“Visual politics” seems an apt description of our current regime. Since most Americans acquire their news by television, those making news or seeking to communicate it must do so visually. Since television has not really formulated its own vocabulary, however, its visuals owe a debt to the movies. It is a commonplace to speak of the Clinton presidency as influenced by Hollywood, and the President actually imports friends who are Hollywood producers to stage major events and press conferences, such as that wonderful cinematic moment where he sternly shook his finger at us and emphatically explained that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” Wag the Dog tried to satirize similar developments, only to be overtaken quickly by the real world, as the President unleashed the dogs of war at a crucial moment in his impeachment proceedings.
Since the early days of the Clinton administration, however, the proper visual analog has not really been Hollywood, but Italian cinema of the 1960’s. From the moment the President held up traffic at LAX to get his hair cut by a stylist to the stars, he transcended his own milieu and transformed American political life into a Fellini film. The President probably comes closest to playing Guido, the Marcello Mastroianni role in Fellini’s masterpiece, 8, a wonderfully absurdist study of a movie director who can’t figure out a plot for his film. The film consists of grotesquerie piled upon grotesquerie, as the increasingly feckless protagonist disappoints his mistress, his wife, his colleagues, and his producer. The Clinton parallels hardly need developing.
Recently, it became clear that the President’s supporting players have also adopted his trademark Fellini visuals. Only Fellini could match the joy of watching Slobodan Milosevic hold hands with Jesse Jackson, as the Reverend (ostensibly disowned by the White House) joined in prayer with the purported Butcher of the Balkans and then succeeded in freeing the American prisoners. The scene was straight from the finale of 8, where all the principals join hands and dance around the set, or from Juliet of the Spirits, where a similarly otherworldly mood is captured.
Even when no visuals are involved, national affairs have achieved the surrealism of Fellini, and occasionally have even gone beyond into practically pure Dada. Rene Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe, with the caption “ceci nest pas un pipe,” is echoed by Monica’s adventures with the President’s cigar. Surely Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase or his display of a urinal has an affinity to the Starr Report, particularly its intriguing footnote 210 (which reports on oral-anal contact between the President and the Intern) or its footnote 81, which, in the circumspect words of London’s Guardian, reports on “the President’s habit of finishing himself off into a White House sink.”
But it is Fellini’s oeuvre, particularly 8, that seems best to capture Mr. Clinton’s presidency. He is so clearly the hapless protagonist, never quite able to bring off what he desires, unable to tell where fantasy leaves off and reality begins, and ambivalent about (and yet still obsessively involved with) religion and morality.
Thus, as did Guido, the President flounders as he tries to come to grips with his own inadequacies. In Mr. Clinton’s case, he struggles to come up with some kind of legacy apart from his sexual peccadilloes, his impeachment, and his recent citation for contempt by a federal judge (a first for a President). Only a European ironist seems capable of doing his latest effort justice: If not, Fellini, then perhaps it would take Moliere to explore the ramifications of a Baby Boomer who successfully dodged the draft orchestrating a NATO attempt (without congressional approval and without U.N. Security Council authorization) to pulverize a sovereign nation back into the Middle Ages.
At this writing, the bombing campaign appears relentless. But perhaps Guido’s fate may help predict what will happen to the President. The Reverend Jackson, before he left Serbia, was given a private communication from Mr. Milosevic, detailing the terms under which he would accept foreign peacekeeping troops in Kosovo. (These were also spelled out in an extensive interview which Milosevic gave to UPI.) Even more interesting, a delegation of U.S. congressmen, meeting with their counterparts from the Russian Duma and an advisor to President Milosevic, claims to have worked out “a framework to resolve the Kosovo crisis,” which sounds like the one set out in the UPI interview. The “framework” most likely will be implemented through other diplomatic offices, probably those of “special presidential envoy” Viktor Chernomyrdin, perhaps with Mr. Clinton being brought in to sign final accords in the Rose Garden in another near-Hollywood extravaganza. As in a Fellini film, however, the surface glitter may be the surest sign of the emptiness beneath.