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Weekend Perspectives: The Clinton residue

As the aroma lingers on, we citizens may wonder: What was all that?

Saturday, March 10, 2001

By Thomas Farnan

Much was written as a postscript to the Clinton presidency this past December. The divergent accounts usually fell somewhere between the far left's portrayal of him as a victim of his own enemies and the far right's portrayal of him as the focus of all evil in the modern world. The prevailing media spin was that he was successful but disappointing.

  Thomas Farnan, a lawyer, lives in McMurray. 

Those endings, however, were written before the final act, and what an act it was. It was Shakespearian in tragedy and Ruthian in excess, a man treating the presidency as an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, gobbling up the very last gravied biscuit even as the embarrassed workers were taking away the pans of calcified eggs and preparing for the lunch crowd.

It was a fascinating spectacle, especially for those - and Americans are famous for this - who are fascinated by spectacle.

Three nearly sleepless weeks of squeezing every last self-indulgent drop of presidential prerogative out of his office: a gush of executive orders, vast rewrites of departmental regulations in midnight sessions with Cabinet members, unrestrained assertions of the pardon power and, for good measure, incessant preening on camera. He generally behaved like an old boyfriend stalking the videographer at the wedding, even as his successor was taking his place in the executive mansion on the other side of town.

In the wake of all this, the left seems to have abandoned its "victim of his own enemies" mantra while the right has been saying "See, I told you so."

This strange impasse will last approximately until House Committee Chairman Dan Burton's hair stands straight up as he recites a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy during his questioning of Hugh Rodham at the congressional hearings. At that time, the left will once again discover the political advantages of cultivating dark images of vast right-wing conspiracies. The right will once again abandon principle in the face of devastating caricature and say, "We agree with President Bush. It's time to move on."

Then this sublime experiment in democratic civilization that has survived secession, depression and world wars will once again be left with the question (prematurely answered in December):

What does it all mean?

At a minimum, we should agree that December's "he was successful but disappointing" analysis was much too superficial. It permitted the enormous tawdriness described in the Starr Report and other sources to be shrouded or at least balanced by the carefully cultivated public image of a genuinely empathetic man.

But that man was nowhere to be found in the final weeks of his office.

And once unmasked, it turned out that the Lone Ranger was not a defender of the little guy at all. Thousands of small-time and first-time criminals are still rotting in prison under federal mandatory minimum sentences that leave no room for judicial discretion, while the rich and the powerful have been sprung to pay for a presidential library in Arkansas.

History will write the definitive postscript. The final act assures, however, that history will not be able to dismiss as right-wing fantasy the possibility - strange as it seems, but supported by his actions in office - that President William Jefferson Clinton was thoroughly self-absorbed, and that he used his presidential office to serve his self-absorption. This would mean that his famous empathy - the "I feel your pain" - was a fabrication, a shameful appropriation of the tragedy visited upon others to serve himself and his popularity.

If such a completely dishonorable man occupied such high office (twice), the Clinton presidency might well signal some kind of cultural shift, or it could signal nothing.

Rep. Burton presumes the former, and he acts like a man who believes himself capable of opposing massive cultural shifts with trifling gestures - a Gideon fighting infidelity by placing Bibles in hotel rooms, a popgun warrior in the culture wars.

He should tone it down. Because even if he manages to put someone in jail, he will not succeed in redeeming America, which is what he really wants.

One reason for this is that Americans may not need to be redeemed. Bill Clinton's presidency has not caused a run on interns. Americans elected Clinton twice because, well, he made them feel good. He laughed at the right time and cried at the right time, even if he didn't mean it.

As for the other stuff: To most Americans, Bill Clinton's indiscretions were a sideshow to watch after a hard day of work; he was Lucy stuck in a refrigerator. And when the pollsters called and asked, "Do you approve of him?", saying "No" would be as un-American as saying "I don't love Lucy." It's that simple

The beauty of it all is that in the short window of time when the president's infamy had made them celebrities, when he and his wife were the coolest thing going, New Yorkers - not wanting to miss out on the latest fad - actually elected her as one of their U.S. senators. Now they are stuck with the frumpy brother, the preening husband and the rock star brother-in-law. ("Mrs. Drysdale, meet your new neighbors, the Clampetts.") New Yorkers are outraged, not because they demand justice in the Rich case, but because they are suddenly so uncool.

Outside of New York, though, the whole thing is mercifully winding to an end. America is leaving the dark movie theater after watching a four-hour Clintonian epic, and Republicans and Democrats alike are blinking twice in the light of day and asking themselves: "What the heck did we just watch?"

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