Even in the oppressive heat of the Rose Garden, you couldn't help but feel the shiver of deja vu.
A young, eager-looking kid from Arkansas looks up at the president with a mix of awe and anticipation. "Mr. President, on behalf of Boys Nation, we'd like to present you with this hat and shirt, and make you an honorary member of the 1993 Boys Nation." The words come tumbling out of James Welch's mouth, and you almost expect a Wayne and Garth chorus of "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!" as he and his fellow Arkansas delegate give Bill Clinton the obligatory tokens.
Clinton looks as though he's having a great time -- after all, it was 30 years ago to the day on Saturday, almost to the minute, that he stood in the same place shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy. As he examines the hat, the kids unveil another gift: an enlarged, framed print of The Picture.
Clinton pivots back and chuckles, and you know everyone's thinking about what Al Gore said mere moments ago. "If there is anyone here who has in the back of his mind any notion at all of going into public service or politics, I only have one word of advice," the vice president told the boys. "If you can manage somehow to get a picture of you shaking hands with President Clinton here today, it might come in handy later on."
The line got a round of laughter, especially from the 55 alumni of Boys Nation '63 who had taken Clinton up on his invitation for a reunion. "Would all the people who are here from our reunion class of '63 please stand up?" Clinton asked as he welcomed them. "See, they look pretty good, don't they? None the worse for wear."
It was Boys Nation, the American Legion's mock U.S. Senate program, that Clinton has credited with cementing his decision to go into politics, even though the initiatives he sponsored at the time -- federal funding of campaigns and the creation of a department of housing and urban development -- met with defeat.
And for many, seeing him at the White House again wasn't terribly surprising. As the debates on politics and public policy unfolded 30 years ago, it became clear to everyone that Clinton, a leading southern progressive delegate, "was clearly a politician, a good politician," remembers Ronald Bogard, now a Washington-based health and law consultant. "He was an extremely friendly guy. At the end of the week, he gave everybody these little souvenir porcelain bathtubs that said 'Hot Springs, Arkansas' on them."
In the hour-long Rose Garden ceremony, Clinton spoke proudly of the 1963 Boys Nation resolution against racial discrimination, recalling President Kennedy's words of approval. "The nation's governors had just met that week, and they broke up their resolution conference so they wouldn't have to deal with civil rights," said Clinton, grinning as he shifted into full Bubba mode. "So when we showed up here, President Kennedy said that we had shown more initiative than the nation's governors. Now, we loved it, but the governors, they didn't like it very much."
By all accounts Kennedy's speech to the boys was inspiring, but according to Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), then a delegate from North Dakota, Clinton "took Kennedy's challenge to work for the betterment of our fellow man literally" and left the White House more determined than ever. "We were on the bus, riding back to the dorms at the University of Maryland," recalls Ramstad, "when Bill told a group of us, 'Someday I'm gonna have that job. Someday I'm gonna be president.' I was a little bit surprised." He smiles. "But here we are."
Clinton devoted most of his speech to the themes of making a difference and acting on one's convictions, which struck at least two members of the audience as hypocritical. Standing on the South Lawn sipping lemonade, Jerry Ota, one of two openly gay alumni, had a wistful look in his eyes. "I thought it was an inspiring speech," the Oregon-based emergency-room surgeon said quietly. "I just wish he had done better at what he was challenging those young men to do. I'm not particularly angry over the gays-in-the-military decision, but my faith is being tested."
But the president apparently impressed the newest batch of Boys Nation participants.
"This was pretty exciting -- I come from a small town in North Dakota, where you don't get to meet anyone," said delegate Peter Foss. "It can't be easy to run the country, but he seems like he's doing a good job."
"Meeting him, shaking his hand -- it was overwhelming," added another delegate, Tyler Peterson. "It was better than sex." A pause. "Of course, I haven't had sex before, but I'm sure this was better."