No one in American political history has squandered his reputation so wantonly, so publicly, and so quickly -- and in the pursuit of so little -- as Bill Clinton. As he desperately chases the impossible dream of a thousand more nights in a White House bed, he has laid bare all the character flaws his defenders have long struggled to ignore -- and forced us to wonder why we ever looked beyond them. After all, this is a man who thought it was social progress to institutionalize compulsory lying ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell"); who balanced his budget on the empty bellies of poor children and single mothers (the destruction of Aid to Dependent Children); who, as Governor of Arkansas, once rushed home to make sure the state fried a mentally-retarded killer named Ricky Rector; who curried favor with cultural fascists at the expense of young female hip-hop artists...anyone who lived through the '90s can compile their own list. And yet social critics as astute as Toni Morrison kept alive the folk-myth that he was our first black president. (Although, as Abbie Hoffman recently said -- well, at least as channelled by me -- "if Bill Clinton was our first black president, he sure was an Uncle Tom.") When we heard the grotesque details of his power-based sex-trysts we played it off as the earthy passion of a man who lived boldly, in 3-D -- not the obvious pattern of sexual harassment it so nakedly was.
We cut him slack we'd cut for no one else.
And because we did, he managed to survive depths of shame that no one else in American public life has ever survived. The cigar-sex with Monica Lewinsky (which at least gave a reverse phallic spin to the Freudian adage that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.) The masturbating into sinks. Stuff that killed a career like Pee Wee Herman's, for God's sake, barely dented the career of a sitting President.
You might expect a man who lived such a supremely charmed life -- who managed to zig-zag his way past a hundred disgraces -- to spend his post-presidential life trying to raise the level of discussion in America, to bring something fresh and dignified to our political life. Instead, he continues to sully it with thinly-veiled racism, petty and demeaning personal insults, and tired 3 a.m. scaremongering moves. Can you recall a single piece of eloquence that he's fashioned on behalf of his wife? Or one -- just one -- piece of insight, or perception?
You have to wonder if there isn't some semi-conscious act of self-destruction here -- a need to be punished for the crimes he never paid for. Clever if nothing else, or too clever by half, on some level he must know that he's earning the contempt of a whole new generation, while ruining whatever remained of his "legacy" with the previous generation. And even as I write it myself, I do so more in sorrow than in anger: I, too, wanted to believe...
What I wanted to believe was the ringside savvy of a cagey old boxer turns out to be nothing but a low, animal cunning. What I hoped was a repetoire of cool political manuveurs turns out to be the same old trick -- dismissal-by-condescension -- played out with mind-numbing predictability. And what once we thought was a burning -- but focussed -- ambition is revealed to be a ruthless indifference towards his party, the voters, and the country as a whole -- apres-moi, le deluge.
It's tempting to see something Shakespearean in this tragic fall -- a blind descent into moral slime caused by an insatiable lust, not for flesh, but for power. But classic tragedy demands that the protagonist have a greatness about him, so that his glaring flaw illuminates his brutal grandeur. The saddest part of what Bill Clinton is doing, right before our eyes, is that he's driving home the point, once and for all, that whatever grandeur we saw in him was a sham right from the start.