Profile: Friends of Bill: We're just the pals who can't say no

Bill Clinton's enemies are the least of his problems, writes Geoffrey Wheatcroft

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IN THE DAYS just before President Clinton's historic impeachment, there were strange sights to be seen in America, and ugly sounds to be heard. Not least repellent were adulterous Republican politicians hypocritically denouncing Clinton as the worst of all sinners, and envenomed "Christians" baying for his blood with un-Christian hatred in their hearts.

But none of these was quite as grotesque in its way as the pop singer Carly Simon at a pro-Clinton rally, where she sang the hallowed civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" on the President's behalf, before pronouncing that: "He's a very great president. I think he's a great man." Here was a reminder, if any were needed, that the one thing more absurd and obnoxious than the conduct of Clinton's foes has been the conduct of his friends.

The FOB - "Friends of Bill" - was a Washington catchphrase from the time of his unlikely election victory in 1992, when this smooth-talking good ol' boy from Arkansas rode into town with an entourage of bagmen, cronies, and a few genuine idealists. Today, the FOB are a much diminished and bedraggled band, with just a few of them still hanging on in there.

Many more have fallen away over the past year. The spasm of anger which ran through chattering Washington and the American media after Clinton came part-clean in August and admitted that he had, in fact, had a "not appropriate" relationship with "that woman" reflected a sense of betrayal. But some have stuck by him till the last.

Of all his friends, the most loyal come from show-business - and the most absurd. When the film star Alec Baldwin said last week that Kenneth Starr and his family should be stoned to death, he may have been speaking hyperbolically, but he also spoke for Hollywood.

So did Barbra Streisand earlier in the year when she said that "we elected a president and not pope". This true-but-irrelevant observation may help explain the affinity found in Hollywood for the beleaguered president, a community which has always practised a harem culture and where the favoured erotic practice of the studio moguls has always been Clinton's effortless own; as poor Marilyn Monroe said of her own early days as a starlet: "I spent a lot of time on my knees."

Other female defenders apart from Barbra and Monica have gone weak at the knees in contemplation of Bill. One Washington columnist said that she would be happy to do unto Bill as Monica had done, just to say thanks. And Sinead O'Connor, the Irish singer, said a few days ago that "Bill Clinton is the sexiest man in the universe. I would bring my own cigars. My mouth is watering at the prospect. I thought he was sexy, anyway, but now ... my God!"

There is a certain logic in the affection which the rich white trash from Hollywood show for the poor white trash from Arkansas. And in any case, no one should ever have taken seriously the politics of the film business, on which Dorothy Parker uttered the last word: "The only `ism' Hollywood understands is plagiarism."

Nor can Misses Simon, Streisand or O'Connor be regarded as authentic feminists. Much more alarming for anyone who ever believed in the women's movement are the Gals for Bill. Gloria Steinem isn't a dippy airhead, and yet she surpassed those pop stars by claiming in effect that Bill Clinton was the first woman president.

He has won the most powerful position on earth "without the proper `masculine' behaviour ... his origins were lower class [unlike most men's?]; he married a woman who was at least his equal; he refused to go to war; and he actually listens."

To say that "he refused go to war" is itself a fine example of Clintonian speciousness. In truth, he did not honourably plead his conscientious objection to war in general or to the Vietnam war in particular. Instead of going to war, he went to Oxford, pulled strings, and gave the first notable display of what even the New York Times has called his "habitual mendacity" in order to leave the fighting to other poor whites and poorer blacks. If Miss Steinem considers this "feminine" behaviour, what does it say about her unconscious attitude to women?

These Gals for Bill have made two mistakes. One is to say that "my enemy's enemy is my friend". That is a good rule in diplomacy, and an essential one in wartime; it is a dangerous rule in politics, and a disastrous one in any kind of moral debate. The other is to say, like the "feminist matriarch" Betty Friedan, that: "Even if he did what he is alleged to have done, what's the big deal?"

One other self-styled "feminist iconette", the former Democratic vice- presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, lobbied women in the House of Representatives on Clinton's behalf with the words: "A man is a man is a man." This profundity is perhaps true in its own way. But to say so is to undo decades of sexual harassment law. Is it any wonder that a clearer-sighted American woman has said that the past year leaves "feminism wrecked"?

If anything, the phenomenon of Blacks for Bill is even more painful. Toni Morrison has said that "President Clinton is our first black president. He displays every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's and junk food-loving boy from Arkansas." And no doubt he has a wonderful sense of rhythm. To imply, albeit with the pretentious language of "tropes", that blacks are simple- minded, poor-but-dishonest, happy-go-lucky folk who live for music and food is quite astonishing in its patronising acceptance of stereotypes. Racists have always thought that lechery and untruthfulness were essential black characteristics. Are we to suppose that Toni Morrison instinctively believes this, too?

There are other more or less sophisticated friends of Bill, from Gore Vidal to pornographer Larry Flynt, who has offered payments to women who name adulterous Republicans. Vidal has insisted that there is a right- wing conspiracy against Clinton. Even if this were true, it is hard to believe that Vidal much enjoys listening to Bill's palinodes: "I've done my best to be your friend, but I also let you down, and I let my family down and let this country down. But I'm trying to make it right. And I'm determined to redeem the trust of the people who were with me in 1991 when nobody but my mother and my wife thought I had a chance of being elected ... I hope that millions of families all over America are growing stronger because of this ... And I have no one to blame but myself for my self-inflicted wounds. But that is what America is about."

And it is just as hard to believe that the language used by unpatriotic Gore is quite what the Clintons want to hear. He suspects "that Clinton doesn't much care for Warm Mature Relationships with Warm Caring Women. Hence an addiction to the impersonal blow job." Mr Vidal claims to be not only an admirer of the president but a friend of his wife's; we might imagine the First Lady sitting next to Vidal, nodding gravely while he says that.

Which brings us to the single most important Friend of Bill, if such she truly still is. Only one person could have destroyed him and forced him from office if she had chosen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had only to abandon him publicly and he was finished. Instead of which, having insisted that she wasn't "some Tammy Wynette standing by her man", she has spent the past year doing just that.

And so, of all the Friends of Bill, one species is left, and perhaps the only ones to emerge from 1998 with real credit: the American public. It may be bizarre that Clinton should end this year with higher approval ratings than ever. But then, if most Americans haven't been disillusioned by his behaviour, maybe they were never too much illusioned in the first place. They voted for him faute de mieux (which is how most leaders of democracies are chosen by electorates), they think he isn't doing a bad job, they find his personal conduct gross but not enough to remove him.

And they might have borrowed the words of the wife of James Cameron. The man who made Titanic is now being divorced by his wife. Asked if success had spoiled him, she replied, "He was always a jerk, so there's no way to measure." It could be the last word of the American people on their president; and, in a funny way, that wise public perception may yet see him through to the end of his term, despite the worst that foe can do - or friend.

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