Clinton Agonistes, or: Vanity of Vanities

Posted: Jun 11, 2008 12:01 AM
Clinton Agonistes, or: Vanity of Vanities

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.
-Robert Frost

Bill Clinton has it about right. The story about him in Vanity Fair by Todd S. Purdum is indeed full of gossip, general cattiness and fashionable disdain. I would prefer to pass on the technical question of which journalistic category best covers its author. Mr. Clinton suggested the genus Scumbag before he thought better and apologized.

But I was struck by (a) how much of the scandalous material Mr. Purdum cites isn't new, and (b) how much of what's new in the article is more office gossip than news.

The first few pages of Todd Purdum's journalistic vanity of vanities ("The Comeback Id") is little more than a mudslide of names dropped and rumors repeated. Not to mention the occasional vulgarity that gives high-fashion mags a certain street cred among the Beautiful People.

Give this to Mr. Purdum: He's something of a master of the low smear disguised as oh-so-fair play. For example: "Nor, indeed, is there any proof of post-presidential sexual indiscretions on Clinton's part, despite a steady stream of tabloid speculation and Internet intimations that the Big Dog might be up to his old tricks."

Beautiful. A casebook example of a writer's tarring his subject while technically denying he's doing so. Todd Purdum sounds like someone who would be really good at not quite cheating at tennis.

When a blogger/videographer/reporter asked Bill Clinton about the story, and his head started spinning around, and he threw his latest hissy, his exasperation was understandable, even if the better part of valor would have been to rise above it. Naturally, being Bill Clinton, he didn't.

Like many a pol, the old boy doesn't seem to realize he's paying homage to his nastier critics when he takes the bait. He's descended to their low level. He's also boosting the circulation of whatever article has inspired his latest outburst. People all over the country probably googled up Todd Purdum's oh-so-smooth ax job only after they read of Bill Clinton's reaction to it, wondering what had got him red-faced this time.

Dignity has never been our Bill's strong point; his lack of it is just more noticeable in a former president. A former president is supposed to be above this kind of embarrassing display - an elder statesman, whited sepulchre, and all that dignified jazz.

But why should this particular piece have inspired such brittle, Clintonesque rage? Here's my theory: He might easily have let it pass if something like it had appeared in the usual outlets of right-wing criticism - in the Weekly Standard, say, or National Review. But this showed up in Vanity Fair, the kind of magazine that the ever-fashionable, upscale crowd pay attention to.

These are the Beautiful People who compose just the demographic, as the admen say, that Bill Clinton has so longed to dazzle, or at least milk for donations, book contracts, speaking fees Š all the usual post-presidential baksheesh on a grand scale. These people are now his crowd, his natural prey, and along comes this smoothie out of L.A., of all with-it places, and queers the deal. That's what must have done it.

There's a lot of speculation in this smoothly written article - it's smoothly written even while trashily thought - about the effect of Mr. Clinton's heart problems on his emotional attitudes. Including speculation by a cardiologist. Which is interesting enough - and unseemly enough. Doesn't the patient, even a famous/notorious one, deserve even a modicum of respect for his privacy? This much I know, or at least trust: The physicians who actually treated him wouldn't engage in this kind of talk.

It isn't easy being Bill Clinton these days, if it ever was. Here is someone who's always been the very incarnation of The Candidate, and he's no longer The Candidate. Now he's just part of the supporting cast. Even if emotionally he's still Bill Clinton - the main attraction and not an opening act, the Broadway lead and not an understudy at Plymouth Playhouse. And when the suspicion grows that he's no longer the hot act he used to be Š it's hard to bear. And hard to watch.