He had worse hair than any president since Nixon. “Worse” as in natural – a man with other things on his mind (John Updike, in his classist way, would go further: “closely modeled on the opossum fur of his beloved Arkansas”). He had a low rumbling laugh that suggested an acquaintance with mirth. Most impressively, he stank of sex; it was obvious to anyone with a cerebellum. William Jefferson Clinton was unlike any presidential candidate I’d seen in my lifetime. Of course I’d endorse him over Poppy Bush, who after the ticker tape and Lee Greenwood and ninety percent approval rating had shrunk to a nervous little man wearing the glasses of an uptown office secretary but responsible for the nuclear football.
And, Ross Perot notwithstanding, there was never any doubt that Clinton would win in November – the last time until 2008 that results were so certain. Although my parents weren’t Clinton haters, they responded to the national mood: it had been twelve years since a president was so abused. The haircut nonsense, the search for an attorney general, and Hilary Clinton herself – the new First Family gave them plenty of comic material. This was my introduction to Being on the Defensive, a crouch many of us have gotten used to since reaching political maturity. And as Ellen Willis admitted in her essays published during that low, dishonest decade, I didn’t want to defend Bill Clinton as the depths of his commitment to a deracinated, electorally savvy Reaganism became clear. Living in a house without cable until 2000, I didn’t understand the subtleties of the Telecommunications Act but grasped its impact: the world was collapsing, and my AOL dial-up modem was contributing to it. Because forces in Clinton’s administration were just farsighted enough, or just smart enough to see the arc of history, they perceived how information sharing technology and multibillion-dollar mergers could help the other. Hear the laughter of Comcast employees when you threaten to drop their service and knowing well that you won’t have anywhere else to go? Thank Bill. Of course it would’ve happened anyway; of course he didn’t have to sign it.
Then, as I wrote above, we had to defend the grinning bastard. At the height of impeachment mania a relative who breathed through his nose, barely drank, and would change your tire if you called him for help at 2 a.m. said that what Clinton did was worse than all of Nixon’s crimes “put together.” Nixon had “only” broken the law, he explained, while Clinton had “betrayed” his wife and daughter. There is no constitutional crisis about betraying your wife and daughter, I replied. He didn’t want to hear it. Thus climaxed the most partisan epoch since FDR ruled the world. General exhaustion with the rogue co-existed with vague indifference about whether the Twenty-Second Amendment was a mistake, or, if you were Jann Wenner, enthusiasm about repealing the amendment. I knew nobody my age who followed politics in last two years of the nineties. When I stuck my head around the corner to peep at Washington the spectacle amused me, not consequences. On the afternoon when congressional Democrats gathered on the White House lawn to show their support for Clinton after the impeachment vote, a friend asked me to explain why this matters. I had a legal answer, not a snazzy one. I had my own anxieties.
I didn’t have to be alone, though. If the young have an under-discussed weakness, it’s their tendency to treat problems as discrete categories; we don’t integrate. Contextualizing my queerness was beyond my imaginings. I might have found the frisson I needed in campus activism. I wasn’t the only one who sure as hell needed it. Not long ago, a friend postulated that in the 2010s we’ve only just resumed the arguments about gender, sexuality, race, and income distribution that we started to have in the nineties before George W. Bush, 9-11, Iraq, and the financial crisis halted them. The 2000s would redefine lowness and dishonesty such that those of us who survived them would never forget.
This is the second part in a series on which I hope to expand in coming weeks.