“You may look bad, Bill, but we look just plain stupid.” That was the wounded and furious summation of Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen upon Bill Clinton’s inglorious exit from the presidency. Many questions are raised by that single sentence from a lone writer, the first being: Who is the “we” Cohen referred to? His answer: We is “me and everyone else who has ever defended [Clinton].”
Ah, already we’re getting somewhere, although it’s not where Richard Cohen would take us. For the fact is that Clinton defenders have never been only Clinton defenders. They are part of a larger collective and are identifiable as such. They are the liberal establishment, the media and political elite. And since the self-assumed intellectual superiority of every liberal elite precludes, above all else, stupidity, and—at the same time—the life’s purpose of all liberal elites is to point out the stupidity of others, it follows that the mother of all nightmares for any elite liberal is to find himself in Richard Cohen’s position, i.e., looking stupid. For eight years, liberals responded to the truism “We are known by the company we keep” by redefining Bill Clinton, at every turn, as worthy of association. They are now surprised to discover that Clinton’s behavior ended up defining them. What dopes.
But they are dopes in misery, nonetheless. And if it’s Bill Clinton who is responsible for their suffering, you can bet the Spode china it’s Bill Clinton who will pay. It is one thing to have adulterous sex in the Oval Office, to lie under oath, to suborn perjury, and to obstruct justice. It’s another thing altogether to make the Richard Cohens of the world look stupid. The first series of actions is debatable and therefore defensible, while the second part, the stupid stuff. . . well, you try that one, mister, and you’re dead meat. There are standards at stake here, after all: You may be dishonest but not tacky; immorality is relative, but bad taste is not. Values come and go, but style is eternal.
Like no other figure in living memory. Bill Clinton brought into high relief the two opposing world views into which Americans are often divided. The first group is made up of people who believe that behavior is identity (a man who tells lies is a liar) and character is destiny (indecent people generate indecency). The second group believes that identity determines behavior (smart people don’t do stupid things) and destiny is a validation of character (a baby-boomer Democrat who rises to the presidency is, ipso facto, a person of positive substance). Within this second group there exists a subset, a collection of graying and bifocaled boomer hipsters who approach politics armed only with the standards of popular culture and the yardstick of celebrity. It is their self-appointed task to judge a given politician’s hip quotient—which, in the case of Bill Clinton, they immediately determined, in joyful delirium, to be quite as high as their own.
This hipster subset has been easily as affected by Bill Clinton’s ups and downs as have the two main groups. For them, Clinton was a gift straight from boomer heaven, what with his affinity for movies (not to mention movie stars), all the Elvis business, and, of course, that dumb saxophone. Through Clinton, the hipsters were able both to cling to their youth and to ease vicariously into a really cool middle age.
But despite all that clinging and easing, the hipsters are now suffering nearly as much as Richard Cohen. After projecting the image of their most desirable selves, both personally and generationally, onto Bill Clinton—after, that is, fishing for years in highly polluted waters—they are now shocked to discover that they have reeled in nothing but tin cans and old shoes. To them, it doesn’t much matter what Bill did. The important thing is that his image, and therefore their image, suffered in the process. On the day he left office, Clinton granted a presidential pardon to an unrepentant, tax-cheating, fugitive crook, and he hogged the limelight with a series of graceless speeches. Question; Which action was worse? Don’t laugh. If you once believed that Bill Clinton was destined for presidential greatness because he shared your political origins (the 60’s) as well as your pop-culture fixations, it can be really tough (especially while surrounded by tin cans and old shoes) to weigh genuine corruption against absolute tackiness.
Mere weeks into the post-Clinton era, the resounding question from all elite quarters was “Will it ever end?” And with the dawn of each new day came the answer: Don’t hold your breath. Imagine, for instance, the shudder that went through the liberal establishment upon learning that the first media figure through which Bill Clinton chose to defend his last minute presidential actions was that low rent journalist and full-time sensationalist, Geraldo Rivera. Rivera’s scoop: Clinton was “bewildered,” “stressed out,” and, yes, “hurt.” Think of it: Just Bill and Geraldo, a couple of misunderstood guys feeling each other’s pain via cell phone. The unambiguous shabbiness of it was enough to give the entire liberal power structure a case of the vapors. (What? He’s calling Geraldo? Oh, God, you’re kidding, right?) In reality, of course, the only surprising thing about the Clinton/Rivera chat is the fact that America possesses technology sufficient to handle the simultaneous transmission of the world’s two most overheated egos (that is, the phones didn’t melt).
Bill and Hillary Clinton (and how can we discuss one without discussing the other?) are in a new and possibly deadly kind of trouble: Each is now afflicted with what was once Hie other’s problem. Bill’s problem is that he no longer holds elective office. Hillary’s problem is that she now does.
Bill Clinton sought the presidency because it is the world’s bluest stage. What is obvious now is that he regarded the stage as portable—something he could pack up and take with him, unfolding it for use as the spirit moved him for the rest of his natural life. That is such an exquisitely gauche assumption, such a traumatically embarrassing spectacle, that it has brought liberals, hipster subset and all, to a point of crisis. Without the mantle and the trappings of the presidency, Bill Clinton is just a deluded narcissist, preening for love and grubbing for money upon his imaginary stage. What the elites once saw as fascinating—the complex psychology and varied (facile) talents of our first babyboomer president—are now, when observed in an ex-president (ex: Has there ever been a more powerful prefix?), not a source of fascination but a source of chagrin. The people who believed that Bill Clinton made the presidency interesting are finally confronting their 180-degree mistake: To the extent Bill Clinton was interesting, it was the presidency that made him so.
As for Hillary Clinton, her problem, in an immediate sense, is bigger than.her husband’s, and more ironic. After nearly eight years of hearing “Who elected her?” every time she tried some inappropriate power grab, Mrs. Clinton came up with an answer: She would legitimize herself and her political views by running for office. By all appearances, she was a hardworking candidate, and she was rewarded with a decisive victory.
So Mrs. Clinton’s legitimization as a politician has liberated her, right? Well, no, as it turns out, not really. For the first time in her very political life, Hillary Clinton now has a fixed, defined identity. She is an elected official, a professional politician, an identity that carries many more constraints than freedoms. No longer can Mrs. Clinton slide with her customary expediency into the role of First Lady, or Bill’s Wife, or Just A Mom, or Brilliant Lawyer, or Generally Superior Human Being. She can no longer evade accountability by choosing at will among the many titles at her disposal. She has only one title now: United States senator. And as such, she appears, at least in these early months, miserable: confined, stifled, angry. (And what else is new?)
Hillary is not alone in her unhappiness. While Bill Clinton’s supporters placed themselves, through Clinton, upon a boomer pedestal, Hillary’s loyalists, always more cult-like and worshipful, elevated Mrs. Clinton herself to iconic status. Thus, the revelation that she joined (perhaps even led) her husband in their vulgar exit from their White House left her followers to wrestle with their own questions. Does an icon go trolling for soup plates? Does a saint pocket the silverware? Does a goddess walk off with the rugs?
While these issues can get complicated, one thing remains simple—and it forms the crux of the problem for both Mrs. Clinton and the Church of Hillary: A U.S. senator had better not pocket or walk off with anything. One wonders if, when she decided to run for office, Hillary Clinton realized that victory would subject her to the same standards of behavior as, say, Jesse Helms. One wonders further whether her most fervent supporters realized that victory would end her reign as free-floating high priestess, reducing her to the size of, well, Jesse Helms.
Pain, pain, everywhere you turn. How to ease all this suffering? Let us start by revisiting Richard Cohen’s brief sentence: “You may look bad. Bill, but we look just plain stupid.” If the rule in political corruption is to follow the money, the rule in intellectual and moral corruption is to follow tile language. The nugget of discovery in Cohen’s sentence rests in his choice of verb: Bill looks bad; we look stupid. The meaning of “look” in this context: to give the appearance of What Richard Cohen is saying, then, is that after all that has gone before. Bill Clinton merely gives the appearance of badness. And Cohen? After misjudging the meaning of all that has gone before, he merely gives the appearance of stupidity.
Richard Cohen’s choice of equivocal language reveals his equivocal conclusion about both Bill Clinton and himself, and reveals, too, why he (and others like him) can’t find peace: He cannot admit the raw truth. Bill Clinton doesn’t look bad; he is bad. Likewise, when it comes to Clinton, Richard Cohen doesn’t look stupid; he is stupid. That’s the fact. Jack; that’s the truth. And it shall set you free.
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