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Sunday 9 August 1998
It's been a long, Lewinsky summer
She wants her life back. He wants his presidency. The American public say they don't care. Yet they are glued to the forthcoming final episode of the Bill and Monica Show
"Fact is, George," says his wife, nearly as upright, with shining white hair that catches the 5pm sun, "America simply does not want to know about it."
"You're right, Martha," chips in a friend, topping up their champagne flutes. "By the way," he adds, "did you hear the one about the dress? The FBI was booking it, and the guy wrote down `Taffeta-crinoline'. `Good Lord!' said Monica's mother, `that was silk moire, once.'"
And the group breaks up in renewed mirth at the story America no longer wants to hear about.
Meanwhile, time zones away, but in the same searing heat - and this is such a summer in America, one to account for the United States of suntan, kicking back, getting into the water, yet watching the skies with vague apprehension, as if some wipe out movie were building there - at a dinner party on Boston's Nob Hill, with all the doors and windows open, and fans to stir the baked air, someone says: "On the DNA testing, do they actually need presidential come?"
"I think any bodily fluid would do. He could spit in a cup, or give a little blood."
"He'll have to hire Barry Scheck," murmurs someone else, referring to the lawyer who persuaded one jury in the case of Orenthal James Simpson that DNA meant Does Not Apply.
In the summer, in America, people draw back from the intense preoccupation with the hotbeds of business and intrigue that dominate the rest of the year. Washington DC and Manhattan empty out: people go to Europe, to Long Island, to Yellowstone, Montana and to the West. The Dow ebbs more than usual, no one cares too much: it's taken for granted that every Friday people are trading in stocks for a vacation. And stocks have never been better. The Dow at 9000 is just one of the phenomenal numbers that goes with Bill Clinton's grin.
This summer of '98 has astonishing numbers. In southern Oregon, several days in a row, the temperature reached 110F. In Dallas, there has been a month of daytime temperatures over 100 degrees. Travellers come and go with their own stories of local records, and all over the land stunned inhabitants seek the air-conditioned mercy of movie theatres, supermarkets and the great enclosed shopping malls. The winter before was the season of El Nino with terrible floods, awesome snows and hurricanes, so this summer is measured as payback. Or is it just that weather's pendulum begins to swing more violently? Is the natural order threatened? At Tahoe, on 4 July, people were skiing topless in a heatwave. The extreme weather is frightening, yet enticing. A little more rain, a few more degrees of heat and desert or ice could spread. Less and less does America seem a temperate or modest climate. We no longer quite trust the weather; we regard it as some kind of epic horror film, waiting to grab us. And in this age of special effects, no one is sure what the limits are. But if nature could change that much, what of human nature?
Bill Clinton has been out and about, in shirt sleeves, speaking on the banks of rivers in the Carolinas, extolling the administration that has kept them clean and clear. Looks good enough to jump into, doesn't it?, he seems to ask. And he grins, just like the kind of Arkansas kid raised on skinny-dipping, and pausing in his swim to admire the rippled whiteness of a girl's body beneath the water. He is a very sharp watcher, and while he is inclined to be too pale, too heavy and - let's face it - too smart to be an entirely natural ladies' man, still Bill Clinton is sexy. So many men have aged horribly in the White House - and Clinton has had a hard passage - but he looks younger than ever. He makes grey hair seem adolescent; and cannot curb how he looks at people.
That's what sent Tina Brown into such a rapture in her New Yorker piece and now, of course, Tina's gone to the movies where $100 million can hang on the way a man and a woman look at each other. You have to wonder whether one day Bill won't go the same way. Lord knows how - he can hardly act, can he? He's too smart to get caught up in making movies. But doesn't he just need the kind of world where he can eye people the way he was born to - so they know he knows they're naked under the water and near enough to be touched? One of the reasons people like him, I think, is that he sees your intimacy and, if you're warm and alive and wide-eyed, he likes you. He likes common people. He doesn't have to wait for some fabulous, austere beauty; he gets horny and bright-eyed at anything in a dress. For most of his life, maybe, he's been the kid no one could condemn because a woman knew when he looked at her that he was awash with fondness.
It's before 7am in a coffee shop on the highway between Amarillo and Tucumcari. This is the kind of place where breakfast is three eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes or some country biscuit, and did you want a nice steak with that? A man's breakfast. Some old-timers are puzzling it out.
"To my mind, if he does his thing on the 17th (17 August, Bill's grand jury day) and he just looks into that camera and says, `Gee, folks, I couldn't resist her. Know what I mean?'"
"Like she was a dish of ice cream. Vanilla melting in the hot fudge sauce."
"Which is being kind to Monica."
"You gotta be that. Anyone attacking her - they're toast."
It's comic in a way, but this summer in America there's so much spin in the air that ordinary people discuss Bill and Monica as if they were a screenplay in the process of being written. And people are thinking not just action, but motivation. So Monica Lewinsky plays a bimbo, a slut, a piece of faded jail-bait - so long as no one offers her a harsh word.
"That's right. But if he gives that grin of his and kinda says, `What would you have done?' Who's gonna ruin him for that? Who's gonna turn on that guy and take sides with Starr?"
"That dried-out potato."
"With Starr after you, you don't need a defence."
More or less, the coffee shop and The New York Times seem agreed on this much: that no one is going to think of the big "I" words - "indictment, impeachment", and even "ignominy" - if Bill Clinton tells us (the way, all along he has said he wants to tell us) the whole shabby truth. If he admits that, sure, he boffed Monica a few times, and he shouldn't have because he's a married man, and she was just a 23-year-old intern, and because "sooner or later you'd find out", but it was sweet and nice and impulsive at the time, and he has nothing but praise for Monica who is "a fine young woman". And even if it then emerged that Monica hadn't been the only one, and even if most of them looked like Monica or Paula Jones or Gennifer Flowers (big hair, big mouths and a look of disbelief) he could still be the president to take America through the millennium with confidence, prosperity, good humour and a nice hard on. (Recent polls suggest that the huge majority of the country would settle for that "philosophy".)
That seems mature and civilized, doesn't it? But the scenario breaks apart simply because America can be neither of those things, so long as its internal discourses are so impeded by simple-minded and adolescent imagery. Many who are close to Clinton doubt that he could make such a confession. Why? Well, for several interlocking reasons, one of which is that he is a natural, even a chronic denier, which is not exactly the same as being a liar. Bill Clinton has a sad history of legalism, evasive phrasing and bare-faced deception in his "confessional" mode. In the six months or so of the Lewinsky crisis, he has assured America of his profound desire to talk to the nation, while pulling every trick of spin, delay and legal manoeuvre to force the issue into obscurity. In nearly every case he has been rebuked in the courts, in every appearance he has piled pressure on his policy of evasion. But the gamble that he might get away with it, and the intricacy of the campaign, have been such a revelation on innate falsehood that hardly anyone in America now doubts the "facts". Indeed, I suspect that something in Clinton has been aroused and excited by the great game he is playing. If we compare the acting style of recent presidents, Ronald Reagan never believed he was acting, Bill Clinton knows he is, all the time. And he hates that for, ultimately, it threatens his youth and assurance.
If that seems tortuous or contrived, reflect for a moment on how far the dynamic of acting and story telling has affected our public life. Consider, too, that Clinton is a romantic, an idealist, a very young man in so many lasting ways, who needs to think well of himself, the presidency, and even the public he fools. And so we have a man, a politician, smart enough to see the sense in "coming clean", but a psyche and a soul who cannot give up being a hero in his own eyes.
(It is quite possible that OJ Simpson found himself in a similar dilemma. For if he had come up with a dramatic story of terrible, sexual provocation - his manhood, his race, his potency, his OJ-ness vilely impugned by an ex-wife. If he had admitted losing control, then his rage, his power, his OJ-ness, it might have been moving and heroic - at least understandable. He'd have got a light sentence, I think. He might be free soon, and he'd be himself - a rampant, confident celebrity, a man to watch out for. Whereas, he is cowed and crippled by a suppression of self.)
I am not sure that Bill Clinton could put together the few sentences that describe his sordid, pathetic life. That's when he might twist words and propose that so many forms of sexual activity are not really sex. He does not have it in him to admit disgrace. Just say that word as you look at Clinton's face and you feel the tension and the dread he confronts. This is not a depressive spirit: Richard Nixon was - and he was well cast - the ruined man, sustained by paranoia, self pity and the lawerly process of rehabilitation. But Clinton thinks he is noble, likeable, decent, sympathetic. And these are not superficial notions; they are pillars of his being. Can he bear to put that silly, kid's pride at risk? Can he grow up in two weeks?
Then again, he has a consummate smartness (a kind of piercing instinct), in the way of actors who can brush up against real people for an hour or a day and absorb the inner rhythm of their life, their fears and hopes, their mood triggers, the ways they fool themselves. And Clinton is smart enough in that way not to trust his current 65 per cent approval rating, and the alleged fastidiousness of an American public that reckons "hanky- panky" in private is natural, forgiveable, legitimate - call it healthy, if you like. Rather, he knows his own adolescent nature rhymes with a teenage public that might be swift and savage in its disappointment if he tried the truth. After all, at the end of the day, he is a celebrity and Americans take it as their right to make or destroy flimsy creatures.
He sees, and has done for months, that the potential for government in America has been halted by this show - the Scandals of `98, Summer with Monica, or Waiting for the Grand Jury. Not that too many people complain at this because America's well-being - the surging Dow Jones - has hardly faltered, and because the country feels primed to exploit the economic crisis in Asia.
Clinton must fret that America is in exactly the economic situation that might make long-term improvements in social security, education and the health system - all the things that might distinguish his administration. But there is no will or focus in Washington for such things, and there are many disinclined to be too involved with the president. So he has become a sitting-duck leader, waiting for the end of his second term - the next election is November 2000.
That's assuming that the scandal will stay confined to Monica. But just as nearly everyone now scorns Kenneth Starr (because he is so bad at self- presentation on the stage of scandal), so no one is really sure how much he knows. If somehow Clinton's folly could be linked up with larger things, he could still end up in jail.
And so the long summer nears its climax, or will the climax itself become a season that lasts out this year and next? Watergate was a drama that required great patience in the mob. Meanwhile, we enjoy summery things: driving on gas at $1.15 (71p) a gallon (or less) to the great national parks, staying in motels that are spacious, clean and cheap; watching Mark McGwire, the St Louis Cardinals slugger, as he tries to surpass the season record for home runs (61) set by Roger Maris, a man who was nearly destroyed by the publicity that hounded him as he chased Babe Ruth's record; seeing Saving Private Ryan, The Truman Show, The Mask of Zorro, Armageddon and There's Something About Mary in the ice-box theatres; and getting the new version of Lolita, at last, not in theatres but on Sunday night cable TV.
Are Bill and Monica a grotesque version of Humbert and Lo? Is it enough to note the chaos of attitudes in which a Lolita deemed unfit for theatres is piped directly into the home? Is Lolita a very moral story about the dire consequences of having a love affair with an underage girl, as some now allege? Or is it, and was it always, a triumphant, defiant celebration of love, sex, style, language, words and culture as butterflies dancing and swerving across the magnificent landscape and bogus moral panorama of America? For some of us, the novel was always a comedy, but now it is a cause to be defended.
It's a little like the helpless comedy of the media endlessly returning to Bill and Monica while they keep saying they hate having to do the story. Still, the media here are not actually stupid. They know what people read and watch and the steady coverage reflects unabated curiosity. Some Americans, reflecting on their own lives and mistakes, perhaps, see a need to turn a blind eye to the ordinary lapses of famous people. But far more dwell on the stuff, bewildered and troubled by the contradictions in Clinton: that this man so moved by America and the presidency should be unable to curb his passing urges. Once upon a time, holding his wife's hand, he went on the TV show 60 Minutes and let us gather that the past had had flaws and affairs. But Hillary was there to manifest forgiveness and turned-over leaves. Then the past kept happening.
There are victims all over the place: the secret service men who were compelled to be named and photographed, and then had to testify to the grand jury about what their impassive but trained surveillance might have seen; the secretary, Betty Curry, the kind of selfless, shy aide on whom companies and countries rely, driven into the open; Hillary and Chelsea, sacrificial role models, still brought along for photo opportunities in China, still holding Bill's hands, still doing what the absurd script expected of them. Hillary has been quiet for months, but people grieve for her and reckon she could cop a plea if she ever put down the hand and picked up a gun. It's a wound to the nation that she should be silenced, while Linda Tripp gabbles on and on.
There's even Bill's sense of himself, and of the presidency. He is not a small man, or a minor personality, yet he is held hostage by that itch of his. What does that mean? That the spasms of behaviour, of nature, rise above the pomp and burden of government? Are they more vital, more honest? Or is Clinton that special American figure, the leader who retains some streak of the outlaw and self-destruction in him? Is he just the eternal gambler, the intellectual and the leader who in the end prefers chance and danger to reason, probability and common sense? Does he need in the depth of his being to be unaccountable? If so, where does that fantasy come from, and can it ever be stilled?
We make it hard now for American presidents. The size and power of the office deserve nothing less than crises: our great leaders may simply be those who coincided with unusual stress - Lincoln electing to make civil war; Woodrow Wilson attempting to make a League of Nations; FDR challenged by paralysis, slump and world war; Harry Truman setting off the bomb; Ronald Reagan bringing down the Berlin Wall; and JFK, maybe, for two weeks in October 1962 and then for an instant in November 1963. Almost by definition now, the presidency has no such drama and surely would not beg for it. In which case, a president risks becoming a celebrity, a public front, or a man in a small boat on the Colorado River, with the huge wall of the Hoover Dam behind him, holding back doubts, rumours, dirty jokes, and the urge to see a big man drown.
There's something else: the president is the man on television. Do not doubt the extraordinary stamina in Bill Clinton; the hope, the courage, the nerve, the gambler's instinct, the refusal to seem older, with such a wall of ignominy and humiliation towering over him. On 17 August, from the White House, he faces his greatest test - to look decent, young and likeable as he says what happened. He will be filmed and the tape will be beamed instantaneously to the grand jury. He is the man on television.
Grand jury sessions are meant to be secret, which is to say they are sport for the wholesale process of leaking that goes on. With that in mind, Clinton might be bold: he could say, "let all the networks carry my testimony live." Why not? What's to be lost? If he means to confess, do it once for everyone; he loves the national audience and might be strengthened by it. He could look America in the eye and wait for the ratings. Starr and the law might be shut out of the story. The odds are long, but he is good enough to pull it off. And nowhere near virtuous enough to think of resigning.
And Monica? The woman who wants her life back? Dream on, kid. She's had her moment, it lasted a summer. But she's ruined; has been all along. Which may be why she's had moments when she hoped the summer would go on forever. For now, she's a kind of nymph; for the rest of time she'll be a tramp. Yet for a moment, she must have believed that the whole thing was about her, her hopes - her love, even. Americans do love the presidency and feel ready to give it all they have.
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