What I'll Miss About Bill Clinton

  • I'm going to miss Bill Clinton. and I don't mean only in a selfish "He was great for late-night comedians" way. I'm going to miss Bill Clinton in that aching, visceral way. I'm going to miss him the way you miss Christmas on a dark February morning.

    Don't get me wrong: Clinton was better to comedians than any other President in the 20th century. Most Presidents give you one good hook--Ford fell off airplanes, Reagan made a movie with a chimp, Carter owned a peanut farm. But Clinton was wildly generous to the comedic mind. In 1992 he served up an exotic tapas buffet of premises that included his saxophone, his too-short jogging shorts, his light-switch "sincerity" and his McDonald's fetish. And as we began hungrily digging in, he emerged with a hearty stew of Gennifer Flowers, "I didn't inhale" and Whitewater.

    "Thanks, we're good," we said as we chewed greedily. But the dishes kept coming, each one more elaborate than the last. "Not another bite," "Why don't you sit down," we pleaded. But Clinton, it appeared, had been cooking for weeks. And finally, just as we were loosening our belts and picking lazily at that piece of Travelgate between our teeth, Clinton wheeled out the flaming Baked Alaska that was Monica Lewinsky.

    Few world leaders could support such a cumbersome metaphor, but Clinton is no ordinary man. Comedians will soon have to build their own Clinton Presidential Library just to catalog the thousands upon thousands of joke variations made possible by his two terms. He made our job so easy it was a challenge not to feel irrelevant.

    But that's not why I'll miss Bill Clinton.

    I'll admit there is a personal connection between the President and me. We both began our jobs in 1993. We were both widely criticized during our first year. And we were both embroiled in a national scandal (though, thankfully, because of my low-wattage celebrity, my three-day marriage to Bernard Shaw went largely unnoticed).

    No, the reason I'm going to miss Bill Clinton is that watching him these past eight years has given me the same unbridled, childlike joy as watching a cartoon. Clinton was our first cartoon President. He ran off cliffs, was crushed by anvils and flattened by turn-of-the-century trains. Yet moments later, we always saw him, just like Wile E. Coyote or Daffy Duck, completely reassembled and eagerly pursuing his next crazy scheme. Essentially, people love cartoon characters because they cannot be hurt. They defy the rules of Greek tragedy. Clinton, unlike Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, was not undone by his flaws. Whenever the smoke cleared, Clinton remained standing, covered in soot and looking at us slightly chagrined. But before we could pity him, the music was back on, and he was confidently strutting across the New Mexican landscape.

    Clinton was such a cartoon that anyone who entered his orbit immediately became an absurd, two-dimensional character. Ken Starr, once a boring lawyer, magically sprouted a buckle hat and musket. And, like all cartoon villains, Starr became single-mindedly obsessed with catching his wisecracking prey. He did everything short of arranging sticks of dynamite into the shape of a woman, dropping a wig on it and hiding behind a nearby rock. Clinton made Starr funny and watchable. And without Clinton on the scene, Starr, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and all the rest revert back to bland, Anglo-Saxon reality.

    Best of all, the man knew his audience. He didn't rail against our lack of an attention span; he played to it. The minute that big, easily bored, sugar-fueled baby that is the American public started to drift off, he'd grab a straw hat and a banjo and somehow get us back. And so we never turned him off. We sat and watched, grinning and glassy-eyed, waiting expectantly to see what the funny man with the fat red nose would do next.

    And now the show is over. The stuttering pig is telling us there is no more. Some saw hope in the 2000 election, hope that either candidate would offer strong cartoon potential (I'm not including Nader, who finds anvils "unsafe"). But I was not optimistic. We wince when we see these men fall. We fear for them. Strap Acme rocket shoes to Bush, and you'll spend months cleaning up the mess. No, the irony of Bill Clinton is that he may have felt our pain, but we didn't feel his. We just listened joyously for which funny sound he'd make as he bounced happily off the canyon floor.

    Yes, I'm going to miss Bill Clinton. And regardless of your politics, you will too.

    The writer is host of Late Night with Conan O'Brien onNBC