“‘Jour printer, by trade; do a little in patent medicines; theatre-actor—tragedy, you know; take a turn at mesmerism and phrenology when there’s a chance; teach singing—geography school for a change; sling a lecture, sometimes—oh, I do lots of things—most anything that comes in handy, so it ain’t work. What’s your lay?’”
—The Duke, Huckleberry Finn
Now, the first book I want to mention, which is also the best book I scanned, has merits beyond its own intrinsic and immediate appeal. Ric Flair’s To Be the Man tells the story of a boy from Memphis (just across the Big Muddy from Arkansas) who will never find out with certainty who his biological parents were. He was adopted in corrupt circumstances by kind and cultured Minnesotans but could not relate to the demands of conventional life, and his parents had the wisdom to let him go his own way. By coincidence, he soon found himself in the world of professional wrestling, and Richard Morgan Fliehr became Ric Flair, the Nature Boy, one of the greatest stars of that flamboyant form of folk theater. Before his first match, Ric Flair did not know whether the contests were fixed or not. For more than three decades, he says, he has done his all to make his opponents look good and to satisfy the public.
The part of professional wrestling that I like is not the “athleticism” or the gay-pride-parade fashions, but the threats, brags, and vaunts. No one ever did this better than Ric Flair, not even his friends and competitors, such as Rowdy Roddy Piper or Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream. Through his rhetoric, not all of it scripted, Ric Flair connects with the roots of American culture in frontier legend. The bragging and taunts of Mike Fink and Davy Crockett, and of the stranger in Thomas Bangs Thorpe’s “The Big Bear of Arkansas,” ring in our ears, whether we know it or not. By the time Ric Flair had transformed the tropes of natural energy, violence, and rage into his own act, he was in a tuxedo, drinking champagne and literally smelling the roses with a camera in his face. Taunting Macho Man Randy Savage, Ric Flair would let fly his trademarked howl, “Woooooo!” as he trashed his latest victim. Years later, perhaps his greatest inspiration was his extemporaneous response to stories about drugs in the wrestling world. There was mention of addiction and deaths, but all Ric had to say was, “I am the drug!” Yeah, baby.
Now, one reason that Ric Flair didn’t need drugs, besides his being the Nature Boy, was that he put away so much booze. For years, he drank a hundred kamikazes a week, and that was only as a foundation for more ingestions of controlled substances. I think we can see that, burning with such a hard, gem-like flame, Ric needed a boost just to maintain an even strain, as they say. And that wasn’t all. Trying to live up to his persona in the squared circle, Ric also cut a swath through the female population of various metropolitan areas, hosting parties that lasted for 72 hours and generally just carrying on. Woooooo!
Essentially absent for years from his first marriage, Ric was actually surprised when his wife left him; now he knows she was justified in doing so. His second marriage has been a much happier one, and Ric Flair today is devoted to his family. He has also survived riots, a plane crash and a broken back, financial and political skullduggery, and crises of confidence and health. His account of himself is extended and absorbing, and I found it as impossible to resist the insidious charm of “Slick Ric” on the page as on the tube. I wondered if there might be any other imposing tricksters around, though. There is something fascinating about the “Slick” effect altogether, the buncombe of the confidence man, the extravagances of the Duke and the Dauphin, and all the resonances thereof. I had not heard the last of that, I hoped, strictly from the World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. Was there perhaps another arena of erotic chaos, political theater, and imposing fraud?
Bingo! Yes, there was! And where was this, you ask? Why, right on your television set—where reality is these days, I hasten to reply. And that brings me to the second-best book at which I sneaked a peekaloo.
Not that there is anything second rate about Christopher Andersen’s American Evita—quite the contrary. It’s just hard to compete with Ric Flair, though I must say that, what with her dye-job, Hillary does have in common with the Nature Boy a certain peroxide quality. And a popeyed or exophthalmic aspect, as well, especially when he gets hostile—but I digress, as who in his right mind would wish to dwell on the junior senatrix from the Big Apple when he could instead concentrate on the glamorous Slick Ric? But as Miniseries Rodham Clinton has herself declared, “When I look at what’s available in the man department, I’m surprised more women aren’t gay.” That’s an interesting formulation, as much as for what it suggests as for what it reveals. It naturally suggests not only, “When I look at what’s available in the woman department, I’m surprised more men aren’t gay,” but, “When I remember the Clinton cabinet, all the women were gay,” as well as, “When I look at what’s available in the senator department, the leading candidate is butch,” not to mention, “When I look at the wife department, I’m not surprised Bill did so many skanks.” Woooooo!
To give credit where credit is due, I must say that Christopher Andersen’s book is the most incisive treatment of the Hillary Problem that I have seen. I think that, in the future, this book will be remembered as a valuable or even invaluable supplement or calibrated contradiction to Living History, Miseries Rodham Clinton’s leaden autohagiography. Andersen’s book is a chronological index of the gaps or yawning chasms between what Ms. Rodham/Mrs. Clinton has said and done, and what she has pretended to have said and done. With commendable clarity and without wasted words, Andersen provides an account of a lifetime of political obsession, overweening vanity, and ruthless mendacity.
It would be hard to say what the best part of Andersen’s book is, since it is all of a piece. I rather fancied three aspects, myself: the emphasis on the early radical left-wing associations; the specifics about Clinton’s womanizing, with an update to 2004; and the extended, documented portrayal of Hillie as a foul-mouthed harridan.
I would have to rank Dick Morris’s book, which he wrote with his wife—she holds the copyright, by the way—as inferior in quality to Christopher Andersen’s treatment of much of the same material. Morris has organized his book, as the title suggests, as a refutation of the Rodham-Clinton Living History, and I do like the result. After all, nobody knows more about the Clintons than Dick Morris. Has anyone spent so many hours with them over two decades, listening to their temper tantrums, enduring actual physical assault, and precisely measuring their hypocrisy? That was Dick Morris’s function for many years, as their political advisor and pollster. Morris was responsible for much of the successful Clinton strategies of “triangulation” and equivocation and victimization, as they were played out for years. And today, we often see Dick Morris on the tube, where he dispenses remarkable amoral insights into the dynamics of politics. So there is no question about the level of his knowledge or understanding—but there is a question about the quality of his writing.
Morris’s book reminds me of an 11th-grade term paper in its organization and clunkiness. Perhaps worse is its stop-go rhetoric of self-contradiction. Hillary has a bad side and a good side: Which will prevail when (not if) she becomes president? The botched opportunity is too bad—there are many valuable things in Rewriting History, which provides the best deconstruction of her myth and her book that I have seen. (Morris insists that Hillary knew all about Monica: Her insistence on shock and surprise never did compute.) Dick Morris, with his sense of her character and his analytic ability, has zeroed in on her lies with impressive force. And, as he recites the lists of her deceptions deadpan, he also rises to comic heights. The problem is that one part of his book does not know what the other part is doing.
That would not be the problem with Bill Clinton’s little puff piece about what a great guy he is, as one part of his book knows all too well what the other part is doing—namely, justifying it by cross-referencing. This effort at self-justification leads to stultification rather rapidly, as Bill can rarely leave well enough alone—he has to qualify everything by “relating” to it. Example: He likes New Orleans and remembers it. As a boy, he met Al Hirt, who was nice to him and his mother. Later, when Bill was in the White House, Al Hirt died, so he wrote the widow, expressing his gratitude for that kindness of many years before. Now, what story did he omit to get the Hirt story in, and can we stand any more of this kind of excitement? Reading a page of this tome can be unpleasant is the simplest sense. The writing is off-putting, systematically. The result is mostly a pain in the neck, if not a pain somewhere else.
But Little Billy Boo Boo (the double or triple diminutive expresses even more familiar affection) has no worries about writing often in a neurotic and effeminate manner. (The first printing of his book was soon sold out at one-and-a-half million copies, and his advance of $12 million has long since been banked.) I wonder if the customers got their money’s worth, and I doubt it. But what readers or consumers were looking for is a subject to which we shall return.
Bubba’s book has already been called the greatest of presidential memoirs, though I do not know of any such exercise from the pen of Georgie Washington, Johnny Adams, Tommy Jefferson, Jimbo Madison, or Little Jimmy Monroe. In the first place, this autonarrative of prevarication and self-adulation is not really about politics or history but self-justification and self-absorption. No one ever picked this book up for much relating to this country in its civic aspect, but rather for much else relating to its psychic aspect. I may have been the only reader who was not let down by the absence of the sex-babble that has entertained the country for years. Now why did Bill not want to go there?
There was plenty of other blather to go around. The most remarkable thing about this bloated autopuff is the openness of the author’s contempt for his background. Bizarrely enough, though the narrator is a country boy from Arkansas who just naturally loves everybody as an individual, he despises them as a group for being Republicans, segregationists, racists, and reactionaries. This contradiction cannot be resolved and is sustained throughout the book, as throughout the author’s life. It is a mystery as to how Bill, through sheer intuition, not only knew he would be president but began by holding in contempt all the politics of his environment. By the time he was a young adult, Bill was already committed to a slate of left-wing political positions that lead him to much back-formation. He is against Senator McCarthy, for example, through the dates are a bit out of whack, and, as a student in England, visited Marx’s grave in Hyde Park—an odd thing to do, and an even odder one to cite.
One example of what the suckers stood in line for at the mall is an example as well of Bill’s failure as a writer. The story of Gennifer Flowers is structured in a way that provides to these satchel-footed pages some welcome, though unintended, comic relief. Bill tells the story as an episode of his persecution by mean-spirited Republicans, but, having forgotten exactly what he was repressing, he lets in an uh-oh at the last minute, without having established a context. By his own account, six years after the stories were circulated, he had to admit in 1998 that he . . . uh . . . that the mean-spirited Republicans were right! I insist that this is a failure of writing more than of integrity. Where is the episode in chronological—not Republican—order, when he first laid eyes on the curvaceous Miss Flowers (“Whoa! Cut me a piece of that!”), or the ensuing 12 years of intermittent bliss? (You can cross-check the resultant abortion in Andersen’s book, page 64.)
The brilliance of my many astute observations notwithstanding, I do not think that we can reach the root of the Clinton phenomenon without turning our backs on politics in order to scan American folklore, popular culture, and literature. Hillary Rodham first heard Bill Clinton as he was discoursing on the virtues of his home state, among which were the production of “the biggest watermelons in the world”—a phrase I regard as significant, not silly. For one thing, it sounds like the florid braggadocio that animates “The Big Bear of Arkansas.” It connects to the tradition of American oratory in its most humorous and even grotesque mode, and to the politics that is connected to it—the politics of grotesque humor and of the people’s understanding of electioneering as a crude form of folk theater, like revival meetings and professional wrestling. The roughnecks of the country were nothing without their vaunts, and Mike Fink competed homerically with Davy Crockett in the laying down of challenges. Everything is done with a wink, as from various populists of a century and a half-century ago on the political hustings, and as in items of popular culture we remember from Will Rogers, Amos ’n’ Andy, and even Pogo. Bill Clinton likes to associate himself with Abe Lincoln and Frankie Roosevelt, but he has more in common with the Duke and the Dauphin and the Kingfish and Algonquin J. Calhoun. Yes, Senator Bilbo and his ilk gave us, through Fred Allen, Senator Claghorn—and that wasn’t such a bad deal. From that image, we got Foghorn Leghorn.
Now, I am not saying that I think that Bill Clinton is funny, except in the sense of being a grotesque trickster figure who has made a fool out of the nation on numerous occasions. What I am saying is that Bill Clinton misunderstands himself and, therefore, leads others, perhaps not always deliberately, to misunderstand him. In other words, Wild Bill doesn’t make political sense, but he does make folkloric sense. He is the country hick become the city slicker talking like a country hick. He hawks the line of the Communist Party of the 30’s, but in the mawkish tones of Baptist piety. He is the salesman with his eye on the farmer’s daughter, and she’s looking back. I see him as a Rip van Winkle who escaped “petticoat government” not by magical sleep but by other magic we do not need to dwell on. I see him as schizophrenically torn—a Brom Bones pretending to be, or actually mistaking himself as, Ichabod Crane. I see him as a Crockett: not the sacrificial hero but the phony anti-Jacksonian with the extravagant campaign autobiography, flaunting his accent and coonskin cap to fool the rubes—and himself. Deep down, the American people have always known, particularly when he started dropping his g’s, that Clinton was a hustler, a liar with a way about him. Yet he did know enough not to talk about balancing the budget but actually to do it—as in a poker game, also part of the frontier tradition. The best bluff is no bluff at all—but you have to set it up. Read ’em and weep, Republicans.
But not understanding himself, Billy Boy is in no position to write a monster book about the wonder of him. I was incredulous for a while, until I realized that this Rhodes Scholar is no scholar at all. His attention to his intellectual growth is embarrassingly miniscule because it never happened, and here he does not compare well—indeed at all—to Benjie Franklin or Tommy Jefferson. (He harps on music all the time, but almost always cites the trashy pop variety.) But the reader would have avoided frustration had the author simply addressed truth, instead of elaborating absurd pretense. Where is the frontier sense of humor, except here and there a prissy reflection on life’s little ironies? How about the President of the United States getting serviced in the White House while he was on the phone discussing military appropriations? That wasn’t a horse laugh, a big dirty joke on everybody? No? Another moving story about his sensitivity to minority concerns instead, then? (Just the thing the book doctor ordered!)
A rogue is a rogue, but a rascal is not necessarily an author—except as a rascal. Bill does not cut it as a savant or a philosophe, but, having attempted to disrupt the coronation of John Kerry with the timing of his publication, he has filled his pages with fulsome praise of his wife’s political genius. Slick Willie want squaw Chief—she head many committee. He writes as though he is being blackmailed, or, as a parodist, like Patrick Dennis inscribing Little Me or First Lady. We have gone from “The Big Bear of Arkansas” to “the Big Boar” (snork, snork), and now “the Big Bore.” Slick Ric better than Slick Willie—no speak with forked tongue.
[Ric Flair: To Be the Man, by Ric Flair (New York: Pocket Books) 332 pp., $26.00]
[American Evita: Hillary Clinton’s Path to Power, by Christopher Andersen (New York: William Morrow) 292 pp., $29.95]
[Rewriting History, by Dick Morris with Eileen McGann (New York: ReganBooks) 304 pp., $24.95]
[My Life, by Bill Clinton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 957 pp., $35.00]