It's an iron law of American life that each new ruling class makes you nostalgic for the last one. But who could have predicted that we'd so soon be longing for the Rhodes-scholar types who trod the earth like giants in the early days of the Clinton administration? Who could have foretold that we would already be looking back fondly at the wonkfest days of 1993, when those resume gods poured into White House posts from their law firms, media perches, Kennedy School chairs, and Renaissance Weekends? Many Americans found them arrogant then, but compared with the people who now set the tone for the Clinton administration, let's face it, those Ivy League meritocrats look like the Founding Fathers.

Now when we speak about Clinton chums, we don't mean academic policy johnnies like Robert Reich, Derek Shearer, and Ira Magaziner. Now it's Harry Thomason, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, and the rest of the Santa Monica/Lincoln Bedroom set. Now Clinton's fondest media admirers aren't found among Ivy League grads at the New York Times, CBS, and the Washington Post. Now his media admirers are Geraldo Rivera and Salon magazine. Over the past seven years, the Clinton administration has gone from endless seminar bull sessions to endless star-studded fund-raisers, and its spiritual center of gravity has shifted from the faculty lounges of Harvard and Yale to the ballroom at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Bill Clinton has always had two sides to his personality: the earnest policy junkie and the Hollywood-celebrity hound. But in the early days it was the technocrats and talkers who seemed ascendant. Now it's the fame and money people. In short, in 1993 when we thought of Bill Clinton we thought of wonkery. Now we think of wankery.

This power shift has a number of consequences. In the short term, it means that the Clinton administration can count on little support in what now passes for the East Coast establishment -- in the media, on Wall Street, even within the elite universities. Over the longer term, it means that the Clinton administration will leave few traces once it is over. Back in 1993, it was possible -- and Lord knows the Clintonites didn't hesitate -- to compare Clinton's cohorts to Kennedy's New Frontiersmen and FDR's New Dealers. These administrations each brought to town a new generation of super-educated professionals. But whereas the New Dealers and New Frontiersmen hung around for decades, setting the tone for national politics long after their administrations were over, it is hard to imagine that ten years from now Washington will be full of people who regard the Clinton administration as the golden moment of their lives, who write books about the glories of Clintonism and begin their op-ed pieces by arguing that their latest proposal is "what Bill Clinton would have done." It's hard to imagine that Clintonism will long survive as a beacon.

And there's a broader issue worth thinking about, too. It is the duty of all of us baby boomers to turn every hiccup in our lives into a learning experience. The great Clinton disillusionment is bound to have a lasting effect on the Renaissance Weekenders who once placed such faith in the man. It's already having a conservatizing effect on their moral attitudes. It's reminding everyone -- not least former Rhodes scholars like George Stephanopoulos and Robert Reich -- of the importance of the traditional bourgeois virtues: fidelity, honesty, self-discipline. The familiar conservative rap against the boomer elites is that they are just a bunch of grown-up counterculturalists. Once a hippie always a hippie. But if anything, the Harvard-Berkeley-Columbia grads in the media seem more judgmental these days about the president's morality than the public at large.

Reading the news reports about Clinton from 1993 is like reentering a lost world. Everybody was so impressed with all the brain power. The Clintonites floated into town on a tide of seminars and talk. There was that economic summit in Little Rock, the wonk Woodstock, where everybody marveled at the president-elect's grasp of policy arcana. There were new working groups and talk shops, like the National Economic Council and the Task Force on National Health Reform. The White House was proud of its new office on information technology, which seemed so smart and up to date. As Andrew Ferguson noted at the time, the air was filled with talk of "implementation strategies" and "decision trees." Ira Magaziner wasn't the only one filling up his three-ring notebooks. Clinton was going to "focus like a laser beam" on how to "grow the economy" -- to bring back two phrases that seem poignantly innocent compared with current White House spin. This was the fruition of a long liberal evolution. In those days, especially after the Dukakis campaign, the epicenter of thoughtful liberalism was at Harvard. Liberal ideas were attacked as products of the Harvard policy boutique. In those days, too, there was still some sense that earthy figures like James Carville were all right for a campaign, but they weren't genteel enough for liberal governance.

One of the most important essays of that era was Jacob Weisberg's "Clincest," written for the New Republic. Clincest, Weisberg wrote, is "about the increasingly cozy relationships between press, law, academia and government that now mark the Clinton era." In other words, it was about the formation of a new establishment, one based on brains and not blood. Weisberg detailed the elaborate networks linking the boomer eminentos who were suddenly seated at the summit of national power: Strobe Talbott, Robert Reich, George Stephanopoulos, Peter and Marian Wright Edelman, David Ellwood, Graham Allison, David Ifshin, Bruce Reed, and Kimba Wood, as well as media heavies like Howard Fineman, Joe Klein, Walter Isaacson, James Fallows, Taylor Branch, and Michael Kramer.

Weisberg was alarmed by the emergence of this hermetically sealed clique, not least because they tended to confuse their own personal interests with the national interest. Similarly, the National Journal perceived a "nagging sense of sameness" about all the Ivy League meritocrats Clinton had brought to town. And in June 1993, the historian Stephen Ambrose said of Clinton, "I don't know anyone who's gone so far appointing friends and cronies since Warren G. Harding."

Of course the glory days of the Clinton brainiacs didn't last long. In one sense, they were over before they began. The Clintons and the leading lights of the media should have gotten along famously. They went to the same schools and held the same attitudes. But the Clintons began to distrust the media as early as the Gennifer Flowers affair during the New Hampshire primary. Already it was sex that isolated the Clintons from their natural allies.

The media by and large didn't begin to turn against the Clintons until the early days of the administration. There was the gays-in-the-military fiasco. Travelgate. Lani Guinier. Reporters started complaining about underage yuppie staffers who weren't up to their jobs. The prevailing view in those days was that the administration was horribly disorganized and inexperienced. Meetings rambled on forever. The president was always late. Nobody knew how to get anything done. Wrote David Gergen, "That sucking sound you hear is the air rushing out of Bill Clinton's balloon as he ends his first 100 days in office."

After a few months of this, the Clintons reached out to the Washington establishment. Gergen himself was brought in to instill some professionalism. The president was told to quit jogging in unseemly shorts and that clunky digital watch that looked like it could have been used to program a computer. He began hosting informal dinners with Washington insiders. The White House staff even reconciled themselves to holding glitzy state dinners. (Early in the administration, foreign leaders were given "working lunches," so practical and unpretentious.) With time, even the Clinton White House, all its wonks notwithstanding, could have been made more businesslike. The breach with the media elites could have been repaired.

But corruption doomed the alliance. Whitewater flared. The administration had to go into its now-familiar pattern of legal evasions and outright deceptions. All of which had three effects. Within the administration it pushed the policy wonks away from the center of power. They didn't know anything about Whitewater, the Rose Law Firm, Castle Grande, Filegate, and the rest, and most of them were bad stonewallers anyway. Second, it alienated many elite opinion leaders. The New York Times editorial page, for example, turned on Clinton quickly and fiercely. "Give the Clinton-administration witnesses this. They were tireless in their legalistic evasions and prickly self-justifications," the Times editorialized in August 1994. If the boomer meritocrats were to form a true establishment, then a sense of shared purpose would have to develop among the government officials, media types, lawyers, and academics who would make up its pillars. But there could be no sense of shared purpose if the people inside the administration were constantly spinning and lying to the people outside.

And third, the scandals reminded everyone there are two sides to Bill Clinton. There is the Yale and Oxford side, all policy talk and high aspiration. But then there is the Elvis-loving, Hot Springs side -- Clinton's low-class appetites for fame, sex, and approval, and his willingness to trample others to serve himself. Once the educated elites realized that the trailer-park side of Clinton would never go away, he couldn't really gain acceptance as a member of the club.

By 1995, health-care reform had failed, the elections had proven disastrous for the Democrats, and the center of gravity within the administration had dramatically shifted. Ira Magaziner, guru of ClintonCare, was off in internal exile. And in came Dick Morris. Here was a person all elite opinion could despise. As the president turned away from the earnest and self-confident policy wonks, his administration took on a Morris-like tone: opportunistic, shallow, amoral.

But something else was happening that nobody appreciated at the time. Guests were staying in the Lincoln Bedroom. During the first six years of the administration, the Clintons spent more nights at the White House with guests in that bedroom than they did without. And by the accounts the guests later gave, the Clintons tended to stay up late having deep conversations with their visitors. It's easy to see why the Clintons might have enjoyed so many visits from supporters. The Washington crowd was hostile. The press was vicious. The staff was forever slipping up. And amidst this barrage of negativity, in came, night after night, another friendly couple to tell the president and his wife how wonderful they were, to confirm all their views and prejudices. The guests must have had an enormous cumulative influence on the Clintons' state of mind. They must have reinforced the belief that anybody who would oppose so wonderful a couple as them must be part of some evil conspiracy.

A large number of those guests were Clinton friends and donors (the conflation of those two categories being characteristic of the Clinton era). The names that pop up on the Lincoln Bedroom lists are by now familiar members of the Clinton social scene: David Geffen, Jane Fonda, Lew Wasserman, Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas, Candice Bergen. These are the people who have stuck with Clinton loyally through the Lewinsky scandal. Many are now among the top donors to his legal-expenses trust.

Meanwhile, the administration was also evolving from one that disliked glitzy state dinners to one that adored them. And if you inspect the guest lists over time, you detect a shift away from literary and intellectual types toward movie stars. Hollywood celebrities have always been invited to state dinners, mixing with the usual clutches of business leaders and journalists. But never in such profusion. Not only are the big Hollywood Walk-of-Fame celebrities getting invites, but so are the middle-sized figures who in days of yore would have been happy to appear on Hollywood Squares: Susan Lucci, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and movie producer Steve Tisch. And of course the Hollywood donors didn't just send money the Clintons' way. Some of them sent their children and their friends' children to work as interns, including one Monica Lewinsky. So it's almost by force of trajectory that Bill Clinton, feeling victimized and alienated from Washington, should have found himself fiddling with a young graduate of Beverly Hills High. And it's almost inevitable that when his affair was exposed, he would turn to Hollywood producer Harry Thomason to engineer his televised finger-wagging denial and to co-producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason to manage Hillary Clinton's image in the days surrounding August 17.

The Hollywood crowd is obviously a lot more tolerant of adultery and other sex-related scandal than the East Coast elites. After all, they're in a business that depends on stirring up people's appetites. Furthermore, for all its exclusivity, the Hollywood elite is not as socially touchy as the East Coast establishment. Relying less on academic credentials and cultivated manners, the Hollywood biggies are willing to tolerate a little low-class vulgarity and self-destructive excess. Judging by their public defenses of the president, they also see the Clinton scandal through the prism of their own long-running culture war.

In their view, the world is divided between the artists and other emancipated individuals, who represent the forces of light, and the repressed and puritanical hordes, led by people like Jerry Falwell, who represent the forces of darkness. From the exalted heights of the Hollywood Hills, it's easy to see Bill Clinton as an angel of enlightenment and Kenneth Starr as the Darth Vader of prudery.

To the boomer meritocrats, on the other hand, Clinton's current behavior is decidedly non-U. Already, educated Clintonites such as Robert Reich are writing in a new vein. Nostalgie de Little Rock. They are beginning to look back wistfully on the heady days after the 1992 election and on the promise of what might have been. "I keep thinking of the conversations we had, the sense of possibility," one Clinton intimate told the New Yorker's Joe Klein. Sooner or later there will be a spate of books on the sad decline of the Clinton presidency. They will be full of memories (think of The Wonder Years). There will be luxurious expositions of the authors' lost illusions. There will be lots of mid-life coming-of-age experiences.

Of course there is also a profound book to be written. Here was the most ballyhooed generation in the history of man. Its best minds had prepared for power for decades, earnestly studying, filling their three-ring binders. And when one of their own finally reached the summit of power, the promise came unraveled. All that intelligence and optimism was undone by something as primitive as dishonesty and lust.

David Brooks is a senior editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.