It's All About Bill

A web-only essay by Lance Morrow

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I don't think much about Bill Clinton anymore — it doesn't seem necessary.

But his behavior on the eve of the Democratic convention has just enough peculiarity, just enough gleam of outrageous narcissism, to refresh some of the old interest in Virginia Kelley's beamish boy.

Poor Al Gore. The Democratic convention is supposed to be entirely his show, the pageant of his accession. Instead, as the New York Times remarks in a Friday editorial, "President and Mrs. Clinton are blatantly hogging the spotlight from Saturday until next Tuesday." Over this weekend, they are high-handedly passing the collection plate among the Hollywood rich, looking to raise $4 million for Hillary Clinton's New York Senate campaign at a concert Saturday, and $10 million for Clinton's presidential library at Barbra Streisand's place on Sunday. Whatever small Democratic change remains will dribble into Gore's campaign basket. Bill Clinton has the habit of droit du seigneur.

It's not just the money. It's the self-absorption of the Clintons that is disgusting, exhausting and, even after eight years, fascinating.

Consider Clinton's performance Thursday before an audience of 4,000 evangelicals in South Barrington, Ill. And consider the political context of it. Al Gore has named Joe Lieberman — a good man, a fine choice, a wise if somewhat adenoidal moralist — to be his running mate. There is some historical excitement in the fact that Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew, the first of his faith to run on a national ticket. There is added piquancy in the fact that Lieberman was the first Democrat to condemn Clinton's behavior with Lewinsky.

So Clinton, like a slightly compulsive only child trying to ruin someone else's birthday party because he can't stand it that the other boy will get all those presents, all that attention, stages a gaudy little party of his own. The theme, faute de mieux, is sin and penitence, which has a great Q rating. The President says, in effect: "By God, there's only one person who can condemn me, and that's me — not my understudy's understudy. It's all about me — the sinfulness of me, the forgiveness of me, the brilliance of me, the theatrics of me!"

And so in South Barrington, just at the moment that they're blowing up the balloons for what is supposed to be Al Gore's party, Bill Clinton stages yet another cheesy, undignified self-examination. Virginia Kelley's boy sleeps in the master bedroom, and don't forget it.

When thinking about Clinton, it is hard to decide whether one is looking at a complex mystery of character or an almost childlike transparency. In these confessional moments, I see transparency. Clinton carries his own internalized Barbara Walters, installed in a studio in his mind. The inner Baba asks smarmy, intimate questions (phrased with prurient delicacy or greasy circumlocution — we're talking here about sex with a very young intern and the humiliating exposure thereof); the President of the United States replies, close-up and hushed on the big monitor. In South Barrington, in going over the aftermath of the Great Mess, he made curious use of the passive voice (referring to "what happened to me," and how "I got knocked down") and had the daring to use words like "character" and "integrity" to discuss his own case.

Let's not go through all of this again. Bill Clinton has much to be proud of in his two terms as President. If he were running for a third, he'd probably win. He's arguably the greatest campaigner, and the shrewdest, luckiest political operator in a century. Perhaps ever. He has been the Democrats', perhaps the nation's, lucky charm. So what if he's also a spoiled, needy baby?

We've been through that. Enough. I think of Dr. Seuss: "Marvin K. Mooney, will you please go now!!!" And take the missus with you.