Farewell, charming pragmatist

President Clinton took the political virginity we claimed to have, and damn did it feel good to be rid of it.

Published January 13, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

In the dark days since the Supreme Court said screw you to democracy, I've been steeling myself by listening to "Time of Justice," an old LP of Lyndon Johnson's March 15, 1965, speech to a joint session of Congress in support of the Voting Rights Act. It may be the greatest piece of American political oratory since Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address 100 years earlier, another presidential speech to a country divided by issues that sprang from race.

Afraid of neither exalted rhetoric ("I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy") nor plain talk that conveys a hint of threat to those who would delay the inevitable ("We shall overcome"), Johnson speaks for the constitutionality and moral necessity of the law that, 35 years later, our current Supreme Court would defile.

LBJ's speech seems the only thing adequate to my feelings at the moment, my present disgust, my fear for the future, and just how much I'm going to miss President Clinton. LBJ was speaking for black Americans who wanted a voice in their own government, and it would be wholly arrogant to compare myself to them. I have never been denied the right to vote, never been intimidated or threatened at a polling place. But Clinton's 1992 election was the first time that I as a voter felt that anything resembling my concerns -- hell, that anything resembling my existence -- had been acknowledged by my government.

To understand just how sweet Clinton's victory seemed you need to remember what it felt like to be numbered among the people who, during the Reagan and Bush presidencies, simply didn't count as part of America. The alienation went beyond being middle or working class, let alone poor, during that time. Reagan and Bush did their best to define (and legislate) such a narrow idea of what constituted being American that if your politics didn't exclude you from that definition, your age or sex or race or income bracket could.

That exclusion is at the heart of Tom Perrotta's recent novel "Joe College." The working-class protagonist, the first one in his family to go to college, bears both his family's pride and his own sense of guilt at betraying his class. He understands why Reagan won over even working people, like his parents, who would suffer under his policies. "He appealed to an idea of America they cherished -- i.e., that we were innocent and fair-minded and better than any other people who had ever lived on earth."

But he also realizes what his parents don't, namely how little they count in the Reaganite scheme of things. When his rich roommate's father says without a trace of malice, "The bottom line is that Ronald Reagan's been a great president for people like us," the divide that Reagan made the basis for his presidency opens underneath the hero's feet. You don't even need to follow that thought to its logical conclusion to hear the assumption that the president was for some of the people only.

Reagan's presidency was perhaps the first time in our history in which one of the traditional promises of America, that you would do better than your parents, was tied to a betrayal of where you had come from. Doing better, under Reagan, didn't mean pulling up those you had left behind; it meant crushing them under your heel.

In that climate, how do you not feel excited about a big, good-looking guy who comes along, with a mixture of raw passion and infallible political shrewdness, and says, as Bill Clinton did again and again during the '92 campaign, "We don't have a person to waste"? Humans as waste had been the dominant reality of American political life for the previous 12 years. Maybe I would have felt elated had any Democrat beat George Bush. But the truth is Clinton made me feel as if, for the first time in my voting life, I wasn't invisible.

Whether that was a politician's shrewd skill or the expression of a genuine political vision (and let's face it, the latter never comes across without the former) doesn't much matter unless you place a premium on purity. And in politics as in art, motives matter less than results.

Part of that feeling he evoked had nothing to do with his positions. It was exhilarating to be sitting home late at night flipping the channels and come across Clinton in black shades playing sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show." The silliness and audacity of it was bracing. It was exhilarating to see Clinton on MTV giving straight answers to often blunt questions from a young audience (even when I didn't like the answers, like his justifying his decision in Arkansas to require parental notification of abortion). Bush had turned down the network's invitation, which is exactly what you'd expect him to do -- that audience didn't exist for him. You could complain that Clinton's appearances were nothing more than calculated attempts to hit a certain demographic, but again, that would be confusing motive with results.

Much has been written about Clinton's ability to make every person who talks to him feel as if he or she had the man's undivided attention. Ultimately, of course, what Clinton will be evaluated on is how he acted on what he heard. But the idea of a politician who listened, who had the ability to convey empathy (the feeling behind his much-parodied "I feel your pain"), marked a decisive break with what had come before. And I believe that it will make it harder for current and future politicians who don't have that talent.

Sam Donaldson once described Reagan as a guy who, if you were to make your way past White House security and reach the Oval Office to tell him you had lost your job and were on your uppers, would listen to your woes and literally give you the shirt off his back. Then, Donaldson continued, in his undershirt, he would sit at his desk and sign legislation that would cut off your unemployment benefits, cancel your aging mother's health insurance and deprive your kids of a hot lunch, blithely unaware of the contradiction.

Clinton could betray promises, as he would show again and again in ways that made even those of us who liked the guy doubt him. But you had the feeling that in some basic corner of his heart and head, he was aware of the betrayal. The most visible evidence of that was his testiness when challenged, as in his snappish response when CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour challenged him on his failure to act in Bosnia.

Reagan was like Margaret Dumont shrugging off each of Groucho's insults (the amnesia principle of comedy), acting as if each moment were newly minted, divorced from anything that had come before. (Thus his insistence that while he had learned that breaking the Boland Amendment and supplying arms to the Contras was illegal, his instinct told him it wasn't.) Clinton, as is apparent in the spate of exit interviews he has given, characteristically mixing glibness and bluntness, has always given the impression of a man who worries and picks and obsesses over each defeat, who is his own worst Monday morning quarterback.

The source of disappointment and betrayal that has come from those who once sided with him has much to do with the public face Clinton puts on those decisions as they are made, the necessary if unpalatable instinct of the political animal who knows what he has to do to fight another day.

In other words, the left's disenchantment with Clinton is on some basic level a disenchantment with the reality of politics itself, a refusal to recognize the necessary component of deal making and compromise that make up politics, revulsion at the basic fact that the most effective leaders are the ones shrewd enough to play the game.

If the Republicans didn't allow Clinton the traditional presidential honeymoon, then the left didn't realize that even good marriages are often rocky. Many of us (myself included) were ready to give up on him after NAFTA, the Protection of Marriage Act, Welfare Reform, the Communications Decency Act. I'm not saying that politicians deserve to have all their mistakes forgiven and forgotten or that Clinton didn't deserve to get slammed for his lousy decisions.

What I'm saying is, assuming that Clinton's bad calls made him no different from the right was the sort of perfect-world thinking that, in politics, gets you nowhere. As a centrist Democrat, Clinton has done more to hold the line than to cross it. Could a left Democrat have been as effective in destroying the Gingrich revolution simply by standing up to it, as Clinton did?

Our desire that our politicians be perfect is so ingrained that we wind up holding them to an inhuman standard and dodging the imperfect choices politics entail.

What strikes me as really startling about Clinton is that his contribution to the American political discourse may have as much to do with his failures as with his successes. In his own way, he made us grow up a little, moved us beyond the inhuman bar to which we hold our presidents. Clinton took the political virginity we claimed to have and damn! did it feel good to be rid of it. Rather than reinforce the pervasive cynicism about politicians, he forced us to hold two contradictory ideas in our head at the same time and thus, to make distinctions.

Of course his devil's charm is part of the reason we didn't give up on him. But, I think, so was the expectation that, even at his worst, he was capable of doing better. We felt that the words he spoke in his first inaugural address, about how our own government was closed to most of us, were a conviction and not a convenience.

Just how much it was closed to us became apparent in the impeachment proceedings. Fighting for his presidency, Clinton seemed returned to his self, showed the guts that had made him so attractive in the first place. The impeachment was one of those dramas that, as LBJ said in his speech for the Voting Rights Act, "lay bare the secret heart of America itself." Like all such dramas, it presented America with a choice about whether it was going to live up to its stated principles or succumb to the worst nightmare vision of itself.

Clinton had been reinvigorated before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, standing up to Newt Gingrich's Congress when it twice shut down the federal government and making it flinch. And even more important, after the Oklahoma City bombing, giving a speech that had the nerve to suggest that the bombing shared an uneasy affinity with the notion that the Gingrich revolution had been promulgating -- that government itself was evil.

But it was his showdown with Kenneth Starr and the House Republicans that will remain his finest hour. That may sound like a way of saying that Clinton only did his best when his own hide was in jeopardy. But I can't think of a more fundamental principle for a president to stand up for than the right to privacy, or a better fight than the one against the imposition of a single hypocritical moral standard. The impeachment struggle was the essence of the fight that had been brewing in American politics since Reagan's election: the fight between the notion that only some belong in America and the conviction that no such determination can be made in a democracy.

Even before the Lewinsky scandal, many people were convinced (and remain convinced) that Bill Clinton didn't belong. For all the derision it provoked, Hillary Rodham Clinton hit on much of the basis for that hatred when she said that the prejudice against her and her husband was because they were Southerners. As LBJ had before him, Clinton encountered the still prevalent belief, on the left as well as the right, that white Southerners are trash, degenerate hayseeds who will muddy the carpet if you let them into the house.

An ascetic Southerner like Jimmy Carter was acceptable as president. But a gregarious one of obvious (and hidden) appetites just had to be Lil' Abner playing dress-up. Here's William Safire a few weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine, talking about what he'll miss most about Clinton: "The Ozarkian's free-and-easy use of the American idiom." In other words, those hicks may not know how to speak English, but they sure are cute when they try. Imagine something similar being written about a black president. (And try to imagine taking language instruction from a former Nixon speechwriter.)

All those stereotypes became intensified during the Lewinsky affair. It was as if the Republicans and their mouthpieces in the press (like the smug, disapproving Tim Russert, and Cokie Roberts with her pinched-pixie indignation) were taking their characterization of Clinton straight from the famous Hustler parody that depicted Jerry Falwell as an alcoholic inbreeder.

There was every reason to think that the revelation of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky would make him dead in the water. The American people had never before failed to take advantage of what Philip Roth in "The Human Stain" calls "the ecstasy of sanctimony." That's why those arguments that began "If he had only told the truth at the beginning" were so ludicrous. There was no cause to think that Americans wouldn't prove predictably judgmental. But to their eternal credit they weren't. And the moves that the right wing and the media claimed would be political suicide for Clinton turned out to demonstrate just how trusting a bond had formed between him and America.

The more he fought, the more we liked him. This was the feistiness we had wanted to see all along and now, when the safe move would have been to cover his political ass, he showed it in spades. On what must have been the toughest night of his political life, having to admit to the country that he had conducted an affair with Lewinsky, Clinton dug in his heels, looked into the camera and warned, "Even presidents have private lives." It was astonishing. Clinton was spitting in Ken Starr's face and warning him that he was in for a fight.

Even more amazing was the grand jury testimony that had come earlier that day, testimony we wouldn't see until months later when the office of the independent counsel released the videotape, certain that Clinton's performance would destroy him. As in that statement to the nation, it would have been easy for Clinton to go mealymouthed and breast beating. What was astounding was the tenderness in his voice when he spoke of Lewinsky. It was clear that no matter what personal or political problems the affair created for him, he retained their time together as a fond memory.

The ruefulness in his voice was unthinkable for an American politician admitting to cheating on his wife. As was the ruminative eloquence when he referred to sex as "the most mysterious area of human life." That for me was the moment when I knew that, no matter how much he had disappointed me, I loved the guy. He saved his ass, but not at the cost of reducing the complexity of human experience.

If Americans have a way of meeting the test in the heat of battle -- venting their outrage at Richard Nixon and their refusal to be caught up in the morally phony outrage directed at Clinton -- they also have a tendency to forget the lessons they learned once those battles are over. So the lesson of Watergate, which by any reasonable standard should have been considered a great victory for democracy, became the source of a poisonous cynicism that has never left American political life. And the lesson of Clinton's impeachment, which should have been the cause for a great reexamination of how the system can be used to subvert the very idea of democracy, has largely been forgotten.

America has forgiven President Clinton, but it has also seemingly forgiven the Republicans who bankrupted him and who were ready to overthrow two presidential elections because they decided they knew better than America who was fit to be president. It's appalling to watch the new Congress being sworn in and see those chiggers under the skin of the republic, Henry Hyde and Tom DeLay and Trent Lott, once again lining up to serve principles in which they clearly do not believe. And now that the Republicans have successfully stolen this presidential election, it appears that weariness with the whole thing has taken over any sense of outrage. It's not clear, though, whether America is ready to ignore the inherent hypocrisy of George W. Bush's promise to heal the divide in the nation. How can anyone ask for the support of all Americans after working so hard to ensure that a majority of the votes cast simply didn't matter?

So it would seem that we are back where we were in 1992 before Clinton's election, entering once more into a government that acts as an exclusive country club, open only to those deemed to belong. The right wing occupies a particularly dangerous position right now, the position of those with waning power who still possess enough to do great damage. They have already attempted to overthrow one presidency and succeeded in stealing another, and it seems certain they will resort to even more desperate and ruthless tactics as their hold on Congress weakens and as it becomes clear that Bush will not win a second term (but then, he didn't win the first one).

Predictably, we will hear a reviling of Clinton's presidency, and not just from the right but from the doctrinaire and naive factions of the left. (Republicans they can deal with; liberal democrats are as repugnant to them as collaborators.) But how will we finally remember him?

In his recent book "Double Trouble," Greil Marcus plays with the idea of Clinton and Elvis Presley as reflections of each other, two Southern boys with great promise and the constant threat of betraying it, capable of phoning it in or laying themselves on the line. They're deeply conventional, even grotesque, to those giving them a cursory glance, thrilling and even liberating to those who respond to them.

It's even easy to imagine that some years from now we'll be asked to choose between two versions of the inevitable Clinton stamp. I'd like to think the choice will be between two recently published portraits. The younger Clinton is represented in the current Vanity Fair, in an Annie Liebovitz photo taken the day before he was sworn in in 1993. The hair is brown, the face unlined, the whole demeanor boyish, eager, even callow or arrogant in its offhand confidence, dreaming that what lies ahead will be all takin' care of business in a flash.

But I'd vote for the Platon photograph that adorned the cover of the December Esquire. Clinton sits with his huge hands on spread knees, his face showing the wiliness that has come after eight years of battle, and the unmistakable tang of triumph in his smiling eyes. He's looking down into the camera, down -- it seems -- on everyone who tried to topple him in the last eight years. And yet there's something in the smile that's inviting, even generous, something telling us we were part of that triumph, part of staring the bastards down and making them flinch.

This is Elvis as we wished he'd aged, the one you can hear in one of his last recordings, a cover of a rockabilly song that had been a hit a few years before for Billy Swan. Improvising the lyrics, Elvis came up with a line that seemed to define him in his grandeur and his sometime tawdriness. It's a line that will more than do to sum up the contradictions and failures and achievements of Bill Clinton: "Have a laugh on me/I can help."

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton