confront such a serious health issue, one that could prove fatal if left untreated.
But it helps to remember that Clinton is 58, served eight years in one of the most demanding jobs in the world, and has been known for his indulgent eating habits. Furthermore, it is possible that he was genetically predisposed to heart disease, but that is unknown because his biological father was killed in a car accident at a young age.
Everyone associated with Clinton's medical treatment assures us that his procedure is routine, and he is expected to make a full recovery. That said, this kind of situation produces the kind of tension that leads to reflection, and in Clinton's case, appreciation.
There are people far more qualified to describe Clinton's policy accomplishments during his years of public service. However, I can comment on the unquantifiable yet powerful influence he has had on an entire generation of young Arkansans, and I believe that the state will reap its benefits for decades to come.
Consider first the imaginations he inspired simply by winning the White House after humble beginnings in a single-parent household in Hope. Every young man and woman in towns large and small throughout Arkansas can at least look to Clinton's story for proof that anything is possible.
More directly and substantively, hundreds of our state's young people were introduced to electoral politics and the federal government through internships and jobs in Clinton's presidential administrations and campaigns. It is impossible to overestimate the value of these experiences in terms of the knowledge they impart and personal contacts that result.
Many of these same people are already back in Arkansas, bolstered by the confidence they derived from operating in the highest echelons of power, and empowered by the expertise and connections they have brought with them. Some are attorneys, investment bankers, consultants, entrepreneurs, involved with non-profits, or already holding public office. All of them are united by a belief in the nobility of public service, partly because they understand that government is not a faceless bureaucracy to be feared and loathed, but a practical vehicle for real people who want to solve problems and achieve positive change.
The impact of this phenomenon here will be measured in the expanded vision and goals of this "Clinton generation" within their respective fields, and the tools they employ to realize them. To this day, some Clinton critics ask what positive effects his presidency had on Arkansas. The Clinton generation ultimately may be the most noticeable and significant, having made use of our state's most precious resource: its youth.
Last month, former governor and U.S. senator David Pryor celebrated his 70th birthday, and the festivities included an opportunity for the young people he inspired to express their gratitude. There is an entire generation looking forward to the same opportunity at one of Clinton's benchmark birthdays in the future. Until then, we hope he gets well soon, and that he can take some small measure of comfort knowing that his legacy literally lives on.