WASHINGTON — Move over, Marky Mark. Make way for Bill Clinton.
Presidential undergarments entered public discourse yesterday during an MTV forum with 200 young people.
And the credit -- or blame -- goes to Laetitia Thompson, 17, of Potomac. After listening to questions about gun control, drug prevention and Bosnia, she stood up and spoke her mind.
"Mr. President," she asked, "the world's dying to know: Is it boxers or briefs?"
Stunned, Mr. Clinton paused and smiled. "Usually briefs," he replied, adding I "can't believe she did that."
But don't look for Mr. Clinton to give up his day job to model for Calvin Klein. What comes between him and his trousers was one of the easier questions during a discussion with a serious theme: rising violence in society.
During the 90-minute special scheduled to air last night, the 16- to 20-year-olds gathered in a Washington studio wanted answers about everything from mandatory sentencing for drug offenders to funding for school metal detectors.
From the first question, it was clear Mr. Clinton was facing a tough crowd.
"Kurt Cobain's recent suicide exemplified the emptiness that many in our generation feel," said Dahlia Schweitzer, 17, of Bethesda. "How do you propose to change this mentality?"
Framed by a backdrop of the United States made from spray-painted tin foil, Mr. Clinton said he believed Americans should do two things: "Everybody needs to be the most important person in the world to somebody, and people need to think of . . . the real future, what happens years from now, not what happens minutes or days from now."
Baltimore had its moment in the spotlight when Joy Ross, 20, of Fells Point,asked the president's advice about forming a community center in East Baltimore.
He encouraged her to contact Mayor Kurt Schmoke who, he said, "has been extremely active in the whole housing area. He's done some of the most innovative and impressive things in the country."
At times, though, Mr. Clinton seemed out of sync with his musically-sophisticated audience. He couldn't, for example, comment on the relationship between gangsta rap and violence.
"I don't know," he said. "I read an article about Snoop Doggy Dogg. It is not exactly my music, you know."
Rather than music, he used his own life to illustrate points, saying his half-brother Roger's prison sentence on drug charges was necessaryfor his recovery.
While the audience generally gave Mr. Clinton high marks, Sasha Greenawalt, 21, a senior at Princeton University, who sparred with the president over his policy in Bosnia, wasn't impressed.
"You are currently brokering negotiations which, if successful, will almost certainly reward genocide," he said. "Why so little; why so late? And why should I vote for you again?" In one of his lengthiest responses, Mr. Clinton defended his action, saying "we have done the best we could with a very difficult situation."
Later, however, Mr. Greenawalt said, "I think he ducked my question. . . . I'm not so charmed."
The MTV forum, Mr. Clinton's second (the first was in 1992), was part of an anti-violence campaign which began in January after themusic network released a study of youth violence. Nearly three-fourths of the young people polled said now is a "terrible" time to be young. Almost half who didn't own a gun said they were considering purchasing one in the next year.
"They consider themselves a violent generation," said Judy McGrath, president and creative director of MTV. "They don't feel safe and we felt we needed to address that."
The anti-violence focus was somewhat ironic, though, since MTV has been criticized in the past for showing videos that glamorize crime and violence. Judy McGrath, president and creative director of MTV, said the network rejects 30 percent of the videos it receives because they don't pass their standards.
Before the taping, co-hosts Tabitha Soren and Alison Stewart helped the audience brush up on its manners. Skip the rhetoric, ask short questions and address the president as Mr. President, they advised.
Perhaps saving the best for last, they allowed the audience to fire off quick questions about any subject in the final moments of the show.
How was Mr. Clinton's meeting with Pearl Jam?
"It was great. My daughter was jealous that she wasn't in the White House that day."
Did he support Howard Stern's candidacy for governor of New York?
"I support his right to run."
But it was clearly the underwear inquiry that brought the house down.
"I think underwear preference tells a lot about a person," Ms. Thompson said afterward. "People my age wear boxers . . . I had given Clinton the benefit of the doubt."