Eminem. Spies. Hugh Rodham. What Kind of Squalor Is This?

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Fat payoff: Bill Clinton plays golf with his brother-in-law Hugh Rodham

It seems to be a moment given over to America's relentless search for the bottom.

At the Grammys, women who are fantasy models for the nation's teenaged daughters came dressed in a sort of anorexia-bulimia slut chic, looking like the hookers who work Eighth Avenue and the approaches to the Lincoln Tunnel. The men sported the corrupt moron look. Models for American youth: Sluts and morons.

Before Eminem came on to rap with Elton John, a grave man dressed like an adult — the Grammys' ambassador to Bennett-Leiberman Nation — delivered a dishonest sermonette filled with those "sure-it's-ugly-but-we-ignore-the-cry-of-the-ghetto (er, make that, of suburban white sociopaths)-at-our-peril" notes that are spoken to endow venality with social significance.

Eminem was the least of the squalor. He has a smart high school sophomore's dark literacy and the good grace to attempt maneuvers of dissociation (you see, it's not me who's crazy and violent but the voices I channel from others in our sick society). He rapped a number purporting to be made up of menacing messages from a nutcase fan, working in counterpoint with Elton John, a benevolent marshmallow in a clown suit, still exhaling faux poetics in the "Candle in the Wind" mode. Watching Eminem's body English, I thought of the Japanese expression henna gaijin, which means something like "crazy foreigner," and is used to refer to a Westerner who speaks the difficult Japanese language disconcertingly well. The white boy Eminem must seem henna gaijin to American blacks. He's nearly mastered rap's coiling, low-to-the-ground, ungainly finger-stabbing, a dance of simultaneous ingratiation and defiance meant to suggest... what? A writhing, nasty energy, a wrestler's crouch, the motions of a snarling, unliberated body.

After the Grammys (have a safe trip home, the host, John Stewart, said, a little weirdly, as if he feared the chauffeurs lounging on their limos outside the Staples Center had been doing blow and might run the lights), it was time for the news.

Americans are not accustomed these days to thinking about the Enemy Within. Or the Enemy Without, for that matter. It seemed quaintly sinister to learn that a churchgoing FBI man, father of six, is alleged to have sold out to the Soviet Union, and, after the Soviet collapse, to Russia.

Enemies within: There was footage of the 16-year-old and 17-year-old boys who were brought back to New Hampshire to face charges of stabbing two Dartmouth College professors to death. Why might they have done it? Will Eminem explain? As at Columbine, the mind comes up against a small blank wall of incomprehension. Our great-grandparents' minds came up against the same wall when they heard about Leopold and Loeb and Bobby Franks. Leopold and Loeb murdered the child. The boys (if they did it) went in the other direction — to parricide.

Meantime, the cornucopia of sleaze that is post-presidential Clintonism yields up the Hugh Rodham story. Where exactly is the bottom of all of THAT?

It begins to seem as if all of this dysfunction comes from the same neighborhood of American culture and psychology. I don't know anything about the motives of those teenaged boys in New Hampshire — or indeed whether they are guilty. I don't know for certain whether the outgoing President of the U.S. was auctioning off pardons and taking care of in-laws in the bargain. Let's say that the appearances do not look good.

There is something at the heart of the Clinton personality and phenomenon that seems deeply disturbed. We've had presidents before who were unstable. Some of Lyndon Johnson's staff, including his gifted speechwriter Richard Goodwin, came to believe that at the end, in 1967-68, Johnson became clinically paranoid. Insiders and respectable observers thought Richard Nixon toward the end also became unstable and paranoid.

What do we make of the Clinton performance? Psychological compulsion, some sad residue of a fatherless boyhood? When the nation's president, its authority figure, had no authority figures himself, moral difficulties may arise. Or is this a case merely of no-holds-barred Elmer Gantry sleaze? No one knows where the bottom of the scandal is, but I wish that Clinton's loyalists would give up the line that anyone who is, shall we say, bemused by this spectacle is a "Clinton-hater" and "Clinton-basher." When we think about the messy story of Bill Clinton and the American people who entrusted the presidency to him twice, who exactly is the victim? Who abused whom?