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Clinton’s Crisis: Oh, Behave!

5 minute read
Bruce Handy

Is it just coincidence that the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings in the fall of 1991 roughly coincided with Bill Clinton’s emergence on the national scene? In the years since Long Dong Silver became a household name–not to mention Paula Jones and Dick Morris–one thing has become clear: the word nadir no longer has any meaning in public life. Perhaps this is why, according to the latest TIME/CNN poll, 60% of Americans are “disappointed” by the latest allegations against the President and 55% are “disgusted,” but only 26% claim to be “surprised.”

In late-night comedy monologues–which serve as a kind of trip wire for public sentiment–Clinton’s philandering has never been in doubt. He has long been an easy joke, a shorthand figure of fun right up there with staples like Michael Jackson and Pamela and Tommy Lee. Indeed, last Wednesday night as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was first breaking, Jay Leno scored a twofer on the Tonight Show with a lame joke about the Lees’ wanting to see Clinton’s home videos (he did a lot better with his line that Clinton’s may be the second presidency to be brought down by Deep Throat).

Up until now, polls have shown that a majority of the American people aren’t unduly put off by Clinton’s presumed fooling around (especially if it happened back in Arkansas). For one thing, in an era in which no one besides felons and welfare mothers is held responsible for his or her actions, compulsive womanizing has inevitably been redefined as sexaholism: the old kind of touchy feely meeting the new kind of touchy feely, which certainly sounds like President Clinton. One imagines that his tomcat aura may even have helped him in those precincts of the electorate that had come to see the Democrats as the no-fun, take-your-medicine, be-nice-to-everyone party–i.e., the girly-man party–after the Carter, Mondale and Dukakis debacles. Of all Clinton’s straddles, maybe this was his greatest: to be seen as both family man and rogue, feminist sympathizer and Kennedyesque swordsman, the New Democrat and the Old. It surely must have allayed fears that he was going to let Hillary run everything. As Grover Cleveland, the old goat, is reported to have said when confronted with a sex scandal of his own, “I don’t believe the American people want a gelding in the White House.”

It’s often claimed that a nation gets the leaders it deserves. The TIME/CNN poll shows that 54% of Americans think the President’s moral standards are “about the same as the average married man’s.” While it’s hard to tell whether this is good news for the President or bad news for average married men, the real danger for Clinton is that what had once been mostly confined to the back of the national classroom is now up at the chalkboard giving lessons. The problem for the President isn’t that Leno, Bill Maher and Conan O’Brien are talking about his sex life night after night (luckless David Letterman was in reruns last week), it’s that Ted Koppel, Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts are. The disquieting effect is not unlike having to hear how your dad is in bed. From your mom. Comics at least have an advantage over newspeople in that they don’t have to try to maintain a straight face while discussing fellatio and semen stains on national television.

Yes, it was one of those weeks where the news played like bad, improbable satire (except at the core of the whole White House mess, where the novelistic verisimilitude of Lewinsky’s taped conversations, their palpable high-school ickiness, lent her charges an immediate measure of credence; Clinton had better pray “the big creep” doesn’t become his best-remembered epithet). In one bad satire-like coincidence, Hollywood has a not-so-bad satire in current release: Wag the Dog, in which a President is accused of ravishing a “Firefly Girl.” The producers were reported to be cautiously optimistic that the White House crisis would help out at the box office.

More concerned were the makers of the film version of Primary Colors, due in March and starring John Travolta as a thinly disguised Clinton. “Even though the character’s a philanderer,” says a person who has seen portions of the unfinished movie, “he’s portrayed as charismatic and good-hearted. You could even say noble.” It sounds like an engagingly complex characterization, the kind of thing we need more of in movies. But director Mike Nichols must be wondering whether two months from now, after an onslaught of news reports, press conferences and (Why not shoot for the moon?) impeachment hearings, the public will have any interest in leaving the house and paying money to see a make-believe skirt-chasing President, let alone a putatively noble one.

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