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Clinton's class of '68

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As college reunions go, this one seems fairly typical: Alumni have been converging on campus all week, marveling at how much has changed, revisiting old haunts and, no doubt, checking whether the class bombshell still is and the most-likely-to-succeed ever did.

But tomorrow night, when one of the class members hosts the big dinner-dance at his place, and his place just happens to be the White House, the 25th reunion of Georgetown University's Class of 1968 becomes no ordinary stroll down memory lane.

Having President Clinton in your class means that you get name acts like the Drifters and Chuck Berry performing at your party and a greater turnout than the usual alum gathering at the local Holiday Inn. More than 600 graduates plus their spouses or dates are expected for tomorrow's fete on the South Lawn of the White House. (Georgetown estimates it sent invites to some 800 graduates for whom it had addresses.)

"We have reunions every five years -- and he's been to all the ones I've been to -- but this one will be especially great fun, being at the White House," says Thomas Caplan, a Baltimore novelist who shared an off-campus house with Bill Clinton and three other friends during their senior year at Georgetown. "He had all of us roommates over there one weekend and, it's funny, you ask yourself, 'What are you doing here?' "

Indeed. If, after only 4 1/2 months, the Clinton presidency seems long past its honeymoon phase with the media and the general public, for his former classmates it's still a point of pride and a bit of amusement that one of their own is running the country.

"I've never been a name-dropper, but this has changed me," jokes Stephen Sfekas, a partner with the Baltimore law firm Weinberg & Green who, like the president, majored in international affairs at Georgetown and was greatly influenced by a certain curmudgeonly history professor.

"I remember in '68, Carroll Quigley was very upset about all the divisions in the university -- the war and the anti-war movement -- and that spring he was feeling very apocalyptic. I remember him saying, as far as he could see, no one in the Class of '68 would ever amount to anything," Mr. Sfekas says of the late scholar and writer, who didn't live long enough to hear himself quoted by a former student accepting the presidential nomination at the last year's Democratic convention.

While Mr. Clinton is the biggest name in his class,he's not the only one to prove Professor Quigley wrong. He's not even the only head of state: Alfredo Cristiani, also Georgetown '68, and president of El Salvador, is expected in town for the reunion. Then there's Grammy-winner Bill Danoff, who co-wrote the John Denver hit, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," and formed the Starland Vocal Band (of "Afternoon Delight" fame), which also will perform tomorrow night.

Even before they had a president in their midst to draw them back together, the Class of '68 was always close-knit. Born in the first year of the post-World War II baby boom, beneficiaries of the prosperity of the '50s and the youth culture of the '60s, they were drawn together by the political and social upheaval of their college years, members say.

"Our lives were molded by the tempest of the times. The chemistry was extraordinarily compatible," says Tim Chorba, an attorney with the Washington power firm Patton Boggs & Blow. "We were the first year of the baby boom. We drove our parents crazy. We challenged the established order in a lot of things. We were the first class affected by the Beatles. And the other classes before us, their lives weren't torn apart by the draft the way ours were."

The year they graduated was particularly wrenching: It opened with the Tet Offensive that, on the home front, turned the psychological tide against the Vietnam War. In April, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and many of the nation's cities subsequently went up in flames -- Georgetown graduates recall looking down from their hilltop campus and seeing smoke rising from the inner city of Washington.

And, in June, just as they were poised to graduate, Robert Kennedy was killed -- and, along with him,many of the hopes of turning around both the country and the war.

"That was devastating to me, and it was devastating to Bill Clinton," recalls Mr. Caplan, who as a Georgetown student volunteered in Senator Kennedy's office. Many graduation-related events were canceled because of the assassination, including an on-campus luau party that the class will hold tonight instead.

Even before their tumultuous last year at Georgetown, political change had been the hallmark of their school years, class members say, beginning with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy during their senior year of high school.

Like Mr. Clinton -- who in a widely reprinted photograph is seen as a starry-eyed high school student shaking the hand of his idol, President Kennedy -- Mr. Caplan was a longtime Kennedy loyalist. As a youngster in Baltimore, he created Teen Democrats of Maryland, got invited to and attended JFK's inaugural ball in 1961 and later started a pen pal program that he called a "junior Peace Corps." The influence of President Kennedy, who was killed the year before they entered college, remained strong among his cohorts, he says.

"There was the unifying effect of President Kennedy -- all the people our age were affected by him," says Mr. Caplan. "There was a sort of wistfulness and sadness about the death of John Kennedy, but combined with a sense of satisfaction that the legacy he wanted was being put into effect with the civil rights act."

Mr. Caplan met Mr. Clinton within days of their arrival at Georgetown in the fall of 1964. By accident of the alphabet, he landed in a dorm room down the hallway from Mr. Clinton and his roommate, Thomas Campbell. The Arkansan heard Mr. Caplan playing the "Gone With the Wind" soundtrack on his stereo and wandered over thinking he'd found a fellow Southerner.

Seemingly everyone soon met the budding politician.

"Three days after we got there, he was running for class president," recalls James Hardesty, executive vice president of Mercantile's Trust Division in Baltimore, and, like Mr. Caplan, a Gilman School graduate. "He always had political instincts."

But even his former classmates can't say they predicted the U.S. presidency for Mr. Clinton, who indeed was elected class president his freshman and sophomore years at Georgetown.

"If someone had asked me, 'Do you think any member of your class would run for national office?' I would have said yes . . . Bill Clinton, of course," Mr. Hardesty says. "But I am surprised he's the president of the United States at age 46."

If Mr. Sfekas were to have predicted high office in the future of one of his classmates, he might have chosen Terry Modglin, for whom Mr. Sfekas campaigned and who beat Bill Clinton in a junior year campaign for student government president.

"He lost that election . . . but he lost it with more graciousness and style than you would imagine. I remember him congratulating us on the campaign, and that made a big and lasting impression on me," Mr. Sfekas says. "Actually, we all thought he was going to be a senator. The presidency seemed beyond the beyond. There was a strong sense Bill was going to enter politics. His role model was Sen. [J. William] Fulbright [of Arkansas]."

Mr. Sfekas campaigned for Mr. Clinton for the U.S. presidency, as did Mr. Caplan and Mr. Hardesty. And although they remain friends with Mr. Clinton, they tend to call him "the president" rather than plain old "Bill" when speaking to others about him.

But then, whenever any of them returns to campus, he's treated with a certain amount of respect, being a historical artifact, after all.

"During our 20th reunion, I was in a golf cart and a 19-year-old girl was driving us around campus," Mr. Sfekas recalls. "And she says, 'You were here in '68? Wow, we studied that in history.' "

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