A love letter to Clinton

Posted: Jun 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Some people have it. That special intangible that draws-no pulls-your eyes. They emote empathy, maybe even calm spiritualism. But they also seem like us. No look of statue. Maybe even a bit fat. This is key. They inhabit a realm that is just a few degrees from us. This gives us hope.

President Clinton has it. That endearing smile that draws you in. There is no excuse for liking him. But we do. He shows up for a book signing and it is not a discussion, it is a pseudo event. He love-bombs the audience. Maybe he hugs someone dressed a bit too shabbily. Someone who has trouble with the bills. We fawn over this.

Already, the forthcoming release of his book has been transformed into a full-scale pseudo event. There will be appearances on "Oprah," "60 Minutes," and town hall meetings. In many ways, he is promoting his book the same way he promoted his presidency: not so much by achieving historical significance, but by embracing and exuding the popular culture of his nation. He was warm, effusive, expressive and horribly endearing. He played the saxophone, listened to Elvis, appeared on MTV and said, "aw shucks." He consciously associated himself with the popular culture. He surrounded himself with movie and music stars. This son of a poor white working-class family proclaimed that he was one of us-albeit a bit more charming and well-known-and we rewarded him not just with votes, but with a sense of personal connectedness.

When Princess Diana died, people who had never met her cried. They felt a sense of loss in their personal lives, even though their own daily drudgery remained unchanged. Diana had that quality that allowed people to fill her up with their hopes and passions. Clinton has it, too. In a democracy, that counts for a lot.

Yes, of course, there were the scandals: Hillarycare, Travelgate, Whitewater, Filegate, impeachment hearings, a perjury conviction. Even the last few days of Clinton's presidency were marked with scandal, after he rubber-stamped pardons for his friends and sponsors. There can be no justification for using the powers of the presidency to shield friends from justice. Clinton's intentionally false testimony regarding whether he engaged in sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky similarly made a mockery of the Commander in Chief's duty to see that the laws are faithfully executed.

In the end, even his indiscretions were twisted to his advantage. He's that charming. Every time he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he simply began wagging his plump little fingers at the Republicans. Unable to defend Clinton's actions, the Democrats would circle the wagons and paint his accusers as some extremist segment of society. In doing so, they managed to endow Clinton with an almost heroic quality.

Of course, the reality was never that clearly drawn. Plainly, Clinton did not choose to involve himself in the Whitewater, Filegate, and Travelgate scandals because of Republican pressure. Nor did he grope his intern because of the Republicans. Plainly, the president was not so much a victim of bipartisanism, but of his own inability to keep his appetites in check.

Still, many of us forgive him. Most of us miss him. We call in favors just to secure a spot at one of his book signings. This makes us feel close to center stage. It has nothing to do with issues. It has hardly anything to do with language. (Presidential campaign ads have dropped in modal length from 30 minutes in 1952 to 30 seconds in 1988.) Our modern leaders ascend as images, as suggestions. They act, speak, and think in televisions terms. Wherever they go, a perpetual ad floats off them like vapor. President Clinton strolls out for a book signing. We crane our necks for a peek. A star is born.