It's all Bill, all the time.
There's Bill Clinton on television talking about President Obama. There's Bill Clinton talking about the Tea Party. There he is talking about the midterm elections, the Clinton Global Initiative, his healthy, not-quite-vegan diet. There he is talking about Ireland. There he is talking about Tony Blair. (There's Tony Blair talking about him.) He's receiving invitations to campaign from politicians around the country who wouldn't be caught dead standing next to Barack Obama. Chris Matthews is making a documentary about him. All this just weeks after the celebrity media couldn't get enough of his daughter's wedding.
And now there's a poll pronouncing him "the most popular politician in America."
Bill Clinton? One of just two American presidents to be impeached? The man whose last name was linked with the word "fatigue" at the end of his presidency to describe the country's exhaustion with him -- and with the opera buffa that had been running nonstop since Star magazine's introduction of Gennifer Flowers a year before his presidency began? The man who made a fool of himself during his wife's campaign for the White House only two years ago? That Bill Clinton?
What's going on?
There's one obvious answer: The '90s were the last years in which the country could be said to have worked. Unemployment was low, the stock market sky high. The name Osama bin Laden was known to few outside the nation's national-security apparatus. If the government was effectively disabled from January 1998, when the name of Monica Lewinsky surfaced in the press, to January 2001, when the hobbled president left office, it didn't matter: Bellies were full, houses were gold mines, the Cold War was over, American troops were not dying on foreign shores, and the majestic home run records of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire had not yet been adulterated by the knowledge of the chemicals propelling the balls over the fence. The years of Bill Clinton's presidency were a golden age compared to the years that have come since, filled with war, hard times, and fear.
There's more, of course -- with Bill Clinton, there's always more.
Democrats see a man comfortable with politics. Disappointed with the current president's seeming lack of combativeness, they recall fondly a man who was never above getting his hands dirty in the rough and tumble of our nation's capital.
Republicans all of a sudden are Bill Clinton fans, too. As Steve Kornacki pointed out recently in Salon, they seem to have given up -- or put on hold, anyway - the hatred that drove them to seek Hillary's indictment and Bill's removal from office. This right-wing reappraisal has nothing to do with Bill and Hillary and everything to do with rabid hatred of Obama. One right-wing meme making the rounds has it that Hillary, appalled at the performance of the man who defeated her two years ago, is just biding her time before she announces her candidacy to unseat him in 2012. And so Hillary is no longer America's ultimate feminazi megabitch, Bill is no longer the nation's premier lech and pothead. Both now earn right-wing admiration for the contempt they must feel for the Marxist usurper occupying the White House that should once again have been theirs.
Certainly, Bill Clinton's faults have receded with time. Monica was ages ago, and who was Marc Rich, anyway? Economic turmoil has erased memories of not just Bill's embarrassing performance in 2008, but Barack's inspiring one. With the presidency of George W. Bush now behind us, Clinton's best-known lies seem trivial compared to those of his successor, which concerned not the sexual neuroses of a wayward husband but a military attack upon a sovereign nation and resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
But there's even more to our enduring affection for our forty-second president. Because "more" is what Bill Clinton is all about.
In talking, thinking, and writing about Bill Clinton for the past five years, I've come to realize that Bill Clinton is just more. More of everything. There are smart people in the world, people with Ivy League educations and big jobs. Bill Clinton is smarter. He can read a book, scan a newspaper, and do a crossword puzzle all while receiving a detailed policy briefing from an expert on his staff. And at the end of the presentation he'll ask the one question that shows he understands the topic as well as the briefer, if not better. There are gregarious people in the world. Bill Clinton knows more people, knows more about more people, more loves being with people, than anyone else. Somehow he finds the time to keep up with thousands upon thousands of Friends of Bill -- remembering their birthdays, calling when their mothers are sick, congratulating them on their achievements. "He's a people prostitute," says a good friend of his from Arkansas. "He has to have people around him. He needs that."
And there are reckless people in the world. Bill Clinton risked the most powerful office in the world -- an office he'd worked his entire adult life to occupy - for the sake of ten blow jobs (eight of them not even completed) with an intern half his age.
His energy, his empathy, his self-indulgence, his appetites -- for food (unsated as it must be these days), for sex (maybe sated these days, maybe not), for attention, for power, for good deeds -- are all outsized. But instead of separating him from the rest of us, these traits endear him to us; they render him not inhuman but more human, perhaps the most human human among us. We all know people who generally do what is right but occasionally make big mistakes. We know smart people who do stupid things. We know people whose craving for attention leads them to embarrass themselves. We know people who overeat when they know they shouldn't, people who give in to sexual urges they know they should resist. We know these things about our friends and families and coworkers; we know these things about ourselves. Bill Clinton's virtues and his flaws are so exaggerated and so public that we see ourselves in him.
In the opening to The Human Stain, author Philip Roth's narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, describes the summer of 1998, when "Bill Clinton's secret" - about Monica - "emerged in every last mortifying detail - every last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded by the pungency of the specific data." Many Americans were dreaming of "the brazenness of Bill Clinton," Zuckerman continues. "I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE."
We can't help loving Bill Clinton -- and hating him and admiring him and laughing at him and listening to him -- because there are so few people so visibly, so extremely, so outrageously human. He is who we are. And we are fascinating, aren't we?
We have met the ex-president, and he is us.
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