A lot of people get into politics for the same reason others join rock ‘n’ roll bands.
They crave attention. This isn’t a particularly uncommon trait among our kind. That’s why we’ve got Twitter and Facebook and reality television shows. We’re social creatures, and some of us can tolerate the spotlight more than others. Some of us love it. Some of us are desperate for it. I don’t mind having my name and photograph attached to this column.
I don’t know what drives Bill Clinton. He’s not especially emotionally needy or a Bond villain. He’s really smart, but he’s also facile in some ways. In some ways he is a tragic figure, but you needn’t feel sorry for him. If you don’t like him, you probably would if you met him in some alternative reality where neither of you had any stake in political matters.
But you probably wouldn’t like everything about him; you might roll your eyes at his enthusiasm. (On the other hand, most of us would roll our eyes at some of the things Jesus might say if we encountered him.)
As it is, you have your opinion about Clinton and nothing anyone writes or says at this point is likely to change it. He is your basic polarizing public figure.
And he bears some responsibility for the hyper-polarized moment we find ourselves in.
This is partly because his talent manifested itself early. Clinton’s capacity and potential made him a political target. As early as the mid-1980s, steps were being taken by certain political operatives to murder Clinton’s nascent national political career. His charisma and talent alarmed some people who saw him as a threat to the status quo. False stories were spread about him and his equally (but differently) talented wife. There was a campaign of misinformation and demonization by what you could fairly call “a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
No intellectually honest person would argue that there weren’t people out to get the Clintons from before his soporific address at the 1988 convention (a speech that nearly accomplished what none of his political foes were able to: the derailment of his career). They might, however, fairly point out that any political figure who, as Clinton did, rises as thrillingly rapidly as a Koufax (Aroldis Chapman for geezers) fastball might attract similar attention. Since Clinton seemed to posit himself as a new Jack Kennedy, he probably should have expected them to come for him.
That’s one of the hazards of drawing undue attention to oneself.
But Clinton became a national figure around about the same time as Rush Limbaugh, a masterful entertainer (at least he used to be) who wasn’t particularly scrupulous about observing best journalistic practices. And tapping into the paranoia of Americans who–with good reason–felt their standard of living and quality of comfort challenged by an evolving world turned out to be a remarkably profitable endeavor. Manufacturing “news” custom-fit to a certain audience’s expectations became one of the prime models for emerging cable and later digital ventures. They disguised themselves as news, but the real product they delivered was ears and eyeballs to their advertisers. Job No. 1 was growing–and holding onto–those numbers. And you don’t cement people’s brand loyalty by subverting or challenging their assumptions.
Clinton, an able and basically pragmatic man with a rare gift for evoking both empathy and antipathy, experienced extraordinary success just as this model was subplanting the boring old not-for-profit network television newsgathering system as the dominant source of most Americans’ national news. The competition for people’s attention grew hotter. All sorts of previously observed conventions were erased. And Clinton wasn’t a boring figure.
I suspect he was a randy man. There were likely many times he disappointed people who loved him, both before he was elected president and afterward.
This makes him no different than the rest of us, but he was the leader of the free world and a figure that many people– not just Republicans but a fair number of Democrats and at least a plurality of elite Washington and New York-based media types–considered a usurper of the natural order of things. And his gravest wounds were self-inflicted.
Last week, with Clinton on a book tour (that book may be another self-inflicted wound; I’m 50 or so pages into it, and it’s not the sort of airport novel I can ever imagine Clinton or any other grown-up actually engaging with), he stepped into the Monica Lewinsky business again. He should have handled the question about apologizing to Lewinsky better than he did, he should have expected it to be brought up, especially in the wake of the #MeToo moment. He should have been more contrite, more politic.
In the wake of the kerfuffle (and that’s all it was, the kindly inclined could put it down as a misunderstanding), I spent a good bit of time looking back at what I wrote about Clinton 20 years ago. Researching, I guess.
While he sometimes exasperates me, I’ve never thought the subject was exhausted. For all that he has accomplished in his life, even in his (mostly golden) post-presidency, there is something unfinished about him. And it is this unfinished quality that allows people to think that Bill Clinton might one day be like them.
“He is not like us. Bill Clinton is Bill Clinton and that is all he is or ever will be … [H]is political acumen is … [an] inexplicable gift that has absolutely nothing to do with what kind of man he is, or may become …
“Clinton himself once described his search for character as ‘a quest,’ a choice of words that may have been unfortunate … but … honest. We all are striving to recover our character every day.”
Clinton, God bless him, is still questing.
He should probably be less willing to go on talk shows, especially in service of a money-grabbing pulp novel allegedly co-written with an author who is semi-famous for churning out banal commuter fiction so stuffed with cliches (beautiful assassins with lifts in their boots) and wishful projection (the rugged stoic former POW hero POTUS) that the only way to take it is as parody.
Clinton doesn’t need the money. I wish he didn’t need the attention.
Editorial on 06/10/2018