Time may worship language, as Auden insisted, but language doesn’t worship presidents, particularly not the mealy-mouthed presidents we’ve been served by these last thirty or so years. The present incumbent, George W. Bush, was almost strangled by his handlers at first, so desperate were they to save him from his own ignorance; the American public, it soon turned out, liked his spunk and didn’t care about his ignorance. They were perfectly willing to let him learn on the job, as, in some measure, he has.
Apropos of Bushes and language I remember a dinner in the 1980s at the home of Joe Alsop, the acerbic WASP columnist, who was railing about presidential euphemisms: Joe said no man deserved to be president of the United States who could be so prissy as to use the phrase “deep doo-doo,” a formulation the forty-first president, George H.W. Bush, occasionally employed. James Baker III, then probably secretary of state, was at the dinner but held aloof from the doo-doo debate; he was saving himself for Florida 2000, although he didn’t know it.
The question of sexually charged (or, it may be, uncharged) speech in our political culture is a delicate one, especially so in the matter of the F- word—fuck—long since ubiquitous in private discourse but rarely employed publicly by American politicians, not even by the easily unbuttoned Bill Clinton. When cornered by his inquisitors in the matter of Monica Lewinsky he could have just said he didn’t fuck her, which would have spared him (and us) months of ridiculous hair-splitting about whether oral sex is sex or manual sex is sex or semen on a dress is sex or cigar sex is sex, or whatever. If Clinton had just put his faith in the F-word he could have retained his ascendancy over the press, who would have had to beep him, or else resort to dashes; and he would have also backed off the Congress, who would hardly have wanted to hold public hearings to explore the nuances of the F-word, the whole point of which is that it doesn’t have any. But Clinton’s gut failed him; he just said he didn’t “have sex” with the young lady, which is about as potent as saying he didn’t have oysters that evening, or didn’t even have another piece of pie.
It’s interesting to consider what President Clinton’s two most famously dick-driven predecessors, JFK and LBJ, would have thought of this timidity or tepidity or chickenheartedness. Certainly both would have cheerfully plowed through amber waves of interns without giving the matter a thought. I doubt they would have been such clucks as to deny that oral sex or manual sex etc. were sex; rather, they might have suggested that these things added up to an excellent salad bar, tasty, but not likely to have discouraged them from enjoying the basic, timeless dish. Probably they would have laughed their heads off at Bill Clinton’s predicament, though the same thing could easily have happened to them had they not enjoyed the immense luxury of an acquiescent press, a press that would never have dared write about JFK’s hookers or LBJ’s White House pussy pool.
That press could, at most, allow itself a little sport with the likes of Wilbur Mills, the Arkansas congressman and unlikely bon vivant who was discovered one night in a reflecting pool, frolicking with a stripper. That was merely the case of a hard-working politician slipping his shackles in a slightly ridiculous way. That wasn’t a president doing the wild thing right there in the White House with various and sundry.
Kennedy and Johnson were gone by the time the American press threw off its shackles. The press chased off Richard Nixon over the cover-up of a trivial burglary and instantly unseated the pale rider Gary Hart because a pretty girl named Donna Rice sat on his lap. They fully expected to do the same with Bill Clinton, not over Monica but over Gennifer Flowers, way down in Arkansas. But the brash boy from Hope, Arkansas, confounded them: he kept right at it with Gennifer, kept at it for more than a decade, though with some lengthy interruptions; Nigel Hamilton provides us with many spicy details. Want to know what Gennifer felt when her big unbashful boy surprised her by taking an unexpected liberty? Nigel Hamilton’s book—it’s subtitled Great Expectations—will tell you. He must not think his readers have very long attention spans, because he works in short chapters and even gives us snappy chapter titles: here are three from the Genniflower years: “Having Sex Day and Night,” “Sex at an Ever-Higher Intensity,” and “The White House, Not the Cathouse.”
In truth Mr. Hamilton’s readers don’t need long attention spans because he really has reduced the Clinton story to tabloid-length snippets, and has slanted his efforts whenever possible to the sort of material that would be appropriate on the cover of the National Enquirer. This sloppy book is a far cry from Hamilton’s readable multivolume biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery—Montgomery of Alamein, or, to the British, simply Monty1 ; in this in-stance he has failed in what might be thought the first duty of a biographer: to take his subject seriously. Whenever possible he attempts to discuss Bill Clinton through sexual anecdotage, which might work in a tabloid but hardly counts as serious historical biography.
The American press really didn’t like it that Bill Clinton just plain got away with Gennifer Flowers. They’ve sulked and spat at him from that day to this. Like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies the press has ever since been determined to steal Bill Clinton’s mojo, but they were making no headway at all until Monica Lewinsky came along. She and President Clinton proceeded to have one of the most written-about involvements of our time, and yet I confess I’m still pretty vague about what they actually did. Do we call it a flirtation? A dalliance? What? It doesn’t seem to have been very full-blooded, whatever it was—a pale shadow of what went on with Gennifer. Clinton, plenty smart, surely knows that the public always forgives passion, or even Wilbur Mills– like randiness, but never forgives cowardice, verbal or otherwise.
It may be that Clinton was less worried about the public’s response to this rather stutter-step dalliance than he was about the private and sure-to-be-stormy response of his formidable wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, currently senator from New York, a smart, able woman with the White House square in her sights. The formalities of presidential life may have worked to inhibit Bill Clinton but there’s no sign that they had any such effect on Hillary. The First Couple had scarcely moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when there were rumors of a big fight. The First Lady had, according to the gossip, thrown a lamp at the President, while calling him a stupid motherfucker and perhaps a few other names besides. Well, moving is hell for everybody and many a wife has said worse. The fight, if it happened, was probably no big deal, of interest only because it suggests that when her temper is up Hillary Rodham Clinton is apt to make robust use of the F-word. Wasn’t there gossip that, on a black day in Little Rock, she had instructed an aide, or perhaps a state trooper, to inform her husband that she needed to be fucked oftener than twice a year? This of course is a complaint millions of women can sympathize with; then if you add in all the other millions who have been publicly two-timed, you might have enough wronged wives to elect Hillary Clinton to the presidency.
Hamilton has also written a book about JFK’s young years2 ; clearly he likes priapic presidents. I doubt we’ll get a book about Jimmy Carter from him, or about George H.W. Bush either, though it may be that the latter is friskier than we think.
Field Marshal Montgomery and John Fitzgerald Kennedy are dead and gone; their stories are concluded. Bill and Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, are a living, breathing, vivid American couple, only just now rounding the second curve in their life’s race. Almost anything could still happen to them. It’s of some interest, of course, to learn how Bill grew up, how the two married, and how Bill won the presidency the first time (which is where this volume ends, with a promised second volume due to take us through the Clinton presidency); but it’s surely more interesting to watch the feisty Clintons breast the currents of our national life. If Hillary works hard and sticks to those unthreatening pantsuits, she may well win the presidency and go back to the White House for four years or eight. Will she drag Bill back with her? He does make a handsome consort. On the other hand it would only put more interns in his way.
As for Bill, will he actually fly out to California again and involve himself in the bizarre gubernatorial recall circus? Will he help Gray Davis or perhaps Cruz Bustamante trounce the Austrian claimant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Greek nightingale Arianna Huffington, and the porn king Larry Flynt, and the sumo wrestler, and the show girl, and all the rest? I don’t know, but the point is that the Clintons still have huge potential, as politicians, as characters, as a couple, as Americans. Nigel Hamilton isn’t just competing with other biographers, he’s competing with the very active Clintons themselves. By the time Hamilton’s second volume comes out maybe it will be more interesting to read about the Clintons than to watch them in action, but I wouldn’t bet on that. Ripeness may yet come to Bill and Hillary, and they may always be more fun to watch than to read about.
I feel I know something of Bill Clinton because I’ve spent a goodly number of nights in Hope, Arkansas, his home town—I myself grew up in just such a town, only four hundred miles farther west.
For many years I drove station wagons full of books from Washington, D.C., to Texas, and Hope, Arkansas, always seemed to be as far as I could get on my second day of travel. Hope is in western Arkansas, half an hour from Texas. The Red River winds nearby. There are plenty of trees around Hope, but also nice patches of open prairie. The area is on the border between the vast Southern forest, stretching all the way to the eastern seaboard, and the equally vast Midwestern plain. In the early 1970s, before convenience stores blossomed at every exit on the interstates, there was one big drawback for travelers reduced to spending the night in Hope: no food. All there was to eat was whatever could be coaxed out of the vending machines at the all-night garage near Prescott, a few miles back, which, if one happened to arrive late, was likely to be nothing, not even a bag of Fritos or a candy bar.
When it developed that a president had arisen out of Hope I was astonished; and yet I can easily imagine how Clinton’s intense desire to be someplace larger—someplace that offered more to curiosity, to intellect, to ambition, to desire—had catapulted him to the White House. The same longing brought me to within fifteen blocks of the same residence. I came not as a politician but as a bookseller, to the corner of 31st and M Street, in Georgetown, where my partner and I had our bookshop for thirty-two years.
Scholarships were Bill Clinton’s catapult; he won at least three, including a Rhodes, and he was hardly the only boy of his generation without money to escape from remote and unlovely American communities to the splendors of the better schools. Thanks to aggressive and intelligent scholarship programs at the better prep schools and universities, young meritocrats from many parts of America began to flow east, where they mixed with the well-off and entitled children of the old patrician oligarchy. Former Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado (no money) managed to get to Andover, where he became close friends with former Senator John Heinz (money), who was killed in a helicopter crash and whose widow, Teresa, is now married to Senator John Kerry. The actor Tommy Lee Jones tested out of the Texas hill country and went to Harvard, where he roomed with Al Gore. Tim Russert went from Buffalo to Harvard to the Hill to NBC, where he became, in Peggy Noonan’s opinion, the one indispensable journalist since Walter Cronkite. Our national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, soared out of Birmingham and went mostly west; when she made it to one of the right schools, it was Stanford and she ran it.
In Washington the legislative offices on the Hill, the White House Fellows program, the law firms, and the hives of big media began to fill up with these superbright hard-charging young meritocrats. Their tracks are everywhere today; they’ve had a huge effect on our political and administrative culture. Though the change was gradual, it feels as if one big overwhelmingly bright class of scholarship kids hit Washington at the same time. And none was brighter or rode his networking possibilities farther than the boy from Hope, Bill Clinton, who went all the way to the presidency, the Big Daddy of a new breed.
When I started driving carloads of books from Washington to Texas I usually set out from Georgetown in midafternoon, meaning to spend my first night in Harriman, Tennessee, an old mill town west of Knoxville. Sometimes, as I was leaving, I would be lucky enough to see a real Harriman—Averell—being tugged along on his constitutional by his still-glamorous wife, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. The Harrimans owned two large adjacent houses on N Street, one for themselves and one for Averell Harriman’s pictures. No greater contrast in the catalog of American styles is imaginable than that between the Harriman houses in Georgetown and the all-night garage near Prescott, Arkansas, where I and probably Bill Clinton too sometimes repaired in hopes of capturing a cracker. But Bill Clinton crossed that gap; the boy from Hope became a frequent guest of Pamela Harriman, then an active benefactress of Democratic politicians. In fact it was Bill Clinton who gave Pamela Harriman—possibly the greatest siren of the last century—her one legitimate honor: he made her our ambassador to France. She went to Paris, did her job, and died, in the style she had always insisted on, after a swim at the Ritz.
October 23, 2003