NEW YORK -- The nation's Boomer-in-Chief celebrated his 50th birthday last night at Radio City Music Hall with a bash big enough to herald an entire generation reaching middle age. The night-long party for Bill Clinton brought together 20,000 of his friends and supporters, featured six decades of American music and raised $10 million for the Democratic Party.
Clinton needed help from his 16-year-old daughter, Chelsea, to blow out the candles on his huge cake. Earlier in the evening, he joked that the three surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, are all older than 50.
"I'm going to be all right until I get my [American Association of Retired Persons] card in the mail," Clinton said. "And there will be a couple of bad hours there."
Clinton is among the first wave of baby boomers, the 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, to hit the big 5-0. Already, they are busily trying to redefine what it means to be middle aged.
"The Best is Yet to Come..." 1940s crooner Tony Bennett sang to the president. When he was finished, he looked at Clinton and said, "Mr. President, Happy Birthday. Fifty years old." Then, pointing to himself with his left thumb, Bennett smiled coyly and said simply, "Seventy."
Bennett's pride in his generation notwithstanding, the not-so-subtle subtext that ran through the program was that, although Bill Clinton is growing older, he's still a whole lot younger than Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, who is 73.
"I'm not supposed to name names," quipped emcee Whoopi Goldberg. "But that rock they got back from Mars -- you know whose face was in it?"
The inspiration for last night's gala was inspired by John F. Kennedy's 45th birthday party in 1962 where Marilyn Monroe sang a breathless and sexy "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," to J.F.K. For obvious reasons, White House officals said, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had something a little different in mind.
What she settled on was music from all six decades the president has been alive. Sitting in the front row with his wife and Chelsea, Clinton be-bopped along with the music, sometimes tapping his foot, smiling and mouthing expressions of appreciation to the various artists.
"You're awesome" Clinton said to a group of four prestigious sax players. "God bless you," he mouthed to three former college roommates from Georgetown who were brought as a surprise. The roommates included Baltimore writer Tom Caplan.
When Jon Bon Jovi did an Elvis Presley number, Clinton bit his lower lip and bobbed his head. When Bon Jovi did a Conway Twitty ballad. the president closed his eyes as if remembering slow dances in high school. Speaking of which, the Hot Springs High School class of 1964 showed up via video where they wished Clinton a happy birthday and then did their old school cheer.
But if last night's celebration was less risque than Jack Kennedy's famous birthday party, it was vastly more partisan. After all, it was a Democratic fund-raiser.
"Our friends in the Republican Party that had their convention last week they've had their say and now we can have ours," Clinton told the guests at the $1,500-per-head reception that proceeded the gala at Radio City Music Hall. He then delivered his standard stump speech, extolling the record of his administration and blasting the Republicans in Congress for what he sees as their failings.
"If the American people want to go back to a failed economic plan of the past that quadrupled the deficit, gave us high interest rates, increased unemployment, increased welfare and weakened America, they can do it," Clinton said. "But that's what the election is about."
He concluded by suggesting that his re-election would be his gift back to the American people, adding he has 79 days before he "can really celebrate."
His comments underscored the words of one of the birthday presenters, nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, age 35, who told the president, "There is someone older than me who still runs."
About 5,300 people attended the show at Radio City Music Hall. Tickets for the show alone went for $250 a pop. Democratic donors willing for fork over $10,000 got to attend a dinner afterward. In addition, the festivities were broadcast via satellite to 20,000 Democrats around the country at 80 additional locations, including the Columbus Center in Baltimore.
Guests at those satellite locations paid $100 per person, according to Democratic National Committee official Andy PTC Solomon. Party officials said the $10 million they expected to take in was the largest such one-day fund-raiser in American political history.
The Columbus Center party was emceed by actress Valerie Harper and attended by scores of prominent Maryland Democrats, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer, Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah Cummings. The crowd munched on fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and macaroni and cheese and a birthday cake as they watched the show from New York on two large television screens.
But just as a milestone birthday is a bittersweet event, yesterday's celebration was not only a source of joy for the president. Liberal hecklers shouted "Shame" to let him know that they thought he'd gone too far in ushering through a new welfare reform bill he's set to sign in coming days.
Far more troubling were the deaths of an Air Force crew and Secret Service employee who died Saturday night while ferrying White House equipment back to Washington. Democratic Party co-chairman Don Fowler called for a moment of silence before the reception, and the president added that their loss made him "very sad."
White House aide Barry Toiv said the president considered canceling the gala after the crash, but concluded that too many people had worked too hard to bring it about.
But the president seemed to be thinking of his own mortality -- and that of others he has known -- when he stood and made his final remarks.
He spoke of two men he was close to who died recently, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, who "took leave of this Earth before I did." He then spoke lovingly about his brother Roger, his wife and his daughter and about someone who wasn't there tonight, someone who also took leave of the Earth before him.
"Lord I miss my mother," he told the crowd. "She liked a good party, you know, and she would have liked this tonight."
Pub Date: 8/19/96