What Matters Most
Bill Clinton parties on.
By Bruce Dobie
FEBRUARY 9, 1998: The weekend is here, the sky is blue, and there is only one thing left to do Play golf. Trying to round up a foursome, you call your former college roommate, an awesome guy. "I can play,"he says. "No prob."
You call your best friend at work. Not only does he get pumped about the whole idea; he also promises to bring along his new putter it can open a beer bottle.
Thinking things can't get much better, things suddenly do! The Fairy Godmother appears on a window ledge in your kitchen. "Golfer," she intones, "I want to grant you a wish. You can ask any political leader in America to join you."
"You mean Bill Clinton can come?" you say.
What a day it will be! The ultimate dude! The primo hombre! After all, who would really want to slouch around in a golf cart smoking cigars, talking trash, and telling dirty jokes with Al Gore Jr.? Who would want to hit balls with Gerald Ford, who would probably fall out of the cart, or with Jimmy Carter, who would probably dissect your swing? Nope, Bill Clinton is Da Man--a garrulous, golf-playing, larger-than-life, thrill-seeking guy who, seated in your golf cart on a gloriously sunny day, would be a riot to have around.
And the Stories! The Tales of Utterly Fantastic Sexual Rampage! The Sick and Twisted Plottings of an Aging Frat Boy! Things Worse Than Any College Campus Ever Witnessed!
What a day it will be! You turn to the Fairy Godmother. "Can Vernon come too?"
According to type
The online publication Slate recently described Clinton as your basic "alpha male stud."
According to Slate, "Evolutionary psychologists explain presidential philandering as an atavistic impulse left over from the early days of the human race. Natural selection rewarded men who clawed their way to positions of power with many sex partners (i.e., gave them many chances to reproduce their genes). Proponents of this theory recall ancient rulers such as the Pharaoh Ramses II and Aztec King Nezahualpilli, both of whom sired more than 100 children.
Presidents are egomaniacs."
Yes they are. And, according to estimates, some 13 out of 42 presidents have cheated on their wives. The situation is only made worse because, as David Remnick recently wrote in The New Yorker, "presidents are surrounded by servile sycophants who convince them they are invincible and forgive their sins, and this paves the way for sexual affairs. Men of presidential quality tend to be arrogant, with a sense of entitlement and lordly expectation. The best example of presidential bravura ever: When told of John F. Kennedy's womanizing, Lyndon Johnson responded, 'God damn it, I had more women by accident than he ever had by design!' "
Plus, Johnson was ugly, which made his accomplishments all the more remarkable. But that's beside the point. The central point here is that a whole lot of folks are saying that the prez has finally let his male anatomy get the better of his brain this time around. (Or was it the last time around? Or the time before that?) As far as George Will, Bill Bennett, and the rest of the values-oriented crowd are concerned, the sacred trust that exists between the president and the electorate has been destroyed, and a presidential resignation is only a matter of time.
The truth of the matter is this: George Will and Bill Bennett are lost in space. America isn't deeply troubled about democracy suffering as a result of Clinton's sexual voracity. The country is highly entertained by Clinton's proclivities, but America does not, let me repeat, DOES NOT find these proclivities to be reason enough to drag the man through the streets and throw him in the Potomac.
At last glance, the only people who were really troubled by Monica and company were those who had been enlisted to fill in the blanks in the round-the-clock televised gabfest. As I digest the situation--and I have been reading, viewing, and listening to just about everything about Monica and Bill--it is only fair to conclude that the American public could give a flip about whether Clinton has screwed around over the course of his marriage. And it may never care about such things.
Let me hasten to add that there are a number of issues related to the controversy that could sink the guy. At the top of the list would be the suborning of perjury, an extremely serious allegation. But when it comes down to the fundamental level of a president's womanizing, America seems to be just fine with a president who commits adultery. Even a president who commits adultery more than once or twice. America has condoned such activity throughout history. And it probably will do so now.
How else does the story make any sense? Clinton is alleged to have had sex, more than once over a period of time, with a 21-year-old intern and to have lied about said sexual activity during a deposition. Then he is alleged to have encouraged said woman to lie to federal investigators about said sex. It's also alleged that he got her a job as a reward for her lying. Meanwhile, all of this has been broadcast, ad infinitum, to the American public, amounting to what is probably the most devastatingly negative attack on a president in American political history. And yet Clinton's approval rating is shooting higher than it has ever before.
Does any of this make a lick of sense? Could it be that America just loves a party animal?
What has happened is that the American public has simply decided that this is an issue about which it chooses not to punish its president. They have drawn a line between his private life and his public life. In Clinton's case, his private life has to do with his sexual appetites and his relationship with Hillary.
Americans are a notoriously conservative people--conservative in the sense that they respect and promote individual liberties. By and large, we agree that what most people choose to do behind closed doors is completely up to them. As well, we hope that nobody sticks his head behind our door to see what we are doing.
We have made some disastrous experiments in controlling private behavior. But basically, our overriding approach toward private conduct, especially our own sexual conduct, has always been, "Don't ask, don't tell."
But now we're asking questions. Reporters are asking. Other politicians are asking. Hillary says right-wing-conspiracy nuts are asking. Everybody is probing. And it's not only about sex. It's about pot use, nannies who don't have green cards, and more.
Over the next decade or so, the country is going to determine whether a person should be banished from office because he used to get stoned or because he's hired an illegal nanny. Insofar as sex is concerned, that issue is being settled now, and I bet it's going to turn out that Americans are a forgiving people. And with good reason. Fully one in two American couples divorces, and God only knows how many others have experienced what Bill and Hillary euphemistically refer to as "pain" in their lives. Marital difficulties, marital accommodations, and marital complications are parts of real life.
Thus, as America continues its exposure to this extraordinary private saga of Bill and Monica and Hillary and Gennifer and Paula, the nation is behaving with surprising maturity. At some deep and instinctive level, Americans can separate the president's sexual peccadilloes from his public performance. The public chooses to regard the president as a man whose job is to run the government, fight wars, collect taxes, and soothe the nation's spirit. It does not seem to have much interest in him as a man whose arrangement with his wife is different from the supposed norm.
America does not want to vote Clinton out of office for his behavior. Rather, it would forgive him and move on.
American presidents are an especially hypocritical, lying, dishonest lot. And Clinton ranks up there with the best of them.
In the case of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton will be shown to be a liar if the allegations are proven true. What's more, he will have exercised some seriously bad judgment by deciding to bed an intern.
But the right-wing-values crowd has yet to understand that we do not necessarily elect good people to office. We elect people to office to do good things. Clinton is not necessarily a good man. His relationship with Monica may ultimately prove that. But that fact does not mean he is incapable of imbuing his politics and policies with good values.
After almost six years in office, Clinton's policies may deserve positive reviews simply because they share much in common with those American principles that the country holds dear. These are the same values that people like George Will and William Bennett are always crowing about.
Welfare reform, pushed through by Clinton, was about reintroducing America's poor to great notions such as industry, opportunity, and the work ethic. Reducing the nation's deficit was about living within our means, tightening our belts, doing without today so that we might be better off tomorrow. Clinton seems to have been personally driven by a pitiable desire to appease everyone he comes in contact with, but it's obvious that he has also developed a style of governance and promoted programs that honor those great American values that the right wing so evidently prizes.
We Americans have been deconstructing our celebrity classes long enough that we now know them to be a venal crowd. In a never-ending news cycle, we are subjected to one report after another that suggests utter depravity on the part of our Hollywood stars, our Wall Street billionaires, and our leading politicians. The assault is unrelenting. For his part, Clinton has received more hits than perhaps anyone else.
However, I have to believe that Americans have heard so much of this that they have developed filters that help them screen out what matters least. In the end, the most important filter is the one that holds that greatness coexists on a sliding scale with weakness. Americans know that, if a man is president, he didn't get there by being a saint. They know that it takes a bit of low dealing to accomplish great things.
In the end, Americans are fully aware Bill Clinton is no holy roller. That doesn't mean they don't think he's doing a good job.
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