Clinton and Presley: All shook up

They live in the common imagination, dramatizing America's most unresolved notions of what it means to be good, true and beautiful -- and evil, false and ugly.

Published August 9, 2000 7:31PM (EDT)

"I rooted for him during the impeachment process, of course, because fanaticism and puritanism in any form are my enemies," movie director Oliver Stone said in April 1999, two months after President Bill Clinton's acquittal by the Senate on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

At issue was Clinton's testimony regarding an affair with a White House intern, originally given during a deposition in a later-dismissed sexual harassment case brought by one Paula Jones, a secretary employed by the state of Arkansas during Clinton's time as its governor; now, after more than a year of leaked and manipulated testimony meant to drive Clinton from office through extra-legal means, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had lost the formal battle. Clinton had been impeached by the House; he was acquitted by the Senate. The crusade on the part of Republicans in the House of Representatives to expel Clinton from Washington had destroyed not their chosen enemy but two of their own leaders, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and almost-speaker Bob Livingston.

Not that the victory ennobled the victor, Stone said: "He reminds me so much of Nixon. The pathology. The need to lie. A President who says, I smoked but I didn't inhale. A President who refuses to be proud of, or even to acknowledge, that he didn't go to Vietnam for reasons of principle, and makes it sound like he's running away from what he did. Total pandering to the right wing. Clinton and the teenager. Like an Elvis movie. The poor man couldn't even get laid well."

A month later, in an interview with journalist Jack Newfield, New York Times columnist Frank Rich was trying to make ordinary sense of the same bizarre series of events, and found himself speaking the same language -- a language in which a metaphor that at first seems transparent is almost immediately opaque. "Do you think the far right hates Clinton more for cultural than for political reasons?" Newfield asked. "Do they just see him as the avatar of the 1960s with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll?" "Yes," Rich said, as if nothing could be simpler. Not that he wanted anyone identifying him or his generation with Clinton anymore than Stone did, just because they were all about the same age: "In some ways it's absurd because many people who still believe in the Left of the 1960s would find Clinton a very poor example of it."

Rich recited the litany: "He wasn't really a serious Vietnam war protester; he was an opportunist even then. We know he smoked marijuana, but he's hardly an exemplar of the Ken Kesey LSD generation. Even his taste in Sixties music, I would say, is extremely suspect ... It's kind of preposterous. It's like if you hated Elvis Presley, choosing Dick Clark as the person to focus on. I'm not a Clinton fan, but he's just not worthy of the kind of hatred that everyone has for him."

Why are these two interesting people drawn so helplessly to the identification of Bill Clinton with Elvis Presley? Trying to pull a usable metaphor out of the air, why are they drawn to that identification so imaginatively? The idea of Clinton's presidency as an Elvis movie (presumably the 1967 "Double Trouble," in which nightclub singer Guy Lambert is pursued both by a smitten 17-year-old heiress and a calculating woman his own age) is almost irresistible. But the momentum in the identification of Elvis and Clinton isn't about ideas. Why are Stone, who as a Hollywood moviemaker can get more women than the president, and Rich, who during the year of impeachment came perhaps too close to crossing his newspaper's line of tolerance of Bill Clinton, drawn to this identification so personally? In the moment in the conversation when Elvis arrives -- like Superman or a bad conscience -- to dramatize or mystify what is otherwise a string of unexamined assumptions meant mostly to establish that the speaker is better than Bill Clinton, one can glimpse a piece of each speaker's life story: His attempt, in the 1950s or 1960s, to define himself by and against Elvis Presley, and how uncertain each is about how the story may have turned out. They are almost saying: What if Bill Clinton is Elvis Presley's true inheritor?

Gallery owner to Jesse: "You think you can waltz in here in your cheap shoes and pass yourself off as an art critic?"
Jesse: "I want you to know that these shoes were not cheap! They cost fifty bucks! And what about your shoes? You look like you mugged Elvis!"
Diego, artist with Jesse, attempting to ingratiate himself with gallery owner: "The early, cool Elvis ..."
-- "Jesse," NBC, Nov. 5, 1998

Like Jesse and Diego, Oliver Stone and Frank Rich are playing with the Good Elvis and the Bad Elvis. Their Clinton is opposed to the Real, Good Elvis; he's the Bad Elvis, or the Fake Elvis -- but somehow the equations don't hold. Apparently simple, the equations are in fact complex; seemingly fixed in clichi, they are unstable.

Both Elvis and Clinton are alive in the common imagination as blessed, tawdry actors in a pretentious musical comedy cum dinner-theater Greek tragedy about their country's most unresolved notions of what it means to be good, true and beautiful -- and evil, false and ugly. Americans are caught between the truth and falsity of performance (or art) (or culture) or of art (or politics) (or culture), caught along with the countless people all over the world whose response to the likes of Elvis Presley has made them, in Leslie Fiedler's phrase, "imaginary Americans" -- people like Boris Yeltsin (who in 1991, after standing on a tank in Moscow to rally democratic forces against a fascist coup, returned alone to his office to listen to Elvis sing "Are You Lonesome To-night?," to hear him say, "You know someone said, the world's a stage, and each must play a part ..."), Siniad O'Connor (who, having named Bill Clinton "the sexiest man in the universe" in late 1998, then wrote the Irish Times asking, "Does impeachment mean they're going to turn him into a peach? If so, can I eat him?"), or Salman Rushdie (who in 1999 insisted on both Presley and Clinton as familiars: Elvis's music, heard in India in 1956, "didn't seem foreign," he said, and he spoke with pride of the reply Clinton sent him when Rushdie wrote offering his support: "Bill Clinton, c'est moi!"). We are as attracted to the falsity as to the truth -- both because we are never sure which is which ("The early, fake Elvis" -- what if the later, helpless Elvis was the real person?), and because truth is final. That's its satisfaction and its alienation. Falsity is open: its future is always unfixed.

As fans and spectators imagining ourselves on stage -- as Oliver Stone and Frank Rich are for all their notoriety and circumspection fans and spectators imagining themselves on a far greater stage than they actually inhabit -- we play tricks on ourselves in this game, just as the actors play tricks on us. (Do you think Elvis or Clinton was ever fooled by his audiences, either by the applause or the contempt?) We can't tell where the promise shades into betrayal, or the betrayal dissolves the promise for good.

Thus, in the second and third decades after his death, is Elvis reconstructed -- randomly, it seems, but relentlessly -- as a figure of sadism, domination, mutilation, waste and ruin. He is a hate crime, his name sprayed along with Ku Klux Klan code signs by racist police officers in Cleveland in 1999. He is the devil, walking side by side with the shade of Robert Johnson in Ace Atkins's 1999 detective novel "Crossroad Blues" -- or side by side with Idi Amin Dada, the former Ugandan dictator and sometime cannibal, the two of them scanning the shelves of a supermarket in Saudi Arabia: "A number of my friends say they have met him there in the frozen food aisle," an American lawyer reports in 1996. "They say it was just like meeting Elvis."

He is the nightmare of a present-day Dr. Van Helsing, ruminating in the 1995 film Nadja over the death of Count Ceausescu Dracula on the Lower East Side of New York: "He was tired, he was lost. He was -- he was like Elvis in the end. Drugs; confused; surrounded by zombies; just going through the motions. And he knew. I didn't kill him. He was already dead." He is a house forever divided against itself, to the point that neither he nor anyone else can get from one room to another and back again. Most crepuscularly he is a haunt in Rudolph Giuliani's Gracie Mansion: In 1999 critic John Leonard imagined the New York mayor as "Richard Nixon, alone in a darkened wing of the White House, as if Watergate had been a play by Beckett, listening on tape to himself or maybe Elvis" -- which, with the year not 1974 and Leonard's Nixon not a man about to leave the White House but a man who then imagined that he would one day occupy it, makes the tape in question as likely that of Clinton's testimony to Kenneth Starr's Grand Jury as, say, "Reconsider Baby."

Bill Clinton is a man able to effortlessly convince whoever is speaking to him that it is only that person's voice he hears -- just as Elvis convinced so many that, from a hundred rows away, he was singing only to them. Though remade through the Internet as a mass murderer ("I have seen the list," informant Linda Tripp told Starr's Grand Jury darkly), in vast fields of public discourse as a monster destroying all values and decency in his path ("The man in the Oval Office is a rapist, a war criminal, a psychopathic liar," journalist Christopher Hitchens told followers of the Free Republic, a right-wing Web site, as they rallied across from the White House in July 1999), that is not the bad guy's role Bill Clinton plays in the common imagination.

He comes forth rather as the ultimate version of the American type Herman Melville chased in "The Confidence Man: His Masquerade" -- with the Oval Office as the ultimate Big Store and a never-ending parade of good people lining up to be fleeced. "Our father who art in Washington," Memphian Jim Dickinson intoned in 1993, leading off Mudboy and the Neutrons' "Money Talks": "Slick Willie be his name/ He taken me off Rabbit Track tobacco/ And put me back on Novocain."

He is the southerner who goes north to read the law, who returns home, and then to the nation at large, as the Yankee Pedlar -- without ever having lost, as Alannah Myles put it in 1990 with her Elvis tribute "Black Velvet," "that slow southern style." The fear Bill Clinton inspires is not, as the right has warned the country ever since it woke up to the fact that he had somehow been elected president, that he will steal you blind and corrupt your morals; it is that he will do all that and more, and make you like it. For both Elvis and Clinton, one dead, one back from the dead, behind all the hysterical and gaudy obloquy is the suspicion that each could have been everything he ever promised he would be -- and, in the common imagination, still can be.

The unknowableness, or unseeableness, of Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton is part of their common status as outsiders in an America rewritten in the 1950s by means of a newly magical, newly dominant and altogether unitary media, which from 1945 rushed in to fill the huge gap in the nation's public life, its sense of purpose and definition, left by the death of Franklin Roosevelt. It was an era when images of the good, of what it meant to be American and to be taken seriously as such, were framed by a very few sources: Life magazine, daily newspapers, three television networks and advertisements for cars, refrigerators and Scotch. As white male southerners without family money (hillbillies, no 'counts, white trash -- the source, of course, of much of the identification made between Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley, and of Clinton's own heartfelt or cynical identification of himself with Elvis), Presley and Clinton always had to prove themselves -- and they never could, not without abandoning themselves in some essential way, some way that one or the other or both could perhaps desire but never master.

"Bush didn't believe the country would throw out the commander of the Gulf War for this cracker governor from Arkansas," Republican Party operative Ed Rollins said in 1999. "He actually told people that." Many still can't believe it, any more than in 1956 they or others, those horrified and those thrilled, could believe what a 21-year-old from Mississippi and Tennessee was doing in their living rooms.

Both Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton reaped all the rewards available in American society except one: moral citizenship. Both remain figures by which that quality can be defined, which is to say that it is defined by, among other things, the degree to which one can believe he or she is better than either or both. Our attraction to both is inseparable from our need to prove to ourselves that we are different from them -- to prove that if we will never rise so high, we would never sink so low. Because this is a tricky case to make, it has to be made again and again, and more and more cryptically; that is why for Elvis the story remains untold more than two decades after his death, and why for decades to come the nation may wish Clinton would, like Elvis, have the grace to surrender his right to tell his own story to the rest of us. That is unlikely. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, when in 1999 rumors surfaced that Clinton was considering a run for the Senate from Arkansas in 2002, "Elvis will never leave the building."

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From "Double Trouble: Bill Cinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives," by Greil Marcus, to be published in September 2000 by John Macrae Books/Henry Holt and Company. ) 2000 by Greil Marcus. Published by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

By Greil Marcus

The Rude Mechs' theatrical adaptation of Greil Marcus' book "Lipstick Traces" will play Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at DiverseWorks in Houston. For more columns by Greil Marcus, visit his column archive.

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