The first thing you notice about William Jefferson Clinton is how tall he is. The second is the seductive power he has of making you feel, from the first moment of meeting, that he is someone you know well. The third is his sharp intelligence, which allows you to speak to him about anything at all, even the prickliest topics, provided you know when to bring it up.
Even so, someone not enamored of him forewarned me: "The dangerous thing about these gifts is that Clinton uses them to make you feel that nothing could interest him more than what you are saying to him."
I met him first at a dinner given by William Styron in his summer house on Martha's Vineyard in August 1995. During his first campaign, Clinton had mentioned that his favorite book was "One Hundred Years of Solitude." I said at the time -- and I was quoted in print -- that I thought he had said it simply to pull in the Latin vote. He had not forgotten -- after greeting me on Martha's Vineyard, he at once assured me that what he said had been quite sincere.
Carlos Fuentes and I have good reason for considering that evening as a whole chapter in our memoirs. From the beginning, we were disarmed by the interest, respect and humor with which he listened to us, treating our words as if they were gold dust.
His mood corresponded with his appearance. His hair was short, like a scrubbing brush, his skin tanned -- he had the healthy and almost insolent look of a sailor ashore, and he was wearing a college sweat shirt with some logo on the chest. At 49, he looked like an exuberant survivor of the generation of '68, who had smoked marijuana, knew the Beatles by heart and had demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
Dinner began at 8, with some 14 guests around the table, and lasted until midnight. Bit by bit, the conversation came down to a kind of literary round table involving the president and the three writers. The first topic to come up was the forthcoming Summit of the Americas. Clinton had wanted it held in Miami, where it did take place. Carlos Fuentes considered that New Orleans or Los Angeles had stronger historical claims, and he and I argued strongly for them until it became clear that the president had no intention of changing his plans because he was counting on reelection support from Miami.
"Forget the votes, Mr. President," Carlos said to him. "Lose Florida and make history."
That phrase set the tone. When we spoke of the problems of narco-traffic, the president heard me out generously. "Thirty million drug addicts in the U.S. go to show that the North American mafia are more powerful than those in Colombia, and the authorities much more corrupt." When I spoke to him about relations with Cuba, he seemed even more receptive. "If Fidel and you could sit and talk face to face, all problems would completely disappear."
When we talked about Latin America in general, we realized that he was much more interested than we had supposed, although he lacked some essential background. When the conversation seemed to stiffen a bit, we asked him what his favorite movie was, and he answered "High Noon," by Fred Zinneman, whom he had recently honored in London. When we asked him what he was reading, he sighed and mentioned a book on the economic wars of the future, author and title unknown to me.
"Better to read 'Don Quixote,'" I said to him. "Everything's in there." Now, the 'Quixote' is a book that is not read nearly as much as is claimed, although very few will admit to not having read it. With two or three quotes, Clinton showed that he knew it very well indeed. Responding, he asked us what our favorite books were. Styron said his was "Huckleberry Finn."
I would have said "Oedipus Rex," which has been my bed table book for the last 20 years, but I named "The Count of Monte Cristo," mainly for reasons of technique, which I had some trouble explaining.
Clinton said his was the "Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," and Carlos Fuentes stuck loyally to "Absalom, Absalom," Faulkner's stellar novel, no question, although others would choose "Light in August" for purely personal reasons. Clinton, in homage to Faulkner, got to his feet and, pacing around the table, recited from memory Benji's monologue, the most thrilling passage, and perhaps the most hermetic, from "The Sound and the Fury."
Faulkner got us to talking about the affinities between Caribbean writers and the cluster of great Southern novelists in the United States. It made much more sense to us to think of the Caribbean not as a geographical region surrounded by its sea but as a much wider historical and cultural belt stretching from the north of Brazil to the Mississippi Basin.
Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and so many others would then be just as Caribbean as Jorge Amado and Derek Walcott. Clinton, born and raised in Arkansas, a Southern state, applauded the notion and professed himself happy to be a Caribbean.
It was close to midnight, and he had to break off the
conversation to take an urgent call from Gerry Adams, to whom at
that moment he gave the authority to campaign and raise funds in
the United States for peace in Northern Ireland. That should have
been the ending to an unforgettable evening, but Carlos Fuentes
took it further by asking the president who he thought of as his
His reply was immediate and abrupt: "My only enemy is
right-wing religious fundamentalism." That pronouncement ended
the evening. The other times I saw him, in public or in private, I
had the same impression as I had that first time. Bill Clinton was
the complete opposite of the idea Latin Americans have of
presidents of the United States.
Given all that, does it seem right that this exceptional human
being should be prevented from fulfilling his historical destiny
simply because he was unable to find a private place to make love?
That is just what happened. The most powerful man in the world
was kept from consummating his secret passions by the invisible
presence of a Secret Service that served as much to restrain as to
There are no curtains on the Oval Office windows, no bolt on
the door of the president's private bathroom. The vase of flowers
that appears behind the president in photographs of him at his
desk has been claimed by the press to be a hiding-place for
microphones to consecrate the mysteries of presidential audiences.
Even sadder, however, is the fact that the president only
wanted to do what the run of men have done in private with their
women from the beginning of the world, and a Puritan stolidity not
only impeded him, but even denied him the right to deny it.
Jonas invented the literature of fiction when he convinced his
wife that his homecoming was three days late because a whale had
swallowed him. Sheltering behind that ancient argument, Clinton
denied having any sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, and
denied it with his head held high, like any self-respecting
unfaithful husband. In the end, his personal drama is a purely
domestic matter, between himself and Hillary, and she has stood by
him in the eyes of the world with Homeric dignity.
It is one thing to lie in order to deceive; but it is quite
another to conceal truths in order to protect that mythical
dimension of human existence that is private life. Quite rightly,
no one is obliged to give evidence against himself. For having
persisted in his first denials, Clinton would have been prosecuted
in any case -- that's what it was about -- but it is much more
dignified to perjure oneself defending the privacy of the heart
than to be absolved at the expense of love.
Disastrously, with the same insistence with which he had
denied blame, he later admitted it and went on admitting it over
all the media, written, visual and spoken, to the point of
humiliation -- a fatal error in an uncertain lover, whose secret
life will go into the history books not for having made love badly
but for having made it a lot less glorious than it should be.
Ludicrously, he submitted to oral sex while he talked on the
telephone with a senator. He supplanted himself with a frigid
cigar. He naturally used all kinds of tricks of avoidance, but the
more he tried the more his inquisitors came up with evidence
against him, for Puritanism is insatiable and feeds on its own
It has been a vast and sinister conspiracy of fanatics aimed
at the personal destruction of a political adversary whose stature
they could not abide. The method was the criminal use of justice
by a fundamentalist prosecutor called Kenneth Starr, whose fierce
and salacious questioning seemed to excite these fanatics to the
point of orgasm.
The Bill Clinton we met some four months ago, at a gala dinner
in the White House for Andres Pastrana, president of Colombia,
seemed quite different -- no longer the open-minded academic of
Martha's Vineyard, but someone under sentence, thinner and
uncertain, who could not conceal with a professional smile an
organic weariness like the metal fatigue that destroys planes.
Some days before, at a press dinner with Katharine Graham, the
golden woman of the Washington Post, someone had remarked that,
judging by the trials of Clinton, the United States still seemed
to be the country of Nathaniel Hawthorne. That night in the White
House, I realized just what that meant.
The reference was to the great American novelist of last
century, who denounced in his work the horrors of New England
fundamentalism, where the witches of Salem were burned alive. His
main novel, "The Scarlet Letter," is the drama of Hester Prynne,
a young married woman who bore a child in secret by another man. A
Kenneth Starr of the day condemned her to wear a penitent's shirt
bearing the letter "A" of the Puritan code, the color and smell
An agent of the order followed her everywhere beating a drum
so that pedestrians could keep out of her way. The ending must
surely keep prosecutor Starr awake, for the secret father of
Hester's child turned out to be a minister of the cult that made a
martyr of her.
The method and the morality of the procedures were essentially
the same. When Clinton's enemies failed to find what they needed
to bring him down, they hounded him with mined interrogations
until they trapped him here and there in minor inconsistencies.
Then they forced him to accuse himself in public, and to apologize
for things he had not even done, live, using the technology of
universal information that is nothing more than a trimillennial
version of the drums that persecuted Hester Prynne.
From the prosecutor's questions, cunning and concupiscent,
even small children became aware of the lies their parents told to
keep from them how they came into being. Suffering from metal
fatigue, Clinton committed the unpardonable folly of violently
punishing an invented enemy 5,397 nautical miles from the White
House, to distract attention from his personal plight.
Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and a
great writer of this agonizing century, summed it up in one
inspired phrase: "They treated him like a black president."