"Rock and roll was a young Jerry Lee sneaking over to Haney's in Natchez and watching an old black man play boogie-woogie piano. It was a young mascaraed Elvis sneaking down to Beale Street in Memphis, watching an old black man with a tin cup singing a Robert Johnson song. It was a young Billy Clinton watching the curvy, ripe peach-painted women taking their tricks into the Plaza or the Parkway or the Ina Hotel in Hot Springs. All three learned to play their instruments in proximity to that corrupt, exhilarating, and life-giving red neon glow. Jerry Lee had his piano, Elvis had his voice, and Billy Clinton had a silver tongue."
That's a passage from Joe Eszterhas' "American Rhapsody," a ribald/poetic narrative of the Clinton years. And it goes on. There was never a better demonstration of the working of the silver tongue than in the December issue of Esquire magazine, where in a few thousand words Clinton leaves the reader weeping with sadness at the approaching end of, and gratitude for, a Periclean age.
"The Exit Interview," as it is headed, has Mr. Clinton answering questions that move in the direction he directs, at a momentum that suits him. It begins, "How has the presidency changed you?" and ends, "Do you agree with those who have said you used up a lot of your political capital to get through the impeachment period?"
He answers the first question by a slow-paced admission that of course he has grown and learned from his experiences and become a better and wiser man on account of them. In answer to the last question, which comes thousands of words later, he is now in lyrical overdrive. He has consigned his critics to oblivion, challenged their credentials and sincerity, and depicted his years in the White House, especially the last six, as a golden age of presidential leadership that has brought efflorescence to the lives of the needy and the neglected and something on the order of peace to the world.
Bill Clinton is truly exhilarated, not merely by what he has done as president, but what he has survived, the only president impeached in this century. It was a grand sleigh ride! "It's exhilarating, it's wonderful. There's never been anything like it, and probably never will be. It's been just a joy. Even the bad days were good for me. Once I figured out that it was to some extent a cost of doing business, all the incoming fire, it sort of liberated me."
You have to admire the grand scale of Bill's theater. He talks about carrying two-thirds of the American people with him, through thick and thin -- they always understood that his distraction was just a family affair. He doesn't deny that it was painful: because his enemies were dogged in their desire to subvert American democracy and overthrow him, for purely political reasons.
He tells us -- a wonderful touch -- that during those days of distress, he was greatly consoled by the visit of President Mandela of South Africa, who arrived one day early on his official visit in order to tell Bill that he too had suffered a personal problem and had had a family falling out. Clinton does not describe Mandela's problems, satisfied to let the reader know that it was one of those generic problems that great men bump into. Mandela's problem was that his former wife was convincingly accused of presiding over the murder of a teen-age boy, for political reasons. Suffice to say that Mandela knew that all great men have problems.
So? "So I have no complaints and I'm very grateful. I've had a wonderful, wonderful time. It's been good for -- a fabulous experience for my family -- for my wife and for my daughter, and I'll always be glad I did it. And I'm still working at it. I loved it. I loved it."
The widely noticed cover picture of Clinton in Esquire has him seated, legs widely separated. The camera shoots him at crotch level. On his face is a smirk.
On Wednesday, candidate Bush reiterated his pledge to "elevate" the office of the presidency. But that wouldn't be hard. Al Gore would do that; so would Ralph Nader.