Bill Clinton was the first president I voted for because I could vote for a president at last. A nascent liberal in an impregnable Republican home, I thought George Bush (as we called him before the Supreme Court appointed his spawn) was pathetic, lacking even the passion to care about losing. Ross Perot was a coot. But I shook my head and voted for a man who repulsed me from the moment I saw him on “60 Minutes” several months earlier. With the way he turned his mouth down and thickly nodding his chin whenever he noticed the camera wanted to catch him looking serious, the pathological need to touch and be touched, the fits of rage and self-pity (in 2008 I took to calling him The Screaming Lobster of Hope), his terrible written speeches, penchant for New Age drivel, and insistence that his disorganization was charming, Bill Clinton was never going to be my kind of leader. I loathe these weaknesses in people — I’ll be damned if I accept them in presidents. Despite his flaws, Barack Hussein Obama is more my type: ironic, adult, self-contained, probably a sociopath.
Clinton’s most august moment — when he looked relaxed and what Cokie Roberts types would call “presidential” — happened in the year after his reelection and before the world learned in January 1998 about a White House intern, a cigar, and Walt Whitman; and between 1999 and 2000 when he survived impeachment and his grey hair gave him a touch of eminence. He also faded. This suited him. Signing the Telecommunications and Commodity Futures Modernization acts required silence. Allowing Congress to “force his hand” in fall 1996 demanded the signing of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the middle of the night (this from a president who, I must say in his defense, was the first to look nonplussed around gay men and women). About the effects of the so-called crime bill, responsible for innumerable ruined lives, I cede the ground to paid writers, though, and many black American congressmen supported it like they did tougher sentences on those found in possession of crack, but it didn’t take a Center For American Progress scholar to point out that the pathology about punishing consumers of drugs looked dubious in 1994. Then he pardoned Marc Rich for what Margo Channing would have called the price of a salted peanut.
“It may be a generational thing—I was born in 1967—but this is what Hillary and Bill Clinton will always mean to me: Sister Souljah, Ricky Ray Rector, welfare reform, and the crime bill,” Corey Robin writes today. The Rector moment remains vivid: my first adult acquaintance with the sordidness of expediency. The governor of Arkansas flew back to his home state to execute a retarded man so he could look Tough on Crime. Until George W. Bush smirked about what little time he spent reviewing death penalty appeals I thought I’d never seen anything so cynical. In The Western Canon, published before the Dems lost Congress for the first time since the first Eisenhower administration, Harold Bloom alluded to Ronald Reagan and his “heir” Bill Clinton. At the time this sentence baffled me. I got it soon enough.
But I can’t deny Clinton’s hold on the public. Greil Marcus expended thousands of words about him. Comparing him to Ronald Reagan and Clinton’s enemies in the Congress, Marcus summarized the GOP message in the late nineties, and, no, nothing has changed:
The secret message was that some people belong in the United States, and some people don’t; that some are worthy, and some are worthless; that certain ideas and opinions are sanctified, and some are evil; and that with the blessings of God, God’s messengers will separate the one from the other.
Whatever Clinton had been about, it isn’t that. As a political man, he has never, by word or gesture, said to another citizen, “I am an American, and you are not.”
Signing legislation that abetted much of the bundling of bad mortgages in a few years and helping send manufacturing jobs overseas strikes me as a word and gesture saying, “I belong, and you don’t.”
But, again, William Jefferson Clinton is popular. He commands the affections of millions of people who aren’t Democrats, most of whom remember a president who improvised much of his 1994 State of the Union and managed to explain financial arcana in a basic declarative sentence way that baffled the Beltway elite — and me. He might have bored us, he didn’t bore the public. So he may work his prestidigitation for the last time.