WOODS HOLE, Mass. - The most entertaining beach diversion this summer is the rumor - rumor is probably all it is - that Bill Clinton is to have his own television talk show, to play a little sax on the side, to put the microphone in front of all those people whose pain he can feel.
It's a wonderful idea, a triumphant solution for connecting the former president to his true calling. He should have been in show biz in the first place. He never would have left that spotlight for the presidency, and we would have been spared the White House soap opera.
Ronald Reagan, our most recent other media-savvy president, was a better leader than actor, and Bill Clinton was (or is, depending on what your definition of "is" is) a better performer than president. His conservative convictions gave Reagan's intelligence depth, forcing him to seek hard answers to the questions raised by liberals. Historians will be kinder to Ronald Reagan than his political or movie critics were.
Bill Clinton was a mediocre president, but he should dazzle as an entertainer. He can talk off the top of his head with charming eye contact. He can sound smart without having to think things through. His liberalism diluted his presidential intelligence because he never had to test himself against the cultural attitudes of his huge baby boomer constituency. His fans rationalized a separation between his personal tackiness and his public posing just as fans of movie and television stars do. With his own talk show he can embrace both sides of his personality. The audience can laugh or cry with abandon, and the rest of us don't have to watch.
If a country gets the leader it deserves, it gets the popular culture it permits. Bill Clinton straddled a decade where politics and entertainment blurred distinctions. Nothing epitomized the nature of our popular culture so much as television's political blabfests, and our high expectations of presidential debates. George W. Bush is not a smooth talker, but the president's speech patterns are authentic, and if they weren't, he would have had to invent them as a brake to control the runaway culture of glibness bequeathed by Bill Clinton.
Liberals, in general, are better performers than Republicans. Everyone who covers the quadrennial national party conventions will tell you it's more fun to be among the Democrats; you can count on getting a more colorful and outrageous quote from a liberal than from a conservative. That may be changing along with the changing nature of the conservative critic.
Femme fatalist Ann Coulter, for example, sends sparks flying as a blond incendiary twirling great batons of fire, cheerleading for the conservatives in her best-selling book, "Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right." She's a new kind of conservative critic who provides the devilish (and sometimes outlandish) persona for the right that Norman Mailer once did for the left, delivering slash-and-burn prose that's entertaining, usually over the top and sometimes absurd.
"Coultergeist," screams the headline below her portrait on the front page of the New York Observer. When a reporter tells two diners at a fashionable New York restaurant that Ann Coulter is the subject of an interview, one snarls that Miss Coulter is the "devil" and the other calls her the Antichrist. (Did they imagine that she was Norman Mailer in drag?)
"Taunting liberals," she says, "is like having a pet that does tricks. (begin ital) Sit! Beg! Shake!
Then they do it." She describes Bill Clinton as "a pudgy little guy." Her idea of sexy is Matt Drudge, the cyber-newsie. Her ideal man is Dick Cheney, a onetime football player who is a "solid" veep, still handsome despite his bald head and glasses. George W. is "comforting" as commander-in-chief.
Ann Coulter is a WASP from New Canaan, Conn., which enables her to run against the country club, boring from within, as Norman Mailer did (for a while) against Jewish intellectuals. She shoots from both hip and lip and sometimes hits a target with crude expressions: "Even Islamic terrorists don't hate America like liberals do." But she's good for conservatives by risking a hard satirical point even when it fails. A woman with testosterone can sometimes make men of boys.
So let Bill Clinton have his sax, his sex and his talk show. George W. can keep his dignified presence even without the smooth delivery, and the little lady from New Canaan can liven things up for the conservatives, shaking and baking the liberals. We'll all have a high ol' time.