Where the political analysis looks for strength, the president benefited from his display of weakness. Where the political analysis recoils from emotion, the American people were suddenly riveted by details of desire, longing, jealousy, and good old-fashioned crushes. Where the political analysis exalts above all else the singular aura and distinction of being presidential, this president communicates by being just another baby-boomer, as capable and as dysfunctional as the next.
How big is the divide between what the press understands and what a sizable portion of Americans perceives? Well, the press believes that even if Clinton avoids impeachment, he is a ruined political figure who leaves an ignominious legacy. Meanwhile, that sizable portion of America seems to be moving to embrace Bill Clinton in an altogether new relationship of fascination, equanimity, and friendship -- out of which might even come a legacy of greatness. The divide is that big.
Here's what I think happened. The press made a deal with Clinton (or, in its own collective mind, it thought it was making a deal). Remember: They absolutely had him. There were tapes! In his own words! Whispering to Gennifer Flowers. At any point, they -- the press -- could have ended his first campaign for president. But they rationalized that he was basically a good kid, a serious, brainy student of social policy -- just the sort of kid that this sort of parent likes. So they let him slide on the condition that he wouldn't do it again. Of course he wouldn't! Who would take that kind of risk? It seemed safe to assume he'd just be Bill the Wonk, not Bill the Hound.
At that moment, the law of unintended effects kicked in. The public, having held its breath, having waited for the press to bring him down, accepted the obvious: The man sleeps around. (The public was put in the position of being the guy's guilty friend: Will he get caught? Will he get away with it?)
So Clinton, the smart kid, the valedictorian, the uncontrollable flirt, attracted to pretty much every woman he's ever met, gets elected.
You've got to believe Clinton knows this about himself, and accepts it: He likes sex (or seduction), needs sex (perhaps even love), and wants more of it. Surprise: That's an attractive quality. We're drawn -- women especially are drawn -- to guys who want you to love them. It's certainly more exciting than the other kind of guy. After Starr nailed Clinton on the dress, David Gergen predicted that the public upset would soon turn to rage. Well, not only was the public not enraged; it was compelled, fascinated -- loving him even more. I mean, these approval ratings are not just high: These are FDR's ratings!
Did Clinton ever reckon with the fact that someday he'd get caught flat out? I'll bet he prepared himself. I'll bet he played this out in his head. He thought about how to communicate the nuance and dimension and sizzle of a new kind of politician to the American people: i.e., This is all of me. In fact, he doesn't look shamefaced or awkward at all when he's caught. He looks -- could it be? -- dignified, ennobled. At any rate, he certainly looks like he's fully prepared to cope with it. He has a lot going for him, of course. He knows his generation, after all -- and who among them hasn't had a sexual secret? Plus, he has this bedrock of women supporting him -- they get the vibe (remember, he's a mama's boy, having to keep winning his mother back after each of her many marriages). And he has the right opponents -- the religious right, the sex haters.
Now, of course, this drives the press nuts. It's not America that's enraged; it's the press that's crazy with rage. Not least of all because they let him off. What could they say now to the charge You knew he was a sleep-around? They said: Yes, but not in the White House! Harrumph! The betrayal went deeper still. Because Clinton turned out to be not, first and foremost, a wonk, a policy brother, a bureaucrat, but instead some other kind of character that confused the political-commentator class. The guy was communicating over their heads. Talking soft. Sending vibes. Emoting. Even having some secret communication with American women.
Indeed, Clinton understood exactly the question he needed the American people to ask. Not Who lied? Not What did he do? Not Who said what to whom? But: Who is the real hypocrite?
He got the best of all possible answers: the press.
And the media hypocrisy was of a very unattractive kind. It was country-club hypocrisy. Arch. Insider. Condescending. Oh, you see, I told you he wasn't of our class, darling. He wasn't discreet. And that girl, she has such a weight problem! Oh, yes, thank you, Sally, I will take a freshener.
Only Geraldo, the anti-anchor, seemed to sort of get it, muttering sotto voce: "I love the guy, but what a schmuck . . ."
The president sent a layered message the weekend after his unsatisfying August confession when, with the press demanding contrition of some operatic order and predicting imminent and inevitable resignation, he went out on a boat with Walter Cronkite. Not only did he choose to align himself with a figure of larger-than-life rectitude, but he chose one who provided a marked contrast to the present-day faces who deliver the news. (As a sea-change measure, Nixon, in somewhat similar circumstances, used Billy Graham as his moral foil.) Cronkite, the last and greatest figure of an all-powerful network-news media that offered not only information but temperament, credibility, heroism even, proffered a cheerful wave and a sage smile as his sloop moved out of the Vineyard harbor past the press jackals on the shore.
But it wasn't just the stark contrast that Clinton wanted to point out. The other layer woven into Clinton's Cronkite message is that as much as the present crop of newsmen couldn't eat Cronkite's crumbs, they were also, at least in form and affect, not that different from him. Everything had changed -- except these newsmen.