Jonah Goldberg

As I write this, it is doubtful whether "Clinton week" will turn into Clinton month, and it is clear that it won't turn into the much vaunted "Clinton summer" Washington was buzzing about. Democrats dreaded this possibility because they believed Clinton's charisma would outshine John Kerry's - a standard that should cause them to fear 12-watt lightbulbs and most species of firefly. Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, dreaded Clinton summer because a) we don't like Clinton very much, and b) we have not always been well-served by demonstrating our dislike in public.

Now, it's no secret that I'm no fan of Bill Clinton, and I'd say we've learned nothing since the release of the finely sliced block of wood he calls a "book" to change my opinion of the man.

Interestingly, though, Clinton himself seems to have changed his mind about his most celebrated personality trait. You may not remember, since so many of us have tried to forget so much, but there was a time when Bill Clinton bragged about his uncanny gift for "compartmentalization." To the cheers of the mainstream press, Clinton and his spinners insisted that he could keep his "worlds" separate, that his "personal" problems had no effect on his ability to govern.

"The president is the best individual I know to compartmentalize his problems," Leon Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff, assured the public. "He is somebody who takes these kinds of issue, puts them aside, stays focused, does his business during the day. There's no question that he does a good job trying to keep the business of the country in focus."

The press bought it. "How does he do that?" CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Clinton's aides. "The compartmentalization, the famous Bill Clinton compartmentalization: You've seen it, moments of anguish, deep despair, sadness, probably depression when the word of the Monica Lewinsky story broke, and then dealing with national security issues of the utmost gravity."

Some reporters believed not only that Clinton was a master of compartmentalization, but that his gift was infectious. For example, Jacob Weisberg, the current editor of Slate, described Clinton as "a president with a rare ability to compartmentalize his psyche," who "has ratified a new attitude toward the private lives of public figures."

All of this always struck many of us as nonsense. The notion that we can treat different parts of our own lives as if they exist in parallel dimensions with no contact or impact with any other is simply an unsustainable fiction. Sure, you can do it for a while, but eventually something's got to give, especially in a media environment which doesn't respect such arbitrary divides in a president's life.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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