The Little Clintons

We are at the end of a great drama. It does not end entirely happily, but then some of the most important stories don’t.

Much has been said about the effect of the Clinton scandal on our children, and it is true that thanks to him fifth-graders now know that oral sex is not, as the few parents questioned on this before 1998 perhaps said, talking about sex. But the scandal has also highlighted a fact that we know and yet I think have not fully absorbed: There is really no escaping the American culture anymore, no escaping the big story, the current debate, the thing that’s happening. Once, you could live on a farm and raise your children with your own truths and information. Once not so long ago, in our lifetime, you could live in a big-city suburb and do pretty much the same. But now it’s all Phil Spector’s wall of sound.

There was no escaping Bill and Monica the past 13 months; they came at every parent and child who passed the racks at the candy store, they came from every newspaper headline and magazine cover, from every radio show in the car and TV show in the house, from every comic’s monologue and internet chat site. And from there to every school yard, and every kitchen table. Right into the heart of your family.

And so this scandal, which asked whether a president’s character has anything to do with his country, is the scandal that proved that a president’s character has everything to do with his country. Bill Clinton wanted to change America. “I am an agent of change,” he said in 1992. He was righter than he knew.

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But life is funny, and often bad things get turned to good. A big storm comes, and after it’s over, neighbors find they’ve become friends, a young mother finds out she is brave. In this storm our children learned something. They saw that a big man did bad things, and then they saw that even though he was very powerful, a king more famous than Caesar, the laws of the common people were still applied to him. The crimes he committed were unearthed and investigated. He was impeached in the House, and his crimes were asserted and debated in the Senate, a great deliberative body. It could not find the will to convict him, but those senators who both were honest and had a heart for what had happened in the country stood up and called the big man’s actions what they were, low and cruel and wrong.

He was brought to the bar of justice, which is the way it’s supposed to be in a place where everyone is equal and nobody is better than anybody else. And even though the president kept his job, there was a thing that happened that we couldn’t see but a lot of people sensed: He was like an army officer stripped of his stripes and insignia in front of the troops. He did in some way get the slap of the glove he deserved. And our children know this, they know he was punished, they know that though he is still there, he also was brought down. This is not a bad lesson for children, especially children in an aging democracy, to learn.

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Much has been made of the House managers’ valor, and much will be made, at least among conservatives, of the Senate’s failure to convict. Senators, by and large, did not seem to approach their work in a way that betrayed moral engagement. They simply managed a problem. “Does it matter that that is our constitutional role?” one asked me. Yes, the Founders intended members of the Senate to be men of property who would hold themselves aloof from passing passions. But modern senators are also princes of the city who love their high place; they understood the polls were not with this enterprise, did their best not to offend their base and kept walking.

A senator, an intelligent and thoughtful man, told me the great tragedy is that the American people have, through their support of the president, acquiesced in his abuse of the law. “This may well haunt us down the road,” he said.

But one might also, having witnessed much of the House and Senate debate, feel haunted by a sense that something is wrong with many of the people who are in politics in America now. You don’t get a sense with a lot of them that they actually put their country first; you don’t sense that they spend a lot of time asking themselves questions like, “Is this the right decision, or is it only the convenient one?”

It struck me as I watched these past few months that many of them seem, to some lesser degree, like the man whose actions they were discussing. They just—and this is almost too cornily cynical to be true, but it is—they just seem to want to be famous and powerful and successful and well thought of. They reminded me of what the political strategist David Garth said when I asked him if most of the politicians he knew and had known were driven by belief. “They start with a little philosophy and end with a little philosophy,” he said. “All the rest is hunger.” I am sure that in some ways it was ever thus, and yet I’m also sure that we can’t afford this modern political personality anymore.

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Once a few years ago I talked to a man who was going to run for president. I asked, knowing that he had been facing some difficult questions on big issues, how he was doing. “Great,” he said, “we raised $250,000 last week.” True story. Some time back I traveled to talk to another person with national ambitions. He told me he was about to make an important statement about his thinking on a specific issue. I asked him what he was going to say, and he turned to his pollster and shrugged. The shrug said: What am I going to say? And the pollster told him.

A few months ago I watched the big ticker-tape parade that was held for the New York Yankees after they won the World Series. I was surprised to see New York’s then-lieutenant governor in the cavalcade, waving at the crowds from the back of an open car. The next day the papers had a story: She had arrived at the staging site, commandeered a car and told an aide to drive. “I am the second-highest elected official in the state,” she explained as they hit the gas.

More and more, politicians seem like weak egomaniacs, people so weak they let polls push them around and so egomaniacal they have to jump into the parade.

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Last Thursday I went to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Presidents are always invited, and presidents always show, and I was curious about what Mr. Clinton would say to 4,000 Evangelicals, as the Senate at that moment considered the charges against him.

He looked gallant and attractive as he entered with Mrs. Clinton. He looks like a good man with that big open face and the small mouth and the big jaw, an imperfect and unclever face, in the sense that the elegant and refined features of a George Sands or a Ralph Fiennes are clever looking. He listened to the speakers with a flamboyant attentiveness, as if he’s sure he’s in every reaction shot. He nodded a lot of encouragement and threw back his head in laughter.

I was struck again that he has none of the diffidence of his hero John F. Kennedy, none of the occasional ironic shyness. Kennedy showed a detached amusement when he saw the nuns jump up and down as the motorcade went by. Mr. Clinton would think they had good taste.

When he rose to speak, it was with his usual confidence and casual intimacy. He said he had worked to “deepen the peace in Bosnia” and “guarantee religious freedom for those who disagree with us.” He told stories of peacekeeping in the Mideast and Northern Ireland. The text was peace but the subtext, revealed in anecdotes in which he played the part of the person who got the warring parties together, was: I am the indispensable man.

Other presidents have asked for prayers at this breakfast, and others have taken part in them, but Mr. Clinton decided to lead them. “I ask you to pray,” he said, nine times, to the Evangelicals. Then things got interesting as he asked them to pray “for yourselves,” that we all be “purged of the temptation to pretend that our willfulness is somehow equal to God’s will.” He told them to listen well to all that had been said this day.

I thought: He’s talking to us as if he is a moral leader and we are the nice people being led. He’s providing moral instruction to a room full of ministers.

Then I thought: And he’s Bill Clinton!

People say he’s shameless, and maybe he is. Certainly he fascinated the crowd, which stood for his words at the end but, after mild applause, silently. But lately when I see him—and lately when I watched the House and Senate debates—I found myself thinking of JFK’s words after he watched Richard Nixon’s sweaty self regard during the famous last press conference in 1962. “No class,” said Kennedy. “No class.”

In politics you show your class by not indulging yourself, by not being an egomaniac, by putting good philosophy and good people first. We will of course survive Bill Clinton and his many dramas, but one wonders if we will easily survive, in the coming decade, all the little Clintons who these days are drawn to politics, who are like him but less so, and some of whom, in the U.S. Senate, now decide his fate.