What are we really talking about when we talk about Bill?
I was sitting with my mother in a nice older-person’s bistro on the Upper East Side when she lost it. Tears welled and, suddenly, this mostly reasonable woman was going on about trailer-park people, white trash, grifters, whores, and you don’t want to know what else.
Trust me when I say that by every indication up until this point, my mother was quite fond of Bill Clinton, and that there is virtually no context that I can imagine in which Marc Rich and Pincus Green could become a lightning rod for her.
And yet here she was, on a Thursday night out, making her over-the-top contribution to possibly the fastest reversal of political fortune of all time – turning the most popular figure of the age into an untouchable, a leper, O.J. In the history of public opinion, this could be the biggest flip (the Irish statesman-hero Parnell, felled by a scandal with an Englishwoman, also comes to mind).
One week, we love him; the next week, we loathe him. From giddiness to revulsion, beauty to beast, in the space of a news cycle. Within hours of his valedictory moment (the many of them), he reaches the nadir of his career. And it is not just that his natural enemies are suddenly ascendant (they’ve been vociferous for eight years) but that his friends have publicly and eagerly washed their hands, too. Even investment banks (which will consort with anyone) suddenly decline to be associated with the former president.
What’s wrong with this story?
Perhaps it’s time to look beyond the (more or less delicious) tidbits of the scandal (what if it had just been the nebbishy Pincus Green instead of Marc Rich, the too-tan jet-setter? Or what if Marc Rich had not been named Rich? What if Denise Rich had been less like the ladies we think Bill Clinton sleeps with?) to the natural conditions of the reversal itself.
Clinton has had no control over the rhythms of the news cycle. You can’t bomb the Middle East from 125th Street.
From the media perspective, at this point in the narrative, reversal is certainly a key structural requirement: How do we continue to talk about Bill Clinton – for many of us the most compelling subject of our careers – when we have no sanctioned reason, since he’s an ex-president (or, as he has taken to calling himself, a private citizen), to keep talking about him?
Andy Lack, who runs NBC News, has supposedly been telling people: “He’s my president, and I’m going to keep him my president for as long as I can.” (Even if that’s apocryphal, you get the point: For the media, Bill Clinton is as good as it gets.) This is in contrast to George Bush, who is not only not our president – we have little idea of who he is, and what we know of him is not in the least bit compelling – but, from the first moment, began to run the White House, or has had it run for him, by strict corporate rules. Control – of emotions, of information, of dress – is the premium Bush virtue and the opposite of what makes a good story.
So we have the need and the desire (the instinct) to continue to write and talk about Bill. Even people who don’t like him get orgiastic talking about him (Fox’s Bill O’Reilly visibly loses energy and focus when he talks about anything other than Clinton). But to credibly keep him in the picture, we need a story as large as the story of when he was president. Hence, the mirror image: the president as anti-president; the most popular person as the most despised person; charm as poison. The story can’t be technical; it can’t be a debate about pardon practices (about Weinberger versus Rich) or the ethics of funding political, or post-political, careers. It has to be an epic undoing for him to remain on the same stage as (or a grander one than) the actual president.
Now, you might think it would be hard to justify, or explain, or lend credence to, such an absolute reversal. Except that the entire 2000 campaign consisted of turnabouts that could be explained only by the exigencies of attention-getting plot devices (also by frantic competition among news outlets, and by desperately short attention spans). We’ve come to accept the flip as a narrative convention: If you’re up, you go down; if you’re down, you’re bound to head up (naturally, as Clinton goes down, Bush goes up). It’s soap opera – no matter what the plot history has been up until now, you’re never constrained by it, and your audience will never fault you for gross excess.
Of course, while the story reverses, it doesn’t fundamentally change. It continues to be about our interest in this character and about the extraordinarily impolitic, but always entertaining, sometimes exhilarating, lack of control that has always existed about him (in contrast to the Bush buttoned-down thing). Attraction and repulsion are the same. We get to continue to indulge our Clintonmania with the added benefit of distracting everyone’s attention from the fact that we don’t know how to make a story out of George Bush – except to praise him for wisely being a nonstory (how long can that last?).
And then there’s the turf war.
Just as Clinton was leaving office, I wrote a column speculating that the Clinton political career was about to enter an altogether new stratum, that as the first young and ambitious ex-president, he had the clear opportunity to create a powerful new role in public life. What I failed to recognize was that this was a description of everyone else’s ultimate political-nightmare scenario. A guy out of power who is able to hold on to power is anathema to anyone in the power business (it’s un-American!). Republicans, Democrats, and power brokers everywhere must have choked on the notion. A powerful, charming Bill Clinton could destabilize Manhattan, the Democratic Party, and the concept of the presidency itself (that there’s only one at a time). Plus there’s the complicating factor of Hillary – we were suddenly looking at the takeover of the political and social firmament of New York by the Clintons (Felix Rohatyn, in the Grill Room at The Four Seasons, has been clucking to everyone about this).
To me it seemed funny – Bill as a superfly in the ointment. His clear refusal to leave the stage seemed truer (certainly to himself) than a dignified retreat into reticence (he doesn’t look exhausted and worn like other presidents leaving office but, if anything, more dapper and foxy than when he began his term – how worrisome is that?). The move to New York, the whole Hillary thing, even his rush to capitalize his new ambitions (through Rich or Michael Milken), seemed to me interestingly disruptive.
As it happened, beyond a few people with a sense of humor, nobody had a vested interest in the continuing career of Bill Clinton, which I should have understood. In the allocation of a finite amount of power, he was demanding an insupportable share. Duh. This can’t happen. Or, for it to have happened, it would mean others had to give up their share.
Few Democrats even trusted him with the charismatic-statesman role – everybody, apparently, and reasonably, suspected he wanted more. Plus everybody was worried about hotel rooms, pied-à-terres, and the mechanics of assignations.
Now, on the other hand, if Hillary hadn’t run (or if she’d lost), if the Clintons had returned to Arkansas to tend the library, if they had accepted being lesser people instead of expressing continued, ravenous ambition, we might have had a different kind of tolerance – even for Marc Rich and Pincus Green.
In the natural balance of political punch and counterpunch, and of countervailing news cycles, the one new and unaccounted-for factor is that, in fact, Bill Clinton hasn’t much power.
This dawning knowledge seems to continue to surprise everyone.
The Times’ front-page story about the pathos of life in Westchester was as much about the shock of glimpsing an unpresidential and defrocked Bill Clinton as it was about the fallout of the scandal (could it be that we hate him for no longer being president? It’s about separation, stupid!).
The powerlessness, too, revives the class issue. Come to think of it, I remember my mother’s bias against Southern Baptists surfacing prior to the Clinton presidency. That bias, I thought, had disappeared, but it turns out it’s just been in remission for eight years. Without the presidency, he is little more than nothing again – he gets a double penalty for not realizing that. A rube and he doesn’t even know it (the surest sign of a rube). Such powerlessness also means that he has no wherewithal – no meaningful threats or credible promises or potent schmooze – with which to placate or distract political opponents (these include the New York political Establishment, the Gore wing of the party, other emerging Democratic fiefdoms, the new White House, the same old right-wing conspiracy, and the prosecutor, Mary Jo White, in the Southern District, who gets to hold on to her job a while longer in pursuit of the former president).
Then, too, he lacks the P.R. machinery to counter the media reversal, which surprised no one as much as the media (bookers had come to depend on the Clinton war room to supply its own defenders – but now the bookers can’t even find the pro-Clinton phone numbers). Dick Morris, unchecked, is left as a reliable narrator. What’s more, other than his trip to Harlem, and a phantom blizzard, there were no events, or Clinton has had no control over events, with which to feed and temper and redirect the rhythms of the news cycle. You can’t bomb the Middle East from 125th Street.
Without those checks and balances, what we’ve seen is the full, natural, unmodulated force of reversal journalism. Left to its own devices, the story moves without brakes in the opposite direction from where it had been heading before. The dot-coms and Bill Clinton have the same writer.
And because the law of reversals must now favor Bush – from illegitimacy to legitimacy in the mirror image of Clinton – the story moves even more tsunami-like against our protagonist.
Of course, we can apply this same law of reversals to the future. Such negative energy can be, by simple laws of media if not physics, converted into positive energy. If the real equity, in modern media terms, is column inches, Bill Clinton is not losing anything at all. Rather, the media continues to invest in him (Time, with its cover THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING EX-PRESIDENT, got it all wrong – he is, in media terms, surely expanding).
It’s not hard to see what happens. We can’t go on for too much longer ignoring Bush, or trying to explain why a nonentity is a man of great sobriety and purpose. My guess is that the stock market crashes and the Cheney thing breaks wide open – we elected a four-heart-attack guy as the effective president – and, because this is how it works, because this is how it’s programmed into the narrative, the Comeback Kid comes back again. You, and my mother, won’t even realize that you doubted him.