In my mind’s eye, I have come to see a great arc radiating above the Clinton presidency, an arc of constant existential activity, a zone where effects are received but not transmitted, a curved line on which every American, with the single exception of the President of the United States, occupies a place. One of the many distinctions of the Clinton presidency is that, while every citizen accepts his place on the arc, no citizen is quite sure what he’s supposed to be doing there.
On one end of the arc—arc right, we’ll call it—are people like me, folks who took one look at Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign and felt every cell in their bodies rebel: Phony! Fraud! Liar! The reaction was instinctive, instantaneous, and irrevocable—as involuntary as yanking one’s hand from a hot stove. From that very first reaction, nothing awful that Bill Clinton has done has surprised me, although everything awful that he has done has shocked me.
Over on arc left are my opposite: knee-jerk Clinton defenders, those whose visceral loathing is prompted by people whose visceral loathing is prompted by Bill Clinton. This group has a reverse take on the President: Everything awful that he has done has surprised them, but nothing awful that he has done has shocked them.
These two groups, the Clinton loathers and the loathers of the Clinton leathers, have spent the last six years being tested. I can’t speak for everyone on arc right, but personally I have found it burdensome and distracting—no fun at all—to carry such negative feelings for a . . . a politician, for crying out loud. What’s more, it is exhausting, and vaguely embarrassing, to feel one’s emotions continually overwhelm one’s attempts at reason. On the other hand, I know what I know—you know? So there I am.
As for the occupants of arc left, their fate for letting emotion overwhelm reason is to become public (and, worse, comic) examples of rank hypocrisy. They have defended behavior in this President that has betrayed everything they claim to stand for. My reaction to Bill Clinton is such that my punishment is to have been robbed of intellectual detachment. The left’s reaction to people like me is such that their punishment is to have been robbed of principle. It is an essential element of the Clinton experience that the one shared fact of both groups is that neither anticipated such a miserable fate back in 1992.
If there is discomfort at the ends of the arc, there is sheer existential angst at its crest, territory occupied exclusively by people I call the Smarties. Smarties are not dealing with issues so raw as visceral reactions or so blunt as clashing worldviews. Rather, they pride themselves on their understanding of nuance and subtlety, their refined insights, broad vision, nimble intellect, and superior intelligence. What we are talking about, in case you haven’t guessed, are male journalists—boomers mostly (think Joe Klein, Jonathan Alter, Richard Cohen, Thomas Friedman)—who once saw themselves in Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton in themselves. And make no mistake, they were deeply and completely infatuated with this dual image: We are Clinton; Clinton is us; wow.
Well, the romance has faded, replaced by primal terror. While arc right is smirking, “I told you so,” and arc left is hissing some version of “So’s your old man,” none of it can be heard over the Smarties’ great wounded cry: “What in God’s name have we gotten ourselves connected with—and by the way, none of this is our fault.”
With problems coming from all directions (every day, Bill Clinton does something even more embarrassing), the Smarties are running out of rationalizations, not that they don’t keep trying. It turns out they hitched their wagon not to a star but to a head case, and this knowledge is so terrible, so humiliating, so alien to their self-image that they are blinded to the most obvious sources of insight and resolution. In this case, the most obvious source of insight and resolution is something on the order of If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. But the first problem with Smarties is that they can’t recognize a dog. And the second problem is that they think this is the dog’s fault. They do not look at Bill Clinton and ask, “How could I have been so wrong?” They ask, “How could he have been so bad?” Scratching away, they protest, “Well, he didn’t look like a dog, and he didn’t say he was a dog, so these fleas don’t belong on me and probably aren’t fleas to begin with.” I don’t knowhow this argument impresses dogs, but I’m sure it has no effect whatever on fleas.
Why are these men in such exquisite pain? And I am talking here exclusively about men, because there is something unmistakably gender-specific in their moral and intellectual struggles with the person of Bill Clinton. I think their dilemma goes directly to the definition of manhood and our forced rediscovery, through exposure to the opposite, of what were once known as the manly virtues. Bill Clinton has proved himself to be, in a word, weak. Not flawed: weak. Who is impressed by a man’s I.Q. while he is wallowing in self-pity? Who thinks of his policy mastery when he betrays his friends? Who gives a damn about his intellect while he lies through his teeth? Who is comfortable knowing that he once admired, if only in a political context, the sex appeal of a President for whom the designation of “sexual lowlife” would be a step up? Who still thinks that brazenness is courage rather than conceit? Who still believes that a bottomless need for approval leads to anything but a bottomless potential for cravenness? What kind of man publicly humiliates his child?
To have identified with such a person would unnerve anyone. But the problem for the male Smarties isn’t that they identified with a flawed President, or even with a lousy excuse for a human being. Their problem is that they identified with a lousy excuse for a man. The vanity-based elitism and self-absorption they shared with Bill Clinton have yielded to a sense of mortification (which is countered at the moment with denial) at their slow discovery that Clinton is, first and always, the ver)’ last thing any self-respecting male wants to be: an empty vessel, a figure without honor. Character didn’t matter if a man could do the job, remember? It turns out that character is the man and the man is the job.
A year ago, I thought I knew what I wanted. I wanted Bill Clinton to resign. Failing that, I wanted him removed from office. But he didn’t, and he wasn’t, and there is a reason for that: We are not finished with him yet; the test isn’t over. My personal goal now is to find peace with the knowledge that the awfulness of a President whose televised image makes me want to sail a shoe at the TV is the very awfulness that is creating a most welcome backlash toward human wholesomeness. (Obvious source of insight and resolution: Everything happens for a reason.)
Unlike, say, William Bennett, I do not believe Americans are failing a moral challenge. I think we are processing the very unfamiliar experience of being led by a man with virtually no redeeming qualities. That processing is no small deal because the experience is no small event—and the whole business will just take as long as it takes.
We will know we are reaching the blessed end, however, when some Smar- He—Jonathan Alter, maybe—stops writing flea-ridden articles about how impeachment was actually a political positive for Bill Clinton (“without Lewinsky, the president would have felt no urge to overhaul Social Security. . . . Thanks, girl!”) and gets a grip on his own urge to overhaul reality. I am waiting for the crest of the arc to get active with the hitching up of trousers and the clanking of cajones and the deep collective rumbling that real men can feel shame and they don’t make excuses for sissies who can’t.
It could happen—it could. As Bill Clinton’s presidency has proved, anything is possible. Well, anything with the exception of a change in Jonathan Alter. I think he’s just too far gone. Some friend needs to take him aside and repeat, “It was a dog, Jonathan, a dog—d-o-g.”
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