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Clintonian Rhapsody

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In the living room of his sumptuous Point Dume villa — overlooking the Pacific Ocean and built, metaphorically, on the comely flesh of Elizabeth Berkley and the famously flashed nethers of Sharon Stone — grizzled screenwriter and author Joe Eszterhas is explaining the imperative of not treating women as sex objects. "If we yearn for a better America, that sensitivity is all important," he says, dead earnest. "We must work toward a society where we show a respect toward human beings and view them as human beings and not pieces of meat."

Yes, that was Joe Eszterhas, the high-priced scribe who riled women, gays and critics with such sex thrillers and cheesy erotica as Basic Instinct, Sliver and Showgirls. He is talking, though, about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair, the soft-porn national nightmare that is the subject — along with the journey of the baby boomers, the mingling of politics and show biz, and an Ahab-like fixation on his star and sometimes nemesis Stone — of his audacious book of (mostly) nonfiction, American Rhapsody (Knopf; 432 pages).

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense: Who better to chronicle the presidency's most famous episode of bad sex? Eszterhas' obsession with Clintoniana began in 1997, when after doing ceaseless publicity for two movies, the high-profile, volatile writer got sick of his public persona — "one night I was flipping through channels and saw myself three times" — and decided to drop out. Lying low in Maui with his wife Naomi and their three sons, Eszterhas left the phone unplugged and thought about his writing career, his public life and his relationships.

With the requisite hubris of a Hollywood multimillionaire, he decided that his personal problems — the serial philandering in his first marriage, the compromises for success and fame — were best paralleled by those of none other than the President. Like other boomers, Eszterhas regarded Clinton as his own: America's "first rock-'n'-roll President."

When the scandal broke, Eszterhas saw that epithet's flip side. "Men of my generation in their hearts wanted to be rock stars," he says. "[Clinton's] relationship with women has been exactly the rock star's relationship — even, if you want to get specific, down to fellatio, which is always what happens backstage with rock stars and groupies." In Clinton, for whom Eszterhas voted, he saw the erotic liberation of the '60s devolved into junk-food sex. In Kenneth Starr & Co., he saw Puritan culture warriors out to eject the baby of tolerance with Clinton's filthy bathwater.

Eszterhas became "a red-eyed couch potato," glued to the news. He read everything he could find about Clinton. He read the Starr report. He read the Linda Tripp and Lewinsky transcripts, 3,000 blathering pages of them. And he wrote page after cramped longhand page of "riffs" that eventually began to look like chapters. The result, after 2 1/2 years, is a feverish mix of '70s Rolling Stone-esque gonzo punditry, juicy show-biz anecdotes and fictional soliloquies from the likes of Bill, Hillary and — capping off the book เ la Molly Bloom in Ulysses — "Willard," the nickname, according to Gennifer Flowers, of the President's penis. (Why? "It's longer than Willie.")

Especially in the aftermath of Edmund Morris' Reagan biography Dutch (in which the author created a fictional narrator and events), the latter device is a lightning rod in a book that already invites controversy with its unapologetic raunchiness. Yet Rhapsody lambastes Oliver Stone for mixing fact and fiction in JFK and Nixon — "utter and absolute lies." The difference, the author contends, is that his fictions are set in a different typeface. "Is it irresponsible?" says Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta. "We've done everything possible to distinguish the fiction from the nonfiction." (The book also had an exhaustive libel vetting.) Yet even the nonfiction often picks up hearsay — like rumors linking Clinton with Sharon Stone and Barbra Streisand — and the book is marketed as "nonfiction."

Say this for Rhapsody: it's better than Jade — often funnier, more nuanced and insightful than one would expect, given Eszterhas' screen oeuvre. The first third of the book cleverly ties together Clinton's political-sexual resume and boomer cultural history: "[Fellatio] was ours the way the missionary position was our parents'." (Small surprise that Eszterhas is most insightful on sex.) And while some monologues are caricatures — Starr comes across as a cliched Elmer Gantry — others, such as Al Gore's reminiscence of Tipper, are well imagined, even touching.

But the book loses focus, swerving from flat, partisan snipes at Clinton enemies like Tripp and Arianna Huffington ("The Ratwoman" and "The Sorceress") to non sequiturs (a John McCain monologue?). A raft of tell-alls — including much of Eszterhas' source material — has left little to tell. Much of his punditry is secondhand — that Clinton is "the first black President," that he may have worn one of Monica's ties as a signal to her.

And while Eszterhas tries to shoehorn his bitchily fun Tinseltown anecdotes into a larger political picture, it's not the most original observation to say politics has become like show biz. We're told that Clinton was fixated on Stone, that he had Hollywood bigs stay in the Lincoln Bedroom, that he was a fan of Eszterhas' movies. Uh, yeah ... and? This isn't cultural criticism; it's Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. There's a sense that Eszterhas is hitching his wagon to Clinton's motorcade to give his movies historical import. I know all about witch-hunts! They protested Showgirls!

Rhapsody does merit an adjective few have attached to Eszterhas projects: moral. And its indignation cuts both ways. He calls impeachment a "figurative assassination," but would he vote for Clinton again? "No. He's made this a better America. But what I find unforgivable finally is the lying."

Some have guessed that post-President Bill will take an exec spot at DreamWorks. Eszterhas doesn't. "Reagan learned all about the presidency through Hollywood," he says. "Bill Clinton may be just the reverse. But I don't think he'll end up with the black Dodge Ram and David Geffen's masseur and the girl with the nipple ring waiting for him at the end of the day. I certainly don't wish that upon him."
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