When Bill Clinton first ran for president, I was still living in Scotland. When an American friend came to visit me, I asked her, "So what do you think of Clinton?"
"Clinton's probably okay," my friend said. "It's just too bad she's married to Bill."
My friend still voted for him, of course. Or rather, she voted to get rid of Bush, just like every other sane American. And Clinton was the only option. But if any significant number of Americans had any illusions about Clinton back then, it's almost impossible to find any who'll admit to it now.
Right from the start, Bill Clinton has only cared about two things: getting elected and getting laid. And now his penchant for the latter could cost him his presidency.
It couldn't happen to a more deserving politician.
This is a man who, while governor of Arkansas, let a lobotomized death-row inmate be killed just to prove to his critics that he wasn't soft on crime. This is a man who replaced a Republican president by presenting himself as a Republican, while claiming to be a Democrat; right from the start, he ran as a business-oriented conservative, declaring that he wanted "to make more millionaires than Reagan and Bush" (who, incidentally, nearly bankrupted the country). This is the man who feebly tried to imitate Bush's hardass routine with Saddam Hussein while cozying up to China, one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century. This is a man who promised health-care reform, then jettisoned the issue the moment he found himself under pressure. This is a man who said whatever he had to say to gain power, and will now say whatever he has to say in an attempt to keep that power.
It would be naive to suggest that Clinton is a particularly corrupt or unethical president. He's just more obvious than any of his predecessors. The President of the United States has little in the way of real power--which is just as well, because the thought of national security being in the hands of such a buffoon is genuinely frightening.
He first came to international attention as a presidential candidate so lacking in savvy that he couldn't even figure how to cheat on his wife discreetly. But the spin he and his people put on the Gennifer Flowers embarrassment was a real portent of what was to come.
During the 1992 Democratic primary, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared together on 60 Minutes. And, while he sat there and denied that he'd had an affair with Flowers, his wife sat next to him and played the supportive little woman, telling the country that she loved him and forgave him any pain he had caused her, and so, by implication, the country should love and forgive him, too. Clinton declared that he had "absolutely leveled with the American people."
And it worked. There are still people who react with surprise when you tell them that Clinton denied to 60 Minutes the affair with Flowers, because that's not what they remember hearing when they watched the show. Clinton's "gee, I'm just a regular guy who made a mistake" persona was so convincing that viewers talked about his openness, and it was suggested that he was bringing a new honesty to politics.
That was about the only successful spin of Clinton's career. The rest of the time, his ineptitude has resembled the stuff of satirical movies like Dr. Strangelove or Being There. In fact, this most recent farce is improbably close to the script of the recent Barry Levinson film Wag the Dog, in which a D.C. spin doctor hires a Hollywood producer to script a military crisis and divert attention from a presidential act of sexual perversion.
But this current, real-life version of Wag the Dog is only the latest example of Clinton's sleaziness.
In 1996, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was killed in a plane crash. Never one to miss an opportunity, Clinton made a drama out of a tragedy, going on about how Brown was one of his best friends. So, naturally, TV cameras were poised to film him as he left Brown's funeral. He didn't seem to realize they were present, and, as he walked away from the graveside with his entourage, he threw back his head and laughed at a joke someone had made. Then he saw the cameras. And he immediately stopped laughing and pretended to be crying, wiping imaginary tears from his face with the back of his hand.
What would a politician of equal cynicism, but more smarts, do in the same situation? Try to put a spin on it. Probably say something about having laughed because he was remembering his friend's life as well as mourning his death. Or some other trite justification. But Clinton is simply too slow-witted.
And yet, all along, people have insisted on believing in him. Liberals still tell you he's a liberal, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Following the miseries of Reagan and Bush, the country needed to believe in someone. And, having no one to believe in, Americans had to make the best of what they had.
Clinton served as a blank screen onto which people could project their hopes, for two reasons: He's extremely charismatic, and he doesn't really say anything.
When he talks, he just recites platitudinous sound bites, coming off as a kind of mean-spirited Forrest Gump, a good ol' boy with common sense rather than intelligence, with values rooted in family and work. His shallowness has always been his biggest asset; it's hard to disagree with a person who doesn't say anything, and it's easy to get excited about a person who, though saying nothing, says it with power and conviction.
Clinton didn't have to be in this much trouble. All he allegedly did, to begin with, is have an affair with Monica Lewinsky, an intern at the White House. She was of legal age. This may have established Clinton as a piece of slime (as though there were any doubt before), but that's not against the law. If every married man who had an affair at work was removed from the job, unemployment lines would be very long.
But Clinton has been accused of asking Lewinsky to lie for him, which she reportedly says she did: In a sworn affidavit in the Paula Jones case, Lewinsky denied any affair with Clinton. And in a six-hour deposition in the Jones case, Clinton denied the affair, and also denied sexually harassing Jones. He did admit to the affair with Flowers, rebutting his earlier denials.
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So he's dug an unnecessary hole for himself. You can't be prosecuted for being a creep. But you can be for perjury and obstruction of justice.
In that famous 60 Minutes interview, Hillary Clinton said, "I love him and respect him, and I honor what he's been through and we've been through together, and, you know, if that's not enough for people, then, heck, don't vote for him."
And heck, America should have listened to her.
There is only one way Clinton can help restore some dignity to the office he has turned into a cheap soap opera: When he delivers his State of the Union address, he should do the decent thing and resign. With other men, this would be a given. But this is Bill Clinton, who has never been known to do what is decent. So unless Kenneth Starr manages to prove a case against him, we may just have to cringe for another two years.
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org