“Former President Bill Clinton met with NBC executives Wednesday in Los Angeles to discuss hosting his own talk show, according to several television sources.”—Los Angeles Times, front page, May 2
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As befits our subject, I will begin this piece with an assertion of my brilliance. Years ago when asked what I thought Bill Clinton would do after his presidency, I began answering that he would probably have a TV talk show called “Here’s Bill!” People would always laugh. I would explain that talking is what Bill Clinton does, that the subject matter of daytime chats would be congenial to him, and that he is a handsome, sunny-seeming and, as they used to say in the Clinton era, compelling figure. So why not?
His entire presidency seemed like a talk show. Or actually his entire presidency seemed like daytime TV—a talk show followed by a soap opera followed by a news bulletin followed by another talk show. Sometimes the last show of the day had the tone of “Washington Week in Review,” sometimes “Jerry Springer.” Looking back, one sees that at the end of his presidency Mr. Clinton was like Dave Attell in “Insomniac,” the Comedy Central show in which a charming and apparently aimless man stays up all night looking for company.
So: I was ahead of the curve in saying the talk show would happen. Now I wish to be ahead of the curve in telling you why it won’t. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with the debate on whether he’d be sponsored by Haines Underwear or The Gap.
The primary reason Bill Clinton won’t host a talk show is that Hillary won’t let him. She won’t let him because she is not a stupid woman. She doesn’t want her husband in a job that would put him back on the media radar screen on a daily basis. She knows that if he had a TV show he’d wind up in the kind of trouble presidential spouses aren’t supposed to get into. And she intends for him one day to be a president’s spouse.
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The Clintons are already wealthy. He is raking in tens of millions a year, including a record-breaking $12 million advance for his memoirs. More to the point, he is wealthy with little effort.
Talk shows take effort. A talk show is real work and not just talk. And Bill Clinton is a talker. Those who witnessed his presidency up close speak of its iconic moment: the endless bull session, with the president talking issues every which way and from every angle. Some suggested he did this to fill time while he avoided decisions; his labor secretary Robert Reich said he thought Mr. Clinton enjoyed talking so much because the sound of it made him feel like he had real beliefs.
At any rate he loves to talk but not necessarily to work—to decide, to carry through.
Talk shows require discipline. You get up early, have conference calls, hold meetings, read every newspaper and magazine to stay current. You oversee the tone and topics of the show, prepare for plan interviews, rehearse skits and bits. You meet with writers, you coddle, dominate, bond with and coolly fire producers. You meet with the network to discuss the focus-group data that say people think your hair is too thin, and then spend an hour insisting that you can’t start wearing a toupee as you’re a woman, or you can’t start wearing black leather as you’re a 56-year-old man.
You make the hundreds of personal appearances that boost the show. You manage the charities you’ve created or agreed to head because how could you not—you’re rich and famous in America. You take care of the band leader going through a personal crisis and attend the drummer’s debut with Paul McCartney’s band. This allows you not only to show solidarity with your colleagues but to get to know Paul, which you must do in part because it will help to get the exclusive when Ringo dies.
You also do 128 more things, all the while getting the daily ratings that tell you if you’re slipping or gaining, which information will be in the papers tomorrow with your producer’s reaction, an amusing one-liner the two of you just made up on the phone.
Talk shows are not for sissies. They are not for lazy people. Talk shows take actual leadership. And you have to do them without the power of the government of the United States behind you.
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America is a great democratic meritocracy and an odd thing about it is that those at the very top of it, our media stars in New York and Los Angeles, who have more job security than political figures (Jimmy Carters come and go, but Tom Brokaw is forever) and are certainly better paid and more famous, actually work like slaves. They work like staff! Yes, they are wildly compensated, but they don’t get enough sleep, they travel all the time, and half of them say on a semiregular basis, “I hate my life.” Because they’re always tired. Because they carry great responsibility. Because they have to prove they’re good citizens and show up for the speech, the dinner, the fund-raiser, or else a gossip columnist will say they’re not nice, and the bad publicity will hurt the show, whatever the show is.
Luckily for them they tend to love movement and action as it keeps them from having to think. But some of them really do think. And they suffer.
Which gets me back to Mr. Clinton. Not that he’d suffer, just that this would all be too much for him.
Also, Bill Clinton cannot do a talk show because he cannot do the monologue. He cannot do the monologue because to this day, 17 months after his presidency, the most consistently reliable subject of mirth and merriment in monologues is Bill Clinton. (Indeed, Mr. Clinton’s inability to do a monologue last night became the subject of a monologue, as Jay Leno joked that the former president “couldn’t do a late-night show because he couldn’t do Clinton jokes. You can’t do a late-night show without Clinton jokes.”)
And Bill Clinton cannot have a talk show because exactly half the guests on talk shows are young actresses who are beautiful and giggly or soulful and serious. And part of the longstanding talk show tradition is that the host, the Leno or Letterman, flirts with them, either eagerly or awkwardly or both.
Bill Clinton can’t do that because . . . well, back to Hillary.
She knows her husband cannot have a talk show because it would give him a new alternate universe into which to bring his Billness. It would immediately be a success—early numbers at least would be wonderful. Mr. Clinton is and always will be a walking talking event. But success would give him the kind of pleasure that in his case is always the prelude to personal disaster.
He will be so happy he will get into trouble. It will be bad and public trouble. And if he gets into bad and public trouble, Mrs. Clinton may have to handle it. She would have to consider distancing herself from him even more than she does. She might have to divorce him to keep the scandal goo on him and not get it all over her. And one can imagine she does not want to divorce him for many reasons, including that there would be no clear political gain in it. There would be loss and a rehashing of old finger-waving film clips, and it would get in the way of her White House bid in 2004 or 2008.
I’ll bet the talk show won’t happen. Sometimes two people who’ve had a certain relationship for a long time experience something big and even painful: a power shift based on a status shift. With her election to the Senate and her slow subtle emergence as the country’s leading Democrat, Mrs. Clinton’s career is the dominant one in the Clinton family, and the one most promising of future dividends.