American Caligula

For seven months I have kept on my desk a picture from a tabloid. It is of two close friends of President Clinton, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and the actress Markie Post. They are laughing and holding hands in joyous union as they jump up and down at where fate has put them down. It had put them in the Lincoln bedroom. They were jumping up and down on Lincoln’s bed.

It seemed to me emblematic of the Clinton White House, a place where opponents’ FBI files were read aloud over pizza and foreign contributors with cash invited in the back door. I thought: Something’s wrong with these people, they lack thought and dignity. But most of all they seemed to lack respect, a sense of awe—not the awe that can cripple you with a false sense of your smallness but the awe that makes you bigger, that makes you reach higher as if in tribute to some unseen greatness around you.

That, it seemed to me last week, as the president spoke each day and the Starr report was published—that was Mr. Clinton’s problem, his real sin—a fundamental lack of respect for his country, for its citizens, for his colleagues, for all of us. The pollsters have it wrong when, seeking to determine whether he can continue to govern, they ask, “Do you respect the president?” The real question is, “Do you think he has any respect for us?”

I think he showed with a chilling finality last week that he does not. I believe he demonstrated that people and principles are, to him, objects to be manipulated. You can tell preachers you cherish scripture, tell Monica you cherish her, it doesn’t matter. The object, as Dick Morris says the president told him, is to “win.”

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Never, in all of last week, did he explain why he put the country through eight terrible months of dissension and distraction, when he easily could have spared it the trauma (and spared his career too). Never did he explain why he sent his media generals out every day to lie for him with conviction, and to slime his opponents. It was telling that when he spoke to the evangelicals he said some people needed apologizing to, and that first, and “most important,” was his family. What followed was a litany of his friends and his staff. His country came in dead last in the litany, as it has in his actions.

In the report and in his comments it was clear that the most important thing to Bill Clinton is, now and always, Bill Clinton. But what was amazing is that he seemed last week to think that we feel that way too.

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And so he spoke of the scandal as his “journey.” He said it has helped him grow. He said it may make him stronger. He said it has been an exhausting week for him. He said this has been the most difficult time of his life. But then, as if to comfort us in our concern, he offered context: It may turn out to be the most valuable, too.

He noted that his drama may make American families stronger. He said it provides an opportunity for healing. He spoke moistly, glisteningly of the early days of his first presidential run, “when nobody but my mother . . . thought I had a chance of being elected.” He talked of a little boy who told him “he wanted to be a president just like me.” The boy was “husky, like I was,” the president said moistly, glisteningly.

He compared himself to Mark McGwire. Would you want Mr. McGwire to give up now, he asked? But Mr. McGwire is a champion because he has shown himself the past 10 days to be what is now an amazing thing, a celebrity who is a good man. This is the exact opposite of what Mr. Clinton has shown. The weird solipsism, the over-the-top self-dramatizing continued in the Starr report. There Mr. Clinton was not Mark McGwire but, as he told Sidney Blumenthal, a “character in a novel,” a victim of a sinister force weaving a web of lies about Monica Lewinsky and him. He compared himself to the hero of “Darkness at Noon.”

He told evangelical ministers at a prayer breakfast that he had reached “the rock bottom truth of where I am.” He said he has “sinned.” He bit his lip, lowered his moist eyes, and said his “spirit is broken.” He then went on to a raucous awards dinner where he laughed gaily, waved and announced, “Hillary and I have been . . . just lapping this up!”

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For all he seemed to be, in Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, a pious conniver. As he spoke to the evangelicals, I was reminded of his great learning experience in 1980, after he lost his re-election race for the governorship. Knowing the people of Arkansas had come to see him as different, as too liberal and too Yale, he immediately went out and joined the only local church choir that sang on TV every Sunday morning. People liked it. He manipulated them for gain, to win. And in 1982 he won.

The problem is not that he is an actor. As an actor he puts not only Ronald Reagan to shame, but Laurence Olivier. The problem is that he thinks people will believe anything, that if he says a thing it is true. He absorbs his lies, and becomes them. The country suffers for this.

Mr. Clinton seems—and this is an amazing thing to say about a president—to lack a sense of patriotism, a love of country, a protectiveness toward her. He dupes the secretary of state, who must be America’s credible voice in the world, into lying for him to the public and press. He fears his phone is being tapped by foreign agents, opening him to international blackmail. But he does not discontinue phone sex. Instead he comes up with a cover story. He tells Ms. Lewinsky they can say they knew they were being bugged, and it was just a “put on.” He sends the first lady to go on television, where she denies the Lewinsky charges and says, “This is a battle. . . . some folk are going to have a lot to answer for.”

It is similarly amazing to say of an American president that he is decadent—an Ozarks Caligula, as a placard he passed last week put it. While being sexually serviced he keeps the door ajar so his secretary can alert him to calls; while taking one from a congressman he unzips his pants and exposes himself so he can receive oral sex. He masturbates in front of his young lover in the bathroom near his study, and in a staff member’s office. When Ms. Lewinsky asks him about rumors that he’d attempted to molest Kathleen Willey, he is indignant: He would never approach a woman with small breasts. When the Lewinsky story breaks, he asks a pollster, a man newly famous for letting a prostitute listen in while he advised the president on strategy, if he should tell the truth. The pollster tells him no. The president responds, “Well, we just have to win then.”

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It is interesting, by the way, that of the self-described hundreds and hundreds of women Bill Clinton has been involved with, it is Ms. Lewinsky who has done the most damage. The reason I think is that in picking her he made a crucial mistake: He chose someone much like himself. She describes herself as insecure as she makes demands. She learned to manipulate in this manner through the culture of therapy. Her wants are justified because she is, after all, burdened with fears, and can be comforted only by the meeting of her demands. He picked someone with as grand a sense of entitlement as his own. At the end of the affair she demands that he feel contrition; she also demands a job with these words: “I don’t want to have to work for this position. . . . I just want it to be given to me.”

And he picked someone who is, like himself, an exhibitionist. It never occurred to Ms. Lewinsky to be discreet about their affair, not to tell a dozen friends and family about the cigar, the nicknames. But then discretion has never really occurred to him, either. That’s how we know about so many of his affairs. He always leaves a trail, an open door. He wants us to know.

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I once saw the president in one of those big Washington hotel dinners a few years ago shortly after he talked about his underwear on TV. He was in full self-deprecating mode, teasing himself for his mistake. But he went on a little too long; he talked too much about it, and the crowd seemed to be thinking what I was: Doesn’t he know that as he stands up there going on and on about his shorts we are starting to imagine him in his shorts? The poor man doesn’t know. And then I thought: Yes he does! He wants us to imagine him like that. And he has lived out his presidency so we can.

Caligula made his horse a senator; Mr. Clinton made his whoring a centerpiece. Both did so because they lacked respect and concern for anything but themselves. Ancient times could tolerate its Caligula, but Mr. Clinton is, quaint phrase, the most powerful man in the world, the leader of the free world, the chief executive of the United States, commander of our armed forces, the man who one day may be forced by history to unleash a nuclear missile. It is not tolerable that such a person be in such a position, and have such power.

Jesse Jackson once said, “God isn’t finished with me yet,” and it was beautiful because it was true. God isn’t finished with any of us. Maybe he will raise up Bill Clinton and make him a saint, a great one. Maybe he will make Bill Clinton’s life an example of stunning redemption. But for now, and now is what we have, Bill Clinton is not wise enough, mature enough, stable enough—he is not good enough—to be the American president.

In the therapeutic language he favors, an intervention would seem to be in order. That would be impeachment, for the high crime and misdemeanor of having no respect for his office, for his country, and for its people.