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My Life on the Couch 

Bill Clinton’s Oprah Moment

Thursday, Jul 1 2004
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Illustration by Peter Bennett

Back when Bill Clinton was in the White House, Kurt Andersen dubbed him our “Entertainer in Chief.” Last week, Clinton reclaimed that title with the release of his tombstone of a memoir, My Life, which garnered hours of free publicity from a media that no longer bothers to distinguish between news and marketing. Networks showed fans lining up to get Bill’s autograph. Talking heads dusted off the old plaudits and putdowns. As garrulous as ever, but strikingly thinner, Clinton himself engaged in a promotional blitzkrieg that saw him flitting from interview to interview — 60 Minutes, Today, Larry King Live, Tavis Smiley, Charlie Rose. This promiscuous PR tour reached its climax on Oprah. When Clinton appeared, the female audience greeted him with shrieks and applause — it was such a whoosh of sexual frenzy that I half expected Bill to break into a chorus of “It’s Not Unusual” as panties landed on the stage like cherry blossoms.

Also in this issue: A CONSIDERABLE TOWN Bubba onboard: Fans of Bill find their place in the sun at Eso Won’s Clinton book signing. BY ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

While the talk shows hoped to piggyback on Clinton’s popularity — he left office with a 63 percent approval rating and still tickles the public — other media outlets rode him in a very different way. The Drudge Report linked to articles saying the book was selling badly in Fort Wayne and Saginaw (no matter that it was still breaking national records). Bill O’Reilly challenged our former president to come on “The Factor” — as ever, he viewed the world through the backward telescope of his own vanity. Meanwhile, the faux liberal New York Times, still unrepentant over its role in the Whitewater witch-hunt, went after Clinton with a gelding knife. Two days before My Life went on sale, critic Michiko Kakutani dashed off one of her murderous pans, noting that it’s only because Clinton had once been president that such a “sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull” book could ever be thought newsworthy. That was good enough for her editors, who put the review on the front page.

Such treatment wasn’t wholly unfitting. Although Clinton had in several ways a successful presidency, his place in our national mythology has very little to do with balancing the budget, spearheading the ’90s economic boom or leading more people out of poverty than the last three Republican presidents put together. It’s his personality, stupid. Whether diving into a crowd or yakking on TV, Bill Clinton’s a star — even to those who hate him.

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Ronald Reagan was also a star, in the style of Old Hollywood. His seductiveness lay in his iconic exterior. His inner life was wholly irrelevant. Not so Clinton, our tabloid president, whose fascination is precisely the opposite. Sure, he’s a smooth performer who knows how to sell his ideas — on Larry King, he made the Iraq War sound more reasonable than the current administration ever has. But what makes him an almost Shakespearean figure (from one of the lesser histories, to be sure) is his mysterious, conflicted interiority. His keen intellect keeps crashing head-on into his self-destructive desires; he wears his id on his sleeve.

Ironically, that’s largely what’s missing from My Life, which reveals the true Clinton only inadvertently. Offering us a Rosetta stone to his wayward psyche, Clinton insists that, as the son of an abusive alcoholic stepfather, he learned to live “parallel lives”: While Bill I led a public existence of FOB bonhomie and professional achievement, Bill II inhabited a secret, lonely realm of shame and run-amok unconsciousness. Boringly enough, it’s Bill I who wrote the book, and though the Lewinsky case forces him to acknowledge Bill II’s existence, this secret sharer mainly emerges in some dull passages about being chubby. Predictably, the book doesn’t acknowledge his tireless pursuit of women or wonder if this might be connected to having a party girl for a mother. To judge from the text, he was a virgin when he met Hillary.

Clinton began running for office from the moment he was unhooked from the placenta — the guy still has copies of speeches he made while in high school. But he’d sooner die than own up to the fierce personal ambition that led him, say, to boost his 1992 electoral chances by executing the mentally ill Ricky Ray Rector (whom the book doesn’t mention). He never discusses his fabled gift as a networker, skimping on info about those smug elitist confabs, the Renaissance Weekends, where the powerful form personal connections. Amazingly, he declares it “amazing” how many of his fellow Rhodes scholars eventually became part of his administration. Dude, you appointed them! While My Life’s opening 200 pages are filled with enjoyable stuff about growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, Clinton flubs almost every story by milking it for a cheap political lesson. After fondly recalling his colorful uncle Buddy Grisham, he concludes, “There are still people like the Grishams in America, many of them new immigrants, which is why I tried as president to open the doors of college to all comers.” Other people only exist to wear his campaign buttons.

Not even 60, Clinton is already running for posterity. Although it’s good for the country to see him out and about, reminding everyone that the right doesn’t have a monopoly on political power, the way he defends his record actually makes him seem worse than he actually was. His narcissism is boundless. He devotes more space to losing a student-council election at Georgetown than to his failure to act during the Rwandan genocide; although he calls his inaction “one of the greatest regrets of my presidency,” the event doesn’t even rate a full paragraph. Laughably, he presents his fight against impeachment as a triumphant struggle for the future of America. The right’s attempt to oust him was dishonest, of course, but it was hardly a coup. If he’d been thrown out, his successor would not have been Newt Gingrich but Al Gore, who’d be in the White House today wondering why he trailed John McCain in the polls.

In pushing his $10 million book — not to mention his personal version of history — Clinton has obeyed the time-honored rituals of famous people who publish lucrative memoirs. He has admitted some sins (“that woman, Miss Lewinsky”). He has revealed embarrassing truths (sleeping on the sofa when Hillary found out). He has even cried, tears rushing to his eyes when Dan Rather showed him an old clip of his late mother. His emotive ability made him ideal for Oprah, who has perfected the confessional mode of modern TV in which the studio audience’s oohs and applause offer absolution by media.

As president, Clinton was often compared to Winfrey, hugging people and feeling their pain; as a guest, he looked comfortable on her yellow couch. She looked even more comfortable. Possibly because she felt no need to prove she’s “serious,” Oprah was the sole American interviewer not straitjacketed by deference in discussing what is essentially a celebrity bio. She talked over Clinton, revealed that he was on the South Beach diet, and posed the down-to-earth questions about Monica others shied away from: “Why would you think you could trust her?” Knowing how to behave in such a therapy-mad forum, Clinton grounded his mistakes in his unhappy childhood and didn’t even mind when Oprah cut off his long-winded answers. How could he? They both knew she’s as big a star as he is.

Clinton saved his rage for the BBC’s David Dimbleby, who drove The Man From Hope into a hopelessly red-faced snit fit with persistent questions about whether he was genuinely contrite over the Lewinsky affair. (Fox News gleefully played the footage over and over.) The interview offered a useful reminder that foreign journalists aren’t always so cowed or polite as our own. Here, our leaders rarely face questions they don’t want to answer, let alone get publicly pressed on whether they’re being honest. Most American reporters don’t want to risk losing their access.

That’s why I was so moved by the moral courage shown by The New York Times, the L.A. Times, Time, Newsweek and numerous other outlets that knocked themselves out scrutinizing the truthfulness of Michael Moore. I mean, just look at the man’s record. Although he claims to be a regular guy, he slashed taxes for the rich (while falsely saying the cuts mainly helped average Americans), passed a huge Medicare program that favored drug companies (while deliberately understating the true cost by $100 billion), used post-9/11 fears to weaken the Constitution and justify a military buildup (another $10 billion this year for that defense industry boondoggle, missile defense), spent months misleading the country about the imminent threat of Saddam Hussein in order to launch a pre-emptive war, and then allowed the Iraqi occupation to become a watchword for incompetence, bloodshed and torture. Given a record like that, I understand why our heroic media would want to question every single thing President Moore says.

I just hope that, if through some unimaginable fluke the controversial documentary filmmaker George W. Bush (Bring ’em On, Is Our Children Learning?) ever became president, our media will give him the same coverage they have been giving The Most Powerful Man in the World.

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