Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton; drawing by David Levine

The first time Imet Bill Clinton, I was sitting next to him at a late-night dinner in New Hampshire. Clinton had concluded that Mario Cuomo would not challenge him for the 1992 presidential nomination, and the governor of Arkansas was having some fun at the expense of the governor of New York. Clinton told us that Cuomo rarely attended governors’ conferences, unless they were held in Washington and involved a visit to the White House, when Cuomo would fly in just for that, his limousine sweeping up in lonely splendor to the president’s mansion. After the meeting, Cuomo would address the clustered journalists, then race straight back to the airport.

Clinton had similar deflationary stories to tell about his other rivals. He replayed a telephone call Jerry Brown made when Clinton was supporting his fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter. Brown hoped that Clinton would back him (Brown) if anything went awry in the Carter bid. Clinton said he was willing to deal, but that he would want a vacation in the Bahamas with a beautiful rock singer. Brown, after a quizzical pause, ventured:”That’s possible.” Clinton, howling, said he answered:”Jerry, you can’t be president till you learn when your leg is being pulled.”

Clinton was funny, unfair, and very shrewd in his political comments. He recounted his efforts to coach Michael Dukakis for his final debate with President Bush in 1988. He told Dukakis it was not enough to answer critics of the ACLU, who accused him of a lack of patriotism, with the defensive claim that the state supreme court of Massachusetts had ruled against requiring teachers to recite the pledge of allegiance. “In the part of the country where I come from, the courts’ approval of a thing is more reason to be against it.” Clinton says he advised Dukakis to say, “I did not fight in Korea so that Amish children can be forced to violate their conscience by reciting the pledge.” The subject of Clinton’s non-fighting in Vietnam had not arisen then. When it did, I thought back to that conversation and wondered if Clinton likes to flirt with danger, or has some ironic sense of his own situation when he gives advice like that. But time seems to reveal that nothing is farther from Clinton, for all his wit about others, than a sense of irony in his own case.

What impressed me most about the conversation was Clinton’s discussion of the rigors of campaigning. Cuomo, he felt, did not want to face criticism and innuendo; but Clinton said a good politician must be able to welcome the bad times along with the good. I doubted that welcome was the right word—“endure” might be more like it. Clinton said people’s opposition shows that you are engaging them deeply, challenging them, and that is what politics should do.

Apparently Clinton’s “welcome” threshold has been lowered since that evening. He is not relishing the assaults now made on him and his wife—who could? The amount of sheer personal meanness is staggering, even to the casual bystander. If Clinton is right, he certainly has challenged others at some very deep and obscure level. No charge against him is inconceivable to his foes—that he suborns murder in Arkansas, covers up the murder of Vince Foster in Washington, and schemes against morality in general. His wife is greeted with placards that say HEIL HILLARY. A magazine presents her as Lady Macbeth, intoning:”Come, ye Wellesley-spawned Eumenides of spite, unsex me here! Replace my blood with quarts of chilliest testosterone, and butch my hair….”1 Even the Clintons’ child is made the object of vicious laughter:Rush Limbaugh holds up a picture of Socks, the White House cat, then he says he will show viewers the White House dog—a picture of Chelsea Clinton.

What is this all about? Presidents have been vilified in the past. National hysteria led to accusations of treason against Harry Truman, or of “killing kids” against Lyndon Johnson. But those crimes arose out of the apocalyptic stage of the cold war or the frustrated stages of the Vietnam War. We are not in the grips of a Depression, fueling fear of a Roosevelt dictatorship. Real crises and a focusing ideology underlay the harshest moments of the past. But now we are at peace, our economy is growing at a rate of over 3 percent. Anti-Communist, antisocialist, antidictatorship ideologies are not plausible or in play. There is something oddly pure, somehow free from ideas, about this frenzy of dislike. Clinton is not disliked as a socialist, as a Communist dupe, as one who holds views subversive of the Constitution. Clinton is disliked as Clinton. Even Nixon, who inspired his share of personal enemies, was resented mainly as the thinking man’s McCarthy, as an extreme anti-Communist. Those who most hate Clinton believe he is not even capable of having a consistent ideology.


For some, the personal dislike began with the Gennifer Flowers episode, which occurred shortly after my evening conversation with Clinton. A different man appeared then, defensive, having to explain long conversations with a bimbo, supported by an intelligent wife who claimed she was not just playing Tammy Wynette’s role even while she was. Clinton had a terrific if unorthodox defender, at this point, in James Carville. Carville admits that this was his own personal breakthrough into a position of major power in the campaign. Other candidates have had people who were their surrogates for rough-and-tumble response. Carville took on an imaginative new role with the press. He was Clinton’s surrogate womanizer.

Gennifer Flowers was taping him to sucker-punch him, and if they had had an affair, it would have been incredibly easy. If any woman that I’ve ever had an affair with called, it would take five seconds to get something inculpatory on tape. Like, “Do you suppose they’ll find the American Express card from the night in Dallas?” …Try as she might, the [Flowers] tape had none of that.

Carville was ready to be a kind of scapegoat, proving he was all the things he argued that Clinton was not. When Clinton’s smoking marijuana, but not inhaling, was the issue, James (Experto Crede) Carville came forward again:

I have smoked marijuana, I have inhaled. For somebody who had never smoked marijuana before, the first time you take it, if you did a survey I guarantee you that for half the people not inhaling would be sort of a normal reaction.

These defenses were novel, if nothing else; but they took the issue to a different level. If Clinton did not sleep with the bimbo, what was he doing talking for hours with her? The witty putdown of Cuomo that I had heard sat ill with Clinton’s accommodating chuckle when Flowers called Cuomo Mafia-tainted. There is a profound culture shock in moving from the man who played so skillfully on Jerry Brown’s weaknesses to a man who can be manipulated in conversation by a lounge entertainer who considers Mario Cuomo unqualified to become her president.

That culture shock is a recurring phenomenon for those who follow Clinton’s career. The very image of competence and rectitude in the President’s Little Rock contingent is Bruce Lindsey, who has worked for other Arkansas eminences, including Senators Fulbright, Pryor, and Bumpers. But one of his duties during the campaign was to tell flight attendants on the campaign plane that it would be better if they did not take up the candidate’s request that they work out with him at the Little Rock YWCA. As recently as this March he was still calling one flight attendant, to discourage her from repeating her conversations with Clinton. Sample icebreakers from Clinton, at a time when he was trying to live down the Flowers allegations:”Oh, I could get lost in those blue eyes!” Or “You don’t know what that outfit does to me.” 2 This may or may not pose a problem in morality. It certainly poses one of style. Our president still thinks his imitation of Elvis Presley is pretty irresistible. Whatever John F. Kennedy’s seductive techniques were, we can assume they did not include his launching into favorite Frank Sinatra impressions.

Something of Clinton’s cultural range is suggested by his closeness to the other Presley fan in his family. In her posthumous book, Clinton’s mother says of Elvis:

I had never heard such a spiritual sound coming from anyone; it was the sweetest, most beautiful singing in the world. And of course you can’t discount the man’s sex appeal. I’ve told my girlfriends, if I hadn’t had children and a job, I’d have spent the rest of my days traveling around from Elvis concert to Elvis concert.

I can testify, as can anyone else who spent time with her, that Virginia Kelley was a winning and effusive person. But her taste in men was usually unlucky. She found Roger Clinton, her second husband, “hilarious” because he would say things like “Let’s all get drunk and talk about the chances we had to marry.” Of course, he beat her up. But she admits that sometimes she asked for it:

I’m sure I drove him to anger on many nights when we were out. I won’t try to pretend that I’m oblivious to the power of female sex appeal, and I certainly recognize a handsome man when I see one. I won’t even deny that I was often put out with Roger and didn’t mind seeing him suffer a little.

Roger had not told her, when they met, that he was married, and he hid his payments (often delinquent) to his former wife and the children from her previous marriage. This deception was one Virginia seemed peculiarly liable to. Her first husband (Clinton’s father) was married at least two times previously, and maybe three. Indeed, her four husbands (one of whom she married twice), along with their multiple wives, accumulated between them a dozen or more marriages. The third husband went to jail for fraud. She warned Clinton before her death that he could expect to hear from more half-siblings or quarter-siblings as time goes by.


She survived, as she admits, by a gift for forgetting. When I asked her questions about her divorce from and remarriage to Roger Clinton, she could not remember giving a deposition against him. She did not recognize the name of her lawyer. She could not recall when or where the remarriage took place. When a relative suggested the divorce may not have become final, she admitted that was a possibility until I found the date of the remarriage in the county courthouse. Her happy-go-lucky attitude was a necessity of life, she felt. If she forgot a lot, it was because there were a lot of bad times to forget.

Though she considered herself a tolerant person in a tolerant town, there were some things she treated as beyond the pale of social acceptability—like Hillary Rodham’s keeping her own name after marriage:”I had never even conceived of such a thing. This had to be some new import from Chicago.” Clinton’s half-brother, Roger, was even more disapproving of Hillary’s shocking behavior. These odd defenders of marital decorum made things as difficult as they could for the goggle-eyed Yankee whose appearance they mocked. Virginia felt it was a kindness that she offered to paint Hillary an inch thick in her own remarkable style.

Clinton had to shuttle back and forth between these cultures, in his own home as well as in his home state. The Oxonian Elvis and Yale saxophonist was deft at shifting worlds. There was something admirable in his refusal to be embarrassed by either side in this confrontation. He was a loyal son and a loving husband, and the warring sides just had to fight their way to mutual accommodation around his stake in both of them. He was as much at home with his mother, the Elvis groupie, as with his wife, the legal scholar.3 Not bad training for a politician—or so one would think. But onlookers can be puzzled by the blur of transitions as he takes them through time warps from one world to the other. And even he, it seems, could get confused at times, thinking he was back at Little Rock High as he Elvised-up the flight attendants on his campaign plane.

To see Clinton in two different contexts can be like looking at two entirely different persons. The scholarly sophisticate can become, in a flash, the leering good old boy. The hard worker can become the lax goof-off. When I was in Little Rock during the transition period before Clinton took office, George Stephanopoulos told me how impressed he was by watching Clinton choose his cabinet. “He’s reading all these people’s books.” But when, after weeks of controversy, he reversed his choice of Lani Guinier for a Justice Department post, he said he had not read the two articles that had been the center of public debate for weeks before he got around to them.

During that transition, Clinton ran his public economics seminar with such intelligence, energy, and poise that he looked equal, if not superior, to the experts he had summoned. It seemed he would have an economic plan ready by his earliest days in office. The really shocking revelation in Bob Woodward’s The Agenda is that Clinton could complain, as he abandoned his basic idea of savings-and-stimulus, that nobody informed him of the obstacle posed by legislated spending caps. “The president turned red in the face. Why didn’t they tell me? he asked.” That was on April 7, four months after the Little Rock seminar. The preternaturally informed and astute man who was going to focus on the economy like a laser had become the man who did not know one of the basic things about setting the economy because no one explicitly told him about it. In the interval, Clinton had been having fun in the White House, pleased at all his new toys, while the air of urgency built up during the campaign was dissipated.

Clinton lives so thoroughly in one situation that he seems to have no memory or anticipation of counter-situations. In the campaign, he criticized Bush for not accepting Haitian refugees into the country, implicitly pledging that he would. One would never have known, from his comments, that he had suffered as a governor from President Carter’s 1980 diversion of hundreds of Cuban boat people to Fort Chafee in Arkansas, a situation that led to riots, the calling out of the National Guard, and trouble with Washington. This fed into the other matters that made Clinton lose his effort at re-election that year. One would suppose that Clinton had to speak in measured ways about the problem huge numbers of refugees pose for communities that have to receive them. But he seems to have been as oblivious to his own past when talking about refugees as he was about his draft record when telling Dukakis to use his military credentials.

Part of Clinton’s charm in person is his absorption in his immediate audience. He makes you feel that he is listening only to you. He blocks out the rest of the world, and all other times. This has been such a successful gift for him that he has developed an almost magical belief in the personal encounter. The only critical comment on his boss that I can remember in James Carville’s account of the 1992 campaign is a satirical touch or two on his handshaking fetish:

You couldn’t overcome the doubts people had about us by shaking every hand in the state, there wasn’t enough time. But that’s what he believed, therefore (a) that’s what he was going to do, and (b) you couldn’t stop him even if you wanted. So we hit the road hard…

John Brummett, the journalist who covered Clinton’s career in Arkansas, says that Clinton once told him he had shaken the hands of half the state’s voters. Brummett doubted that; but since he gave lectures around the state, he took the opportunity of asking how many in the audience had shaken the governor’s hand. Amajority would signal that it had. Now these were admittedly committed people, the kind who turn out for lectures. But Brummett began to concede, in his own mind, that Clinton was probably right. Clinton had, after all, run two races (primary and general) every two years for most of two decades—aside from all his ceremonial appearances as governor. He also haunted the entrances and exits of the Arkansas legislature, buttonholing, joshing, cajoling, good-old-boying with the best of them.

But the very concentration that closes Clinton in on one person, on one situation, seals him off from all others. He can be great, moment by moment; but the moments are disjunct. He adapts so well to the present that he disregards any bearing it might have on the past or the future. In that sense, he has as good a forgetting mechanism as his mother did—in fact, a better one, since he is forgetting a vaster range of things, so many different worlds he has to deal with.

Wrapped entirely in the present encounter, Clinton finds it almost impossible to offend, face to face, whoever is intensely present to him. Past commitments melt in the warmth of the current exchange. That is why Brummett, for all his shrewd observation of Clinton’s faults, is wrong to call him a brilliant politician, a person “incapable of sustained error.” He is a superb tactician but a terrible strategist. He cannot connect one engagement with another. The nagging daily reminder of that is his inability to keep himself on any schedule. Long-range planning for the nation is unlikely from one who cannot maneuver himself out of a morning meeting on his way to an afternoon speech.

He is good at making friends. But the politician must have a knack for making the right enemies. The western interests who objected to his early moves against their use of public lands were ideal foes to have—rich “welfare cheats” preying on public resources for private gain. The Roosevelts knew how to castigate “trusts” or “malefactors of great wealth.” Clinton collapsed the minute he ran into resistance from Westerners in Congress, sending a signal on his economic choices long before the package Woodward describes took shape.

The early clash over gays in the military was a perfect example of Clinton’s method. He promised gays when he was with them; he deferred to generals when they came in. His position was “I am committed to this, but I do not want to offend fine military folk—tell me how much, if any, of my commitment you will let me have.” That is hardly a commanding position for a commander in chief.

Clinton’s advisers were telling him he had to be deferential to the military because of their resentment of his draft evasion in the Vietnam period. But if there is one impregnable position for a president to take, it is that of civilian control over the military. Truman’s ratings were low and MacArthur’s high when they clashed; but no one can win taking the military side in this context. Congress, it is true, could have blocked an executive order; but it is not the most courageous body itself.

It was not till Clinton had signaled his submissiveness to the military that Congress was obstreperous. Representative Nancy Pelosi (Democrat of California) said at the time that if Clinton had just issued an executive order, Congress would not have known how to handle such a hot potato. But assume Congress had acted—as it can (it makes all laws, including the Uniform Code of Military Justice). Clinton would be on record; the courts would continue their chipping at the discrimination against gays in the military; and the administration would not be in its present ludicrous posture of opposing its own first policy in court, to defend its absurd “compromise.”

The normal situation in our laws is that one can talk about objectionable behavior if one does not engage in it. In the Clinton never-never-land one can engage in challenged behavior but not talk about it. Also, the quick executive decree would have decided things, one way or the other, not dragged them out just when Clinton was supposed to be setting the agenda, the tone, and the crispness of his new administration. His deference to the military just encouraged it to be balky. It did not know before what it could get away with. Now it does.

Clinton is an omnidirectional placater. He wants to satisfy everyone, which is a sure-fire way of satisfying no one. By concentrating narrowly on the clash of economic advisers, Woodward gives an oversimple picture of Clinton tugged between two main camps, the economists stressing lowered interest rates and the political advisers urging middle-class “populism.” Heeding the demand to cut the deficit, without compensatory stress on growth, he was affected by noises that Perot was making. It is only from Brummett’s book that we learn how obsequious the Clintonists were to Perot in all the early months of their regime. Carville regretted that the campaign felt it necessary to court Perot voters. But Brummett, whose principal Arkansas contact in the White House was Mack McLarty, tells us how McLarty “talked with Perot by telephone several times in the early months,” signaling the administration’s willingness to comply with his demand for draconian cuts. Only when Perot proved unsatisfiable on NAFTA was the White House forced to launch its stealth bomber, smiling Al Gore, off in his direction.

There must be something nightmarish for a man who wants so badly to please to find himself so thoroughly hated for the first time in his life. Arrived at last where he wanted to be, he finds it the first place where people do not like him, in large numbers and with great intensity. This has punctured even his sturdy optimism. Those who know him well say that the new bitterness shown in his remarks on the press, the talk shows, the religious right, is as far out of character for him as anything they could imagine.

His geniality has failed him on occasion because he lacks any sense of the ironic. Humor can disengage one from the instant, let one step back and see things in an odd new light. Lincoln, when the prospect was bleak, saw a larger blackness that somehow relieved him and those around him. Pestered for favors and offices (and, one feels sure, not reading the books of those seeking office), he said he was glad to catch the flu, since at last he had something he could give to everyone. When John Hay, who acted as Lincoln’s press secretary, asked whether he should answer a particularly hostile newspaper attack, Lincoln said “Let ’em wriggle,” referring to the tag line of one of his stories:a child given a microscope was awed by all the little critters he could see in it, so he warned his father, “Don’t eat that cheese, it’s full of wrigglers“—to which the father answered, “Let ’em wriggle; I can stand it if they can.”4

Clinton’s has been a particularly humorless administration apart from the one spoof of the Harry and Louise ad about health care. One wonders if the Clinton campaign would have succeeded without the light touch James Carville brought to it. Carville is the first to say of himself that, since God watches over drunks and fools, “I always figure I’ve got double protection.” There is something Lincolnian in Carville’s grasp of the way ordinary people respond to politicians. The book he has written with his inamorata is most interesting when he is talking. Admittedly, he had a more interesting campaign to run than did Mary Matalin, stranded amid Bush’s pompous entourage. She is so desperate to find some trace of humor in her candidate that she treats Bush’s plaintive remark “Don’t cry for me, Argentina” as a great joke. Carville had Gennifer Flowers, the draft, and potsmoking to cope with. To make the Bush campaign interesting, the book’s ghostwriter has to dwell on Matalin’s colorful clothes and language. (He ends up making her speak in mixed metaphors:”This distracting internal feud totally fogged up the focus…. History, however, demonstrates the bump is always GOPers coming home… The decorum gets more highbrow as proximity to the President increases.” Her story does come alive every time she gets another chance to savage John Sununu, who, by her account, permanently disabled the White House, demoralizing everyone within his ambit.

The story of this odd couple from rival camps is weirdly affecting, and one ends up cheering them on as the dynamics of their situation pulls them apart. If she cannot compete with his craziness—he has assistants crack raw eggs on his bald head when the pressure gets too great—we must remember that she starts far back in the craziness stakes:she is not a Southerner.

America is an odder country than we can normally remember; and the attic where we store much of our national oddity is the South. Carville, a Cajun, rises from some remote lagoon of the mind, as if he had walked out of a Flannery O’Connor story. It is no doubt harder for Clinton to shuttle about between cultures because he had the South for his starting point. That inhibited other southern presidents—Lyndon Johnson, even after years in Washington, had bits of Dogpatch clinging to him; Jimmy Carter looked like a myopic preacher unaware of what his choirboys, Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan, were up to. The South triggers odd enmities and snobbishness from the outside, and a reciprocal defensiveness from insiders. Clinton was surer of his fellows’ response in Arkansas, where he received more tolerance than on the national scene. He may be a sinner in the eyes of the righteous Arkansans, but he was their sinner, and they knew not to make too much of the sins.

The Rose law firm had high, if peculiar, standards. Partner William Kennedy told me that the firm built a Chinese wall around Hillary Rodham to protect her from conflicts of interest. I am sure the members believed they had done this, though Chinese walls seem to come in mobile units near the Ozarks. The inbred deals and chumminess of doing business in a small, poor state, one with a narrow pool of talent, look exotic (if nothing more sinister) in Washington. Even the most polished members of the Little Rock establishment are seen as provincial outside the state. The protectiveness they feel over their past has hampered openness in all kinds of areas. When one loses one’s sense of how people will respond, the need to keep delicate things either hidden or under control takes on a desperate urgency. Mrs. Clinton, with her child under vicious attack, wants no prying into her husband’s family troubles. But those who try to spare people, in this situation, just ensnare them.

What is it about the Clintons that infuriates people?They are a peculiar blend of the Sixties and the South, the pious, the secular, the folksy, the sophisticated. Some clearly believe that no such mix is possible, that one or more components of it must be phony. He is seen as part JFK, part Elvis, she as part radical, part schoolmarm. Put together, they look either incompatible or inevitable—or both. They are a walking compendium of culture clashes. They confuse and irritate those who cannot comprehend them. Even their supporters are thrown off stride by one or another part of the mix. Liberals wonder about her corporate boards and his vacillations (in both foreign and domestic policy). The Clintons are both flawed and preachy, like the rest of us—but a bit more dramatically.

It is not encouraging to remember what happened to the other Southerners who held the White House in our time. They lost their sense of the audience and went into a funk. Johnson, deft at internal politics, felt adrift in foreign matters, and withdrew from the race for his office. Carter lost his nerve and invited hordes of gurus up to Camp David to explain the “malaise” of his situation. Unremitting attack could leave Clinton just as bewildered.

And, make no mistake, unremitting attack is the order of the day. Not only does Rush Limbaugh treat Chelsea Clinton with vile cruelty; William Bennett, the Philosopher King of virtue, praises Limbaugh as a truth-teller.5 Robert Dole holds his nose and endorses the man who lied to Congress and who is running a campaign based on hatred for Congress. Paul Johnson, one of Dan Quayle’s favorite authors, while regretting intemperate attacks, says they must be maintained in order to keep Hillary Clinton from running for president in the future.6 Midge Decter hates the Clintons for having experienced a decade she hates. “Both of them [the Clintons] were, and seem to have remained, part of that postwar spawn in America who grew into adulthood believing themselves to be uniquely endowed with superior qualities of mind and health.”7 Richard Cheney, like Bennett, has been courting the religious right.

Stan Greenberg, Clinton’s pollster, finds hope in the eagerness of respectable Republicans to woo the far right of their party. He believes that a kind of reverse McGovernism will pull the Republicans off to such a marginal position that responsible voters must turn to Clinton. “Now people are comparing him only with himself,” Greenberg says. “The Republicans are so carried away by their hate for Clinton that they are not doing the necessary building of an alternative.” It seems a desperate hope, that the haters will undo themselves; and a lot of damage can be done in the interval. But it is hard to discover any other comfort in this beleaguered White House.

This Issue

September 22, 1994