Film studies: Say cheese, Bill! You're the most photogenic president yet

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The Independent Culture
As the House managers made their case to the Senate on Bill Clinton's guilt, they reminded me of film teachers - and thus, by progression, of the actors or directors we have become. Nowadays, we all have to pass as authorities on what truth (or charm) in acting is: it is one of the ways in which we learn to ignore the text (what is being said and done), and its furtive smothering of other truths. And so the phenomenon has emerged, almost entirely because of television, whereby the polled public decides that a president is doing "a good job", when most of them could give you few details about what is going on. Atmosphere prevails. We bomb a "clinic" in Khartoum, assert that it was evil, and refuse to examine the case.

The managers used the videotaped testimony the president made last year. There are four hours of it, and in America we get bites of it now every hour. Clinton is good on the tape - adroit, slippery, more narcissistic than guilty - for that is his talent, or his character. He loves the camera, more than he loves power or snatched sex. But there are two pits of horror. The one is the shot of him, silent but seething with intrigue. He says now that his mind was drifting. But that's when his lawyers were lying for him. The other is his slight withdrawal from the camera, and the stricken grin - a wince more than a smile - when he says, "Well, it all depends on what the meaning of `is' is."

He grins again, to win back the camera or to rehabilitate himself in movie's archive, as if saying, "No one should have to read a shit line like that." And they shouldn't, because no one, from Cagney to DiCaprio, could make it play. But it's Clinton's own line, and a measure of the cavities in his being that it was all he could come up with. It was cause enough not to give the testimony - or not to let it be filmed - just to avoid that abyss in his own nature. But he said it, and he rallied, and he carried on, as if to give the finger to his opponents, because - after all - he's the president, or the man on television.

And he has stayed there all year, so that 79 per cent of Americans now say - despite the evidence, the witnesses: whatever the nature of perjury or high crimes - he should not be removed from office (or have his series cancelled). Because his smile plays; the camera repays his love. And that is why, in the midst of his own trial, however great the psychic burden (do not say he lacks courage, or nerve), he went on TV to deliver the State of the Union speech.

That speech played nearly as long as a movie, and was quite as monotonous. It was a series of breathtakingly simple ideas and lavish giveaways, unhindered by reference to reality or his concurrent legal difficulties. He overlooked (or forgave) his own trial and his inescapable lies, just as any president speaking now delivers his lines and his attitude in the sublime assurance that they will never be tested in fact, debate or compromised action. He wants to sound good - and Clinton is so sound-good (with that Arkansas crack in the voice as wide and muddy as the Mississippi) that you could feel him being cheered up the longer he spoke. For it is his real trick - and think how many actors you have heard say this - that he believes in himself as he gets into the part. Why not a third term? his grin seemed to say. Or maybe I can play a president for DreamWorks one day?

Our indifference stares at us in his face. We do not care who is president, because we know it hardly matters - some actor will get the job. We do not recognise the "sacred covenant" Henry Hyde invoked. We think it's hokey - like a l930s movie - to say that letting presidential perjury or obstruction slip by is betraying the dead from Gettysburg, Flanders, Normandy, Korea, Vietnam and, God help us, even Desert Storm was on Mr Hyde's list.

After gazing at Clinton too long, I like to study the shocking photographs of Abraham Lincoln, made in the last years of his life. (The shock is in seeing how grave and vulnerable a face and its mind can be.) They were different people. You may say that Lincoln was a grander character, or that he coincided with a sombre crisis. But his face is like the landscape of open-cast mining, whereas Clinton's is all buffed pebble. Lincoln's cavities are his eyes, for we see a naked mind, gripped by its deep dismay - today, it could be a face from an asylum.

Don't forget that Lincoln grew up before photography, just as Clinton - and we - have known nothing else but the regime of being seen, and making ourselves ready to be seen. Just because we can't alter that is no reason passively to accept it. For the photograph may disguise and divert the soul - may train it away from its own implacable thought and into acting's games. It has given us charm, when once we had character. The photograph has led us into a trap - that of falling for the notion that any face is like a photograph, and is the imprint of an actor. It is not - it must not be. Every face is individual hope and need, feeling the race between death and delight. And it is unique to its possessor, and its beholder.

In refusing to admit, or own, his lies, Clinton is chuckling to us and saying, "Look, I'm only a photograph."