On June 7, 1993, after Bill Clinton had been in office five months, a very peculiar "media conference" was held at George Washington University and filmed for C-SPAN viewers. It was peculiar because of its theme and because it was thoroughly exasperating.
The theme was "The Politics of Illness in High Office." Among its participants were such journalistic eminences as Richard Harwood of The Washington Post, Marianne Means of King Features Syndicate, and Charles Bierbauer of CNN. These are smart and experienced people who under ordinary circumstances would not be dull either singly or collectively. But on this occasion, they all seemed to be wearing baskets on their heads.
Here's roughly how it went:
Q: Does the public have a right to know whether a president has physical illnesses, such as medical emergencies or chronic degenerative diseases?
A: Sure. The public does. The days of covering up the diseases of presidents such as FDR and JFK are over.
Q: How about mental illness, psychological or emotional disorders?
Q: Does the public have a right to know if a president suffers from a mental disorder?
A: Yes, but only if it affects his work as president.
Q: Will future presidential candidates and presidents be required to reveal their medical and psychiatric records if any?
A: Probably, possibly, yes, no, mumble.
And? And nothing. Just that, exasperating. A brand new president was staggering around in Washington, falling repeatedly on his face. Nobody but that staggering, lurching president was on everybody's mind. And it was that president whose medical records were sealed. Did the panelists want to know what was in them? They didn't say. Were they thinking, perhaps, that Clinton might be suffering from a psychological or emotional disorder? They didn't say. Was it possible that psychological difficulties might be related to his political difficulties? They didn't say.
To stress what was not discussed at this conference in early June 1993 implies that there was information about the psychology of the new president that should have been or could have been discussed. Was there?
Of course there was. Since the primaries, the press coverage of Clinton had been bristling with reports on his psychological attributes, although the word psychology was never used. For more than a year, reporters had been in a competition to discover interesting details about Clinton's mental processes and his emotional and behavioral patterns--which is to say, about his psychology.
By the time Clinton had been in office for five months--when the conference was held--the psychological details gathered by journalists had already coagulated into little clusters, or patterns, which demanded explanation. By the time Clinton had been in office for a year, when the conference was already a faded memory, he had been besieged by so many political and personal problems--some contemporary, some relevant to his past--that his psychology was a staple of conversation in the political and media worlds. And by the time Clinton had been in office for two years, he had become a human puzzle that journalists and academic students of the presidency were trying to solve.
Today, psychiatric terms, diagnostic categories, are sprinkled about like salt and pepper, seasoning the political prose written about Clinton. Headlines have appeared containing psychiatric jokes and puns. At least two psychiatrists and a clinical psychologist have expressed their opinions about Clinton in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Yet other psychiatrists have opined about Clinton in the pages of Time. Clinton's psyc hology is discussed in political science journals devoted to studies of the presidency. And in the first crop of commercial books about the Clintons one finds the same phenomenon: Save for Clinton's mother, in her autobiography Leading with My Heart, all the authors are concerned with Clinton's psychology.
It is an odd fact that this epidemic of long-distance "psychoanalyzing"--not seen in this country since the '60s and '70s--has been going on even as various journalists and social scientists have been trying to declare the issue of Clinton's "character" outside the boundaries of respectable journalism. It is, of course, Clinton's character which has caused the wave of psychological thinking.
There is precedent for such attention: As political scientist Michael Beschloss has observed in The New Yorker, it was the characters of John F. Kennedy, Edward Kennedy, and Richard Nixon which led to the long-distance analysis of presidents and presidential candidates by psychiatrists, the explosion of political psycho-biography in the 1970s, and the now-standard inquiries into presidents' psychologies by students of the presidency.
Clinton is the first president since that stormy period to display character flaws and neurotic qualities so significant that the impulse to conduct psychological excavations has arisen anew. And this time, journalists are not waiting for the historians. There is no reason why they should, since historians get much of their information from the press. The academic monopoly on telling us what is wrong with our presidents after they are all dead and we can do nothing about it is broken.
Freed from that academic monopoly, journalists are floundering around trying to test the limits of their freedom, and the task is particularly difficult, given the nature of our current president.
Some journalists realize they are lacking an analytical tool when they write about Clinton; they just don't quite know what it is. For an article about press coverage of Clinton's "decision-making style," David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times interviewed Jeffrey H. Birnbaum of The Wall Street Journal, who has covered both the Clinton campaign and the White House. Birnbaum had this to say about Clinton: "You almost have to come up with a new language to describe how he operates."
Psychology provides such language, above all when it is psychological language Clinton has used about himself. Using it can help journalists and citizens who have been struggling to integrate the information they already have about a seemingly unintegrated man. In this article, relying only on published or televised information, I have attempted such an integration. The result is a psychological profile of Bill Clinton.
I should say a word about the propriety of this enterprise. If Clinton's psychological problems were of an entirely private nature and had no influence or impact whatsoever on his work as president, discussing them would be a manifestation of what Sidney Blumenthal has criticized as "psychological reductionism." This, says Blumenthal in The New Yorker (June 20, 1994), is the assumption that "the true self is a hidden self--that the public self is merely a deceptive mask."
By "psychological reductionism," Blumenthal really means sexual reductionism. His article, "The Friends of Paula Jones," deals solely with the exploitation by individuals and groups in the religious right of Clinton's real or alleged sexual behavior.
Blumenthal's point, however, remains valid. The "true self" cannot be reduced to a "hidden self," and the "public self" of a political figure, above all of a president, is immensely significant. Clinton's psychological problems are important precisely because of their impact on Bill Clinton's "public self." They could scarcely be more public.
In this article, the subject is not Clinton's sex life but his mind--as it has been reported on by journalists and authors of books. And what one discovers from their reports on Clinton's mind is of overwhelmingly greater public significance than any details about his sex life.
To follow Bill Clinton's lead and explore the psychological issues he himself has talked about, and to see how the press has been incessantly preoccupied by his psychology, is to acquire great insight into Bill Clinton, his presidency, his conflicts with the press, and the political events of the past two years.
It is also to understand, however, that psychological problems must be analyzed in psychological terms and that political reductionism is also an error. Psychological problems cannot be explained in political terms. I refer to specific political events occasionally in this article but only to provide a temporal framework for the analysis. The purpose of this article is to present a close-up view of Clinton's mind, not of his policies.
Throughout most of Clinton's term in office, there has scarcely been a political development that has not generated questions about his psychology. Many have pertained to trivial matters. Many have been expressions of heightened conservative hostility to Clinton. But a surprising number of other questions have addressed psychological fundamentals and revealed that many serious liberals no longer feel they understand the man for whom they voted. Who is Clinton really? Does he have a "self"? What kind of a politician is he--why does he pursue power? What is the nature of the strong response to him? Is he a sincere advocate of social justice? What kind of mind, what kind of an intellect, does he have?
Those who ask the question, Who is Clinton really?, are usually journalists preoccupied by Clinton's self-contradictory nature. They tend to explore it with a similar technique. The writers offer little bursts of contradictory phrases, little vignettes of contradictory actions, little insights into contradictory emotions, and arrange them deftly to form an unintelligible mosaic called "Clinton."
Tom Rosenstiel of the Los Angeles Times, Chris Bury of ABC, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, and Joe Klein of Newsweek have all used this mosaic technique. And all have reached a similar conclusion--that Clinton is "in hiding" (Cohen); that Clinton is a multifaceted being without a unifying self (Klein); that he is whatever you happen to be looking at or, as Bury resignedly put it, "what you see is what you get." Dowd, the most literary, climaxed a fusillade of contradictions by saying, "In the end, the focus is the unfocusability." And Rosenstiel will be quoted below.
Not until Bob Woodward's The Agenda could one be certain of the original template for the mosaic technique. One finds it in the partly quoted, partly paraphrased views of George Stephanopoulos: "'You've got to always keep in mind,' Stephanopoulos said to one of his closest associates, that watching Clinton 'is like a kaleidoscope. What you see is where you stand and where you're looking at him. He will put one facet toward you, but that is only one facet.' Every time, the kaleidoscope would reflect the fragment of stone at the bottom in a unique way, showing a different facet; every person would see a different pattern. It was real, but it could change in an instant, as soon as Clinton turned."
Such descriptions are fascinating to read, but they leave one as baffled about Clinton after reading them as before. Other journalists have taken the next disturbing step: They've looked behind the self-contradictory mosaic and reached the grim conclusion that Clinton has no "self." In his book, Strange Bedfellows, which describes the coverage of the presidential campaign of 1992, Rosenstiel writes: "Like many politicians Bill Clinton is a man of unfinished and contradictory character--scholarly and shallow, outgoing and shy, principled and craven, the mood depending on the motive. He possesses extraordinary talent and a fierce thirst for knowledge and insight, but above all approval. One reporter who spent time with him in New Hampshire found him one of the most outwardly directed people she had ever met--as if he had little inner sense of self at all." (Emphasis added.)
When Rosenstiel speaks for himself he creates a mosaic, but when he quotes the reporter who dived beneath the mosaic he gives no name. If he did, Anonymous would never get into the White House again.
Journalists with names also have identified this absence of self in Clinton, but they are not dependent on the Washington media-political establishment. One is Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's. In the April 1993 issue Lapham described Clinton's response to a group of people: "[He] roamed across the sound stage like a starved animal, feeding on the questions from the audience as if they were the stuff of life and breath." And: "He defines himself as a man desperately eager to please, and the voraciousness of his appetite--for more friends, more speeches, more food and drink, more time on stage, more hands to shake, more hugs--suggests the emptiness of a soul that knows itself only by the names of what it seizes or consumes." (Emphasis added.)
Another description of the self-less Clinton comes from alternative journalist Sam Smith, author of Shadows of Hope and editor of Progressive Review: "It was the normal work of the politician, but with Clinton there seemed too much. Too many hands, too many friends, too many words, too many hours before he went to sleep, too many hours on C-SPAN solving the nation's problems with too many industrialists and economists--and in the end too little else. It was as though he were afraid that if he excused himself from the public eye he might no longer be real." (Emphasis added.)
Those who see Clinton as self-less are always struck by the deep dependence on others that is present in those who have a ravenous hunger for power over those others. Different journalists have sought to explain the intense response Clinton invokes, occasionally using their own reactions. Philip Martin, an Arkansas journalist, quotes his own words, written for a now-defunct alternative newspaper in Little Rock when he was young: "He is the Sun King. And if you look too long at him you will be blind, your senses flooded with his gold-spined brilliance. As e.e. cummings might have said of him, Jesus, he is a handsome man. Despite his too-big head and hands and feet and his roomy, rheumy allergy-ridden nose. There must be some elemental undercurrent here that generates envy in other men, not just the musk of power but something pheromonic. Since it is not polite to compare your governor to Mussolini or even Huey Long, then let's say one of those Kennedy boys, or that rare thing, a soulful politician."
Martin now considers those "the most embarrassing words of my career." But he quotes them because he knows they provide insight into others. Martin had quite unreservedly fallen in love, as millions of others have fallen in love with Bill Clinton.
Another journalistic worshiper, Phil McCombs, writing in The Washington Post, holds a mirror up to Clinton as he is absorbing that love: "To watch this president connect with people emotionally is an awesome thing. It's a raw, needy, palpable, electrifying thing that happens ... It's as if he's soaking up the people like he's soaking up the sun, with the warmth pouring deep and direct into his political soul and recharging him, refilling him somehow once again with his own humanity and some sense of his role in the destiny of his country."
This is an exceptionally good description of a charismatic politician feeding on the souls he has electrified. It was quoted in The New Republic under the sarcastic headline, "Clinton Suck-Up Watch." That was too limited an observation, although it is true that only a worshiper would use the language of McCombs. An unusually intense response to a charismatic politician should not be casually dismissed as a simple-minded form of complicity. And it also should not be described with conventional political formulae. We all have been told repeatedly that Clinton "connects" with crowds, or that he is in his "campaign mode." But such desiccated language deprives one of the politically important information that the emotion-laden language of Martin and McCombs provides.
Writing a decade and a half apart, both tell us in unmistakable terms that the South has thrown up yet another of its emotionally gifted demagogues--those eloquent politicians who intuitively exploit the hopes and fears of mobs, who win their love and legitimize their hatreds. The new eloquent southerner--his style adapted to the small screen, his charged emotions unfailingly politically correct--is sitting in the White House.
Clinton has true charisma. If you have not witnessed that quality first-hand--I myself have seen it only once--you don't quite know what it is. It is not just charm. It is a sudden blazing internal radiance which the possessor learns to produce volitionally and in full, conscious awareness of its seductive effect.
Clinton has the power to seduce others, to get them to submit to his will. And when they do, they give him in turn the vision he seeks. What Clinton sees in the faces of the adoring crowds is the reflected face of the Sun King. Only those adoring crowds can give this Narcissus the ineffable joy of adoring himself.
Have any journalists raised questions about the real political purposes of such a man? Yes, but only couched in terms of sincerity. The disappointed and angry left, the most radical of the environmentalists, the iconoclasts who inhabit the edges of the American political spectrum--all have raised the questions: Is Clinton really moved by a love of social justice? When he made his pledges to rescue the poor and the suffering, was he sincere? What does he stand for?
In Shadows of Hope, Sam Smith gives his reasons for doubting Clinton's sincerity: "Clinton often seems a political Don Juan, whose serial affairs with economic and social programs share only the transitory passion he exhibits on their behalf."
Smith is right. The programs, the "issues," are America's obligatory means of political courtship. But for a Sun King, these are means to his end. And his only real end is seduction. That is what Clinton stands for.
Sam Smith's language tells the reader that he is aware of this. Newsweek's Joe Klein, in "The Politics of Promiscuity," (May 9, 1994) seems for an instant to have suspected it. Christopher Hitchens of The Nation has been in a cold rage about it. These men have strikingly different political views. The realization that Clinton is most fundamentally a political seduction machine is not dependent on ideology but on sensibility, and on the intelligence to look past his liberal-altruistic language and to question Clinton's personal values.
Finally, also raising questions about Clinton's psychology are the pillars of establishment journalism and the academic students of the presidency. These are extremely intelligent and judicious people who acknowledge no signs of a Sun King's presence and who judge Clinton by the standards set by the great American presidents. They are concerned with psychological issues pertaining to Clinton's mind, above all to his cognitive competence.
A few examples will do: At the end of Clinton's first year in office, David Broder of The Washington Post was worrying about Clinton's habit of launching too many policy initiatives at once, many more than he could handle, and his tendency to go rushing around in all directions. Hedrick Smith of PBS was disturbed by a related issue--Clinton's inability to set priorities. And Fred I. Greenstein, professor of politics at Princeton University and author of two classic books on the American presidency, was praising Clinton's "verbal intelligence" but wanted to know whether Clinton had an "analytical intelligence." This was an unusual question. The Princeton scholar was actually saying, Clinton can talk, but can he think?
However different all the questions above may seem to be--from "Does he have a self?" to "Can he think?"--their similarities are greater than their differences. All the questions are psychological in nature and all the questioners are staring fixedly at Clinton's consciousness. Most of the people quoted above have expressed admiration for Clinton, and most probably voted for him. But all have clearly worried about one or another aspect of Clinton's mind.
There is a good deal to worry about.
On June 7, 1994, Bob Woodward was interviewed on C-SPAN about The Agenda. The discussion moved to Hillary Clinton, and Woodward said in emphatic tones, "I'd go so far as to say she's a part of Bill Clinton's brain."
That is both the most extreme and the most accurate description of Hillary Clinton that anyone has yet offered. It is the only reason for which Hillary Clinton is a significant American figure. She has been flattered by the feminist movement, which, like New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, imagines her to have a "great mind." She has been abused by certain conservatives who, like Richard Nixon, believe that such an intelligent, self-assertive woman turns her husband into a "wimp." Both those characterizations miss the mark. Hillary is a bright woman lawyer of the kind one sees by the dozens on CNN and C-SPAN, only they have earned their positions while she has married hers. Her actual importance lies in one realm alone. She is known to be a prop to her husband's mind, and her husband is president of the United States.
To an inordinate degree Hillary Clinton thinks for Bill Clinton.
Specifically, she is Bill Clinton's access to the laws of logic, without which no thinking is possible. Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic has discussed Clinton's blindness to logic on a number of occasions. On February 1, 1993, he wrote, "The most disturbing quality about Clinton is his indifference to contradiction. Not excluding the political middle by not excluding the logical middle, that appears to be Clinton's strategy. And so he can hold in his mind simultaneously, and sincerely, notions that cannot really be held together." And, again in the July 19-26, 1993 issue: "He lives without the law of contradiction."
Hillary Clinton provides Clinton with certain narrow logical skills of which he is singularly bereft. This does not imply that she is Aristotle, any more than a seeing-eye dog is a cartographer. It implies only that as compared to Clinton, the blazing Bubba, Mrs. Clinton is on speaking terms with logic, and he cannot function without her.
Some White House reporters have gradually discovered this dependence. Initially they saw Hillary as a helpful adjunct to presidential decision making. Just after the election, Eleanor Clift and Mark Miller said in Newsweek, "Hillary is Bill's Daytimer, the gentle lash who keeps him focused, who doesn't mind making decisions and refereeing disputes when Clinton would rather stall." This description is a bit too soft. Take out the "gentle" and the "doesn't mind," and you have a clearer picture of a Hillary who keeps Bill's mind focused, who makes his decisions, and who resolves his conflicts.
Six months later, in late June 1993, at the peak of the Clintons' bizarre succession of political catastrophes, Eleanor Clift returned to Hillary to answer the question, "Has health care kept her from helping Bill?" Clift's answer was an unequivocal yes: "[Many staffers] blame Clinton's inability to make up his mind on any number of issues--from Bosnia to the BTU tax--on Hillary's distance from the Oval Office. Clinton's decision to delegate health care to his wife disrupted the delicate balance between the couple. Because Hillary has a real job, she cannot devote the time she once did to her husband's problems. And he has suffered as a result."
And nine months later, in March 1994 as the sex and money scandals were exploding over the Clintons' heads, Time published an article called "The Trials of Hillary." It was written by Nancy Gibbs, and all impulse to soften Hillary had vanished. Rather, with the first lady under fire, it was necessary to make her importance clear. Gibbs cited people close to the Clintons as the source for a crisp description of the essence of Bill Clinton's dependency on Hillary: "Their friends observed that he needs her brains, her logic, her focus."
That is undoubtedly true. But it cannot be the whole truth. One can readily purchase brains, logic, and focus in the marketplace. One does not have to marry them. For Clinton, a wife with brains, logic, and focus serves a deeper need. In a particular and important way, Bill Clinton is cognitively disabled.
There is nothing obvious about that disability, although its superficial manifestations strike many people immediately: If one concentrates on what Clinton says, not on his facial expressions and the motions of his poetic hands, one discovers that he is a phenomenal bore. He is so monumentally boring that thoughtful people feel compelled to discuss it.
That is the clue to Clinton's cognitive disability. There is only one thing that will produce this detail-saturated effect, enlivened by no thinking or creative impulse, and that is the memorization one frantically engages in before an exam if one is the bright kind who studies for As.
Is Clinton a memorizer? Yes, indeed he is. And a very unusual one, the type who could get a job in the circus as a Hans the Talking Horse. He has a photographic memory, and witnesses to that skill come from every period of his life. When David Gallen, armed with a tape recorder, interviewed a few dozen Arkansas journalists, politicians, and friends and associates of Bill, they all talked their heads off about his amazing memory for the faces, names, family members, and illnesses of what seems to be half of Arkansas.
And, apparently, he forgets nothing. In January 1994 David Maraniss of The Washington Post wrote: "Clinton has a nearly photographic memory--he recently stunned a friend visiting the White House by saying, 'Let's call your parents!' and then recited a number he hadn't dialed in more than a decade."
Before he was elected president, Clinton himself liked to show off his remarkable memory. According to Charles Allen and Jonathan Portis in The Comeback Kid, Clinton recited 100 lines from Macbeth that he had learned in high school to a high school class in the small town of Vilonia, Arkansas: "I hadn't [recited] it in 20-something years," Clinton said. "And I started reeling it off, and these kids, their eyes got as big as dollars. I recited the whole soliloquy."
But this skill is more than a complicated parlor trick. It has played an important role in Clinton's intellectual life. Clinton has always been extremely bright, a good student and a voracious reader. But his memory has greatly supplemented, amplified, and very often substituted for an intellectual life. His memory is a theme that runs throughout people's conversations about him.
Arkansas journalist Meredith Oakley, who repeatedly refers to Clinton's photographic memory throughout her book On the Make: The Rise of Bill Clinton, says of Clinton, "He was not studious by nature and though he made exceptional grades--he eventually won a Phi Beta Kappa key--he did so by routinely cramming for exams and relying on a photographic memory."
Clinton's classmate at Yale, William P. Coleman, calls Clinton "the classic quick study." He studied little, went to few classes. Then before exams he borrowed the class notes of others and memorized.
Clinton's high school friend David Leopoulos visited Clinton when he was at Oxford and found that Clinton had suddenly become a fount of information about painting. Leopoulos told a reporter, "He is interested in everything and wants to consume everything. He is almost a fanatic about information. He gathers and retains it better than anyone I've ever known."
Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post jokes, "That's Clinton: well-versed in every subject, has memorized the leading economic indicators for every quarter since the '20s, knows how to say 'fungibility' in Farsi."
Finally, Charles Allen and Jonathan Portis in The Comeback Kid describe the Clinton of the presidential campaign: "Clinton became known as a 'policy wonk,' a politician who could spout data and statistics nonstop, a man with a quick answer for every question. Members of the national press were amazed at his ability to formulate answers to complicated questions, seemingly without thinking."
It is not "seemingly" without thinking. Very often, it is actually without thinking. Clinton can memorize as he breathes. But he finds thinking--analysis, evaluation, reaching conclusions--intensely difficult.
And that is the essence of Bill Clinton's cognitive disability, and the reason for his dependence on his wife.
In The Agenda, Woodward shows that dependence in action. He describes Clinton as candidate, surrounded by high powered advisers. "Everyone," writes Woodward, "was throwing ideas at the candidate, who had no system to evaluate or decide among them." It was Hillary who rescued Clinton, and in doing so, explained what he actually did with the information being hurled at him. He had to "come to it in his own way," she said. Woodward continued: "Hillary insisted he had to 'internalize' the message and the ideas. He needed in-depth exposure to the alternatives and lively debate, pushed even to the point of confusion. 'He has to come to this in his own way,' she repeated." What Clinton needed, she said, was the time to rest and "internalize."
In effect, Clinton dumps everything into his subconscious, engulfs it, digests it, and waits to see what will happen. Many people do this at certain stages of creative work, which is dependent on subconscious operations. But at some point, the mental superstructure must take control and process the results with logic.
It is the stage that requires the conscious use of logic that Clinton finds difficult, or impossible, to reach.
To an extraordinary degree, Clinton functions directly from his subconscious. It is his almost-photographic memory that allows him to do so. But he pays a terrible penalty. When ideas are "thrown" at him, which happens ceaselessly, he "has no system to evaluate or decide among them." He is paralyzed--until his subconscious finally processes them in one way or another, and tells him what to think. And if it doesn't, his wife does. That one cannot buy in the marketplace.
It is true that Hillary Clinton helps Bill Clinton in his presidential decision-making process. It is true that he needs her brains, her logic, and her focus. But any formulation that makes her sound like hired help fails to reckon with the frequency with which Clinton is incapacitated. Hillary Clinton compensates for that helpless state. She is to Clinton's mind what a pacemaker is to a heart. She is, as Woodward says, a part of Bill Clinton's brain. And she has been so for every millisecond of his political life.
THE FIRST CONFLICT
"Even now, after all these years, I still sometimes work hard instead of smart. I'm a workaholic, I'm always churning and doing things, and sometimes I lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes you can do so many things that you don't do enough [P]eople may not know exactly what I want to do as president, because I've got so many ideas.
"My mind is always churning, you know, and I think I need to learn to focus my comments better so I can learn to communicate with people who don't know me very well. And I need to always learn that you have so little time, there is so precious little time, that you have to really be like a laser beam with your words and your actions. You've got to really focus and have that kind of mental discipline that sometimes my workaholic tendencies don't permit me to have ...
"I think sometimes I always think that everything can be worked out, too, you know. Sometimes you can't work everything out. You've just got to cut it. And you've got to know when to cut it and when to work things out. That's something I've done a lot of work on, trying to make sure I overcome that weakness."
--Bill Clinton to Arsenio Hall, June 1992
For some 15 years Clinton has been saying, over and over again, to people who have repeated it over and over again, that his problem is that he does "too much, too fast." Simultaneously, he has been ceaselessly reported to be an astoundingly slow worker who takes months to make a decision. Both cannot be true. And both are not true. But it takes a long time to understand the gross contradiction between what Clinton says of himself and what the press has reported, because the answer is buried in a mysterious conflict deep inside Clinton's mind.
Above, you will see a long and unfocused description by candidate Clinton of the workings of his own mind. He offered this information to talk-show host Arsenio Hall, who had inquired whether Clinton had any flaws.
A small part of Clinton's incoherent description pertains to his doing "too much, too fast." The rest, if one strips away the murky verbiage, is an earnest description of Clinton's difficulty in thinking. His mind races, ideas rush in on him with great speed; he fails to distinguish between having an idea and taking an action, between thinking and doing; he gets lost in details, so he cannot retain his abstract purposes; and he has great difficulty in reaching conclusions or making decisions. He even avoids using such terms: He talks of "cutting it" or of "working things out." This is not the analysis of a thinker or of one who thinks about thinking. It is the Clinton subconscious blurting out his difficulties as he experiences them from within.
Woodward's Agenda--this book is to date the greatest psychological study of Bill Clinton--portrays Clinton's helpless, conflicted muddle over and over again. But in one part, there is a short, efficient description. Political consultant Stan Greenberg traveled to Arkansas to meet the young governor who might seek the Democratic party's nomination for president. He found Clinton torn by conflict over announcing his candidacy:
"[Clinton] set August as a personal deadline for a final decision, but the deadline slipped ... He appeared locked in a perpetual debate and argument with himself and with dozens of friends and advisors. His thinking never seemed to go in a straight line. He was unable to bring his deliberations to any resolution. Greenberg was horrified at the process. It bordered on chaos."
Greenberg is clearly describing from the outside what Bill Clinton described to Arsenio Hall from the inside.
The rambling speech that Clinton made to the talk-show host is a template both for Clinton's endlessly reiterated lament that he does "too much, too fast" and for the chaotic mental processes that wander off in meaningless directions and culminate in paralysis. To describe what it might feel like to be engaged in both kinds of mental activities, one must conjure up an impossibility. It would be like driving at full speed with one's feet jammed hard on powerful brakes. Clinton's mind races perpetually while it simultaneously maneuvers itself into a catatonic motionlessness.
Clinton has a short phrase to describe only the speeded-up process: It is doing "too much, too fast." He has no descriptive phrase for the blocking process, so I'll give him one: It's "I can't move."
He presses his speeded-up problem on everyone he talks to at any length, so it is widely known. He allows others to discover the blockage problem all by themselves. But, of course, that problem is widely known too. The press discovered it soon after he was elected president. In fact, to a considerable degree, Clinton's relationship with reporters has been an attempt to seduce them by stressing "I do too much, too fast" while they hav e tormented him by chasing angrily after his "I can't move." To visit Clinton's mind, one must take these aspects of his mental processes one at a time.
"Too Much, Too Fast"
Clinton began to complain publicly that he tries to do "too much, too fast" when he lost the governor's race in 1980 after one term in office. In his first interview after this defeat, he named the problem as a cause.
But when one reads Meredith Oakley's biography On the Make, one discovers that Clinton had the "too much, too fast" problem long before the traumatic expulsion. Oakley places no significance whatsoever on this fact. But it is clearly important.
Right after he was elected governor for the first time and before he had even moved into his office, says Oakley, Clinton made a curious pledge to the electorate. It was reported by the Associated Press and she summarizes it as follows: "He said he planned to take a judicious approach to governing and to try not to do everything at once."
Neither the AP nor Oakley thought to ask Clinton why the impossible notion of doing everything at once had even occurred to him and why he would "try" not to do this impossible thing. Would the impossible thing happen anyway if he did not "try"?
On the surface, the new governor of Arkansas never kept his pledge. The biographies record that he always governed in Arkansas with all flags flying and an agenda as long as his arm. But the primary purpose of the enormous agenda was to create the illusion of immense achievement through nonstop activity. Clinton scheduled matters, says Oakley, so that he could launch one initiative a week and keep his name in the headlines. Many, if not most, of those achievements never materialized, or they were drastically altered by the Arkansas legislature.
After Clinton was defeated, he made such a big issue out of "too much, too fast" and apologized so humbly to the people of Arkansas for his mistake that, when years later he ran for the presidency, the phrase was still on people's lips. David Gallen, researching Bill Clinton: As They Know Him, heard it frequently. Brownie Ledbetter, a prominent activist in Arkansas reform politics, told Gallen about the warning that Betsey Wright had delivered to Clinton. Wright, who organized Clinton's campaign for reelection to the governorship, told Clinton, "You will pick three things and that's it. You're not going to do a hundred and fifty things. And you've got to be focused."
When Clinton ran for the presidency he again set out with great brio to do "too much, too fast." He hit Americans hard with a 49-point plan for economic revival--adding 10 new planks to a platform he filched from Dukakis.
And, once elected, Clinton not only wanted to show Americans that he could do everything at once--he wanted to show them that he could think about everything at once. He held the famous economic "summit" where, surrounded by television cameras and legions of properly respectful economists, policy specialists, and business executives, Clinton demonstrated that he knew as much about each of their specializations as they did. He had learned and spat out a fragment of each. The public was impressed. The press was impressed. Hillary was impressed. She took notes.
And there began the regime of Clinton I, which was for many months thereafter to lurch around in drunken confusion, because the man who could do everything at once and could know everything at once had just arrived from a tiny, almost-feudal state that he could govern with a Rolodex of 100 names, and had no idea what it meant to be president of the United States of America.
Throughout all the lurching and crises and embarrassments, however, Clinton kept proliferating proposed programs and issues and trying to do "too much, too fast." Finally, a clever journalist noticed that the issues were a cave in which Clinton was hiding. In Newsweek, February 15, 1993, Eleanor Clift observed:
"As the political hurricanes raged around him, Bill Clinton sought safety in substance. Let the media talk about Kimba and Zoa and gays in the military.Clinton was busy with issues, at least one a day. That is his way of changing the subject ... But the issues may not provide safe haven for long. Now he must turn his attention to the thorniest issue of all, [the economy,] where he faces seemingly contradictory goals."
In fact, Clinton's relentless multiplying of issues began to seem comical to some. A few months later, The Washington Post Weekly published a Margulies cartoon on that theme. It was drawn in two boxes. Box 1 showed Clinton seated in front of a desk piled with documents, saying, "Maybe I have been trying to do too much" Box 2 showed Clinton saying, "So I'm appointing a 60-member commission to hold six months of hearings and issue a 12-volume report on rescuing my presidency."
Now here you can stop for a moment, because Clinton stopped for a moment. For some months, all the issues came in great baskets called the budget and NAFTA and Japanese trade and so on. Since politics is an epiphenomenon in this article, we will skip over what was a reasonably pleasant period in which a newly hired Republican spinmeister, David Gergen, who had helped to create and peddle the New Nixon, was now creating and peddling the New Clinton.
At the end of 1993, it came time for leading journalists to ponder the year's events and to ask Clinton to ponder the year's events. An interview with Clinton was conducted by Eleanor Clift, Bob Cohn, and Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and published December 13, 1993. About that same time, David Broder in The Washington Post (December 12, 1993) reported on a group interview with Clinton assembled at Blair House by Godfrey Sperling Jr. of the Christian Science Monitor. These able and sophisticated journalists were genuinely interested in finding out what Clinton--the New Clinton--had learned during the year.
The group interview published in Newsweek occupied a full page. Nine questions were published, three of which asked Clinton to comment on declining public support and on criticisms of his character, his temper, and his performance. He evaded the criticisms. Instead, he defensively introduced and elaborated on these ideas:
* "[W]e were trying to move very quickly to push the agenda of change."
* "I tried to do so many things at once that I didn't take time to do one of the President's most important jobs, and that is to consistently explain to the American people what we were doing and why."
* "What upsets me is when I think we're not doing the best we can for the country. When I lose my temper it's mostly because I think we all have an obligation to make every day count."
The sympathetic headline printed along the top of the Newsweek page was: "I tried to do so many things."
Broder devoted his complete Post column to what Clinton had told the journalistic group at Blair House. Under the triumphant title "Clinton Finds His Voice," Broder wrote: "In a recent interview in which I participated, Clinton said that because the nation is now 'awash in news,' he must work harder at this task than presidents of the previous generation had to do. That means, he said, that he must figure out what are the 'five or six things or two or three things the American people have to know and feel' and 'not do or say things that get in your way' in communicating on those topics. And it means that he must be willing to return to those topics time and again, until he hits the moment when 'You can break through. When you can register on people.'"
Broder was impressed. He said, "For a president who is as hyperactive as Clinton, this is a remarkably disciplined set of self-instructions ... [T]he lesson of this first year--which Clinton seems to have absorbed--is that you cannot do everything at once."
The New Clinton was the Old Clinton. The two sets of interviewers had all been listening to the same strange recording in Clinton's head, unreeling slowly, slowly, upon demand, producing the same verbal patterns that had been emerging from Clinton's mouth for at least 15 years.
Any idea that a human being feels compelled to repeat robotically for at least 15years means something important to that person. But what "too much, too fast" means is not what Clinton says it means. And there is no evidence that he knows what it means. It is clearly a defense of some kind. But a defense against what?
It may become clearer if we turn now to the Clinton who cannot resolve conflicts, the Clinton who is blocked, the Clinton who gets paralyzed while trying to think. What the racing, speeding Clinton cannot tell us, perhaps the paralyzed Clinton will.
"I Can't Move"
The Clinton who "can't move" is, of course, Clinton the potential Democratic party nominee who revealed to political consultant Stan Greenberg that he couldn't "think in a straight line," and couldn't resolve conflicts or reach conclusions. It is Clinton the presidential candidate who told Arsenio Hall that he had these strange thinking problems he was "working on"--that he often couldn't "see the forest for the trees"; that he often didn't know when to "cut it" and when to go on trying to "work things out"; and who revealed to Arsenio that he didn't differentiate between thinking, saying, and doing "things."
Why there was no uproar among American journalists after Clinton's confession to Arsenio Hall, I do not know, since I personally fell off the couch when I heard it. But it is only fair to say that it was difficult to understand on the fly. Clinton's use of language reveals a determination to conceal the operations of his mind in a cloud of squid ink. By his fifth month in office, however, there was widespread awareness that something was the matter with Clinton's decision-making process. The New York Times developed a fixation on his lack of "focus." Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham, who counts things that annoy him, reported that in the month of May the words Clinton and focus appeared in The New York Times 102 times.
In the May 31, 1993 issue, The New Republic published an analysis of Clinton's decision making. The editors were trying to account for Clinton's paralysis and, interestingly, contradicted Clinton's claim that it was due to "too much, too fast":
"The incorrigible Eugene McCarthy put it best, in a recent trip to these offices. The Clinton administration is turning out to be all gerunds; there are no nouns or verbs. Everything is process: happening, formulating, consulting, negotiating, evolving ... [T]he only moment when the president actually seemed to do something that had a beginning, a middle, and an end was his signing of the executive orders liberalizing abortion. And what a long time ago that seems ...
"It is not that he has tried to do too much, as he [has] somewhat lamely claimed. Far from it ... It is that he has failed to find a distinction between constructing a policy and implementing it. It is one long, seamless process of negotiation--intellectual and political--in which there seems to be no firm stopping place."
The New Republic had discovered that Clinton could not distinguish between thinking and doing and could not resolve his deliberations.
It was not, however, until one year later, in the publications I read regularly, that someone almost reached Stan Greenberg's horrifying conclusion. On May 17, 1994, Richard Cohen wrote in The Washington Post that Clinton left "the unmistakable impression of a president who cannot state a goal and then simply march to it." Cohen was still a bit unsure of his own discovery that Clinton could not think purposefully.
In the year in between, journalists zeroed in on Clinton's inability to reach a final decision--his last-minute "flip-flopping." And they trumpeted their observations to the skies. This criticism produced a dramatic and informative clash between Clinton and the press. On June 14, 1993, after three months of changing his mind about a Supreme Court nominee, Clinton finally succumbed to the forces advocating Ruth Bader Ginsburg and presented her to guests and press in a televised ceremony in the Rose Garden. Clinton spoke. Judge Ginsburg spoke. Clinton then turned to the press. Brit Hume of ABC rose to his feet and asked a question: What had caused the protracted "zigzag quality" in the nomination process? Hume knew, the press knew, Clinton knew, and an untold number of citizens knew, that Hume was actually asking Clinton a personal question: Why are you so indecisive? Clinton displayed a cold, controlled anger, chastised the press for being more interested in "political process" than in "substance," and abruptly terminated the press conference, leaving Hume standing there, six feet tall and bright red.
The next day, the country was informed that the president had more to say. Wolf Blitzer, CNN's White House reporter, told his worldwide audience that the president was going to hold a press conference at which he would discuss his achievements to show that he'd been "decisive and in control." The press conference began. Clinton appeared. He listed some legislation and announced to the nation--in the hearing of the world--that his had been "the most decisive presidency you've had in a very long time, on all the big issues that matter."
The reporters of course knew that this was a lie, whether they said so or not. It was not clear that they had understood the important truth that Clinton was telling them by lying--that he could not endure any mention of his indecisiveness.
It seems unlikely that they understood that truth, because there was no muting of the crescendo of criticism of Clinton's indecisiveness. During May, June, and July 1993, the criticism came from voices at every point on the establishment spectrum--from such journalistic luminaries as Cokie Roberts, Elizabeth Drew, Anthony Lewis, Hobart Rowen, and Judy Woodruff. Even The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, who normally would not notice if Clinton turned into a werewolf, conceded in the 16th paragraph of a 17-paragraph column that Clinton was indecisive.
On September 17, 1993, David Shaw, media critic for the Los Angeles Times, criticized the press for unfairly berating Clinton for his indecisiveness. Nevertheless, Shaw himself described that indecisiveness with disdainful accuracy: "Decision making is an excruciating process for Clinton. He almost invariably seems determined to delay a final decision for as long as possible. He likes to ponder publicly all his options, consult people, make a decision, consult anew, change his mind, then change it again. He's a veritable symphony of equivocation."
America's leading journalists were agitated by the very idea of an indecisive president. Since deciding things is nine-tenths of what an American president is supposed to do, their agitation was comprehensible.
A few people, however, thought the president's indecisiveness was funny. They were politically mismatched. One was Jeffrey Klein, editor in chief of the leftist Mother Jones and a Clinton supporter. He erupted in a fit of charming giggles when, invited by C-SPAN to comment on Clinton, he heard himself saying that "Clinton never makes up his mind." Another was Paul Greenberg, conservative editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the creator of the sobriquet Slick Willie. Greenberg was not a giggler, but he was consumed by dry humor. He, too, appeared on C-SPAN to twinkle his eye and to state enigmatically that he had not expected "it" to happen so soon.
He explained what he meant in a column which appeared in The Washington Times titled "Déjà Vu All Over Again." Greenberg discussed the astonishment and indignation of both Democratic congressmen and journalists over "the Clinton two-step." It was "still a novelty in Washington," he said, but was quite familiar to anyone who had spent the last two decades in Arkansas. "They don't understand," he said. "This may be the first time they've seen Bill Clinton step out boldly, then fade away while explaining how decisive he's been."
And somewhere in Arkansas there was a horse laugh, possibly attributable to former Gazette columnist John Brummett, who had said during the campaign that Bill Clinton was not presidential timber, that he was "timid, indecisive, wishy-washy, and a chameleon who tries too hard to get everyone to love him."
There is no evidence that the liberal establishment press learned from their Arkansas colleagues that Clinton's indecisiveness was a problem of at least 20 years' duration. Had they learned that, their question would have been, "Why?" not "What?" But they chased diligently after the what. Newsweek's White House correspondents, writing in different combinations, took turns describing the phenomenon:
* In May 1993, Clinton was described as a "policy wonk" who wallows in details. The writers added, "Clinton will revisit a decision so often that at times he seems like a gardener who uproots his plants to see how they are growing."
* In early June, Newsweek writers referred, with a mixture of friendliness and harshness, to Clinton's "love of detail and obsessive inability to make final decisions."
* At the end of June, Bob Cohn devoted an entire article to the subject. It was called "Decisions, Decisions." In it, Cohn summed up Newsweek's now-clear dislike of the phenomenon: "No one can undecide a decision quite as often as Bill Clinton ... Clinton has had to abandon his grand ideas because he lacks the discipline to make hard choices. The president's three-month search for a Supreme Court justice typifies his tendency towards vacillation. It is more than yet another bungled appointment, it is a case study of the overreaching and dithering that has left Clinton's friends dangling and disappointed his followers."
Newsweek, of course, was not unique. The entire country was being deluged with journalistic criticism of Clinton's indecisiveness. As June turned into July, various polls revealed that, as Bill Schneider of CNN put it, "Clinton's image was wavering and indecisive."
Just as it had become universally known that Clinton tried to do "too much, too fast," so did it become universally known that Clinton was indecisive.
Deja Vu All Over Again
And what happened when everyone in the country knew this? Everyone in the country forgot it. Just as "too much, too fast" vanished at this time, so did indecisiveness vanish. The New, ostensibly decisive, Clinton had arrived. Frightened to death by the possibility of rejection, Clinton begged and bribed Democrats shamelessly to pass his budget. When it passed by one vote in the Senate he declared: "The margin was close but the mandate is clear." He wrapped himself in a protective cloak woven of living presidents and, rejected by a majority of liberals, passed NAFTA with the help of Republicans. How much more decisive could a liberal president be?
A lot more, it turned out. By the end of the year everyone rediscovered Clinton's indecisiveness. His new spinmeister David Gergen apparently leaked the fact that a new, ingenious way of solving Clinton's indecisiveness problem had been found. The December 13, 1993 issue of Newsweek reported dryly, "Most of the requests for private time with Clinton will not be granted, says a top aide, for fear that the president might reverse himself."
Then it was time out for frenetic coverage of Clinton's sex and money scandals before the issue of decisiveness returned. In May 1994, the press discovered to its astonishment that it was observing essentially the same phenomenon it had observed in May 1993.
* On May 14, 1994, when Clinton seemed incapable of nominating another Supreme Court justice, Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal declared irritably on CNN, "Clinton has known for 134 days that he had to replace Blackmun." And Hunt sounded off about Clinton's "vacillation, indecisiveness."
* On May 23, Newsweek portrayed the absurdity of Clinton's "waffling" in greater detail than ever before. It gave the readers a three-day scenario: "On Wednesday the president had been about to nominate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt when he suddenly changed his mind. On Thursday, his choice had been an old Arkansas friend, Judge Richard Arnold, but by Friday, Arnold was out and [Judge Stephen] Breyer was in. 'Let's go,' Clinton announced after yet another last minute phone call, and his staff, stung by a rash of media stories about White House dithering, rushed to carry out the presidential command. But before they could get out the door, Clinton hesitated. Maybe, he mused, he should put Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes on the court. That way he could elevate Baltimore's promising young black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, to the Senate." This, Newsweek reported, caused the president's legal counselor, Lloyd Cutler, to grow "exasperated" and to insist that Clinton decide there and then. And thus did Breyer emerge triumphant from Clinton's "maddening" decision-making process.
* In early June, Clinton again felt impelled to defend himself from the charge of indecisiveness. But this time he got someone else to do it for him. Who better than legal counselor Lloyd Cutler? So there was Cutler, who had been privately "exasperated" by Clinton's indecisiveness, explaining publicly in a long op-ed piece in The Washington Post that the president had not been indecisive at all, that, on the contrary, he had been wonderfully decisive.
And again a whole raft of foreign-policy issues provoked the same press charges of Clinton's indecisiveness: Bosnia had turned into Somalia had turned into Haiti, with Clinton changing his mind every hour on the hour.
Now the national press, too, realized that it was deja vu all over again.
In June 1994, Woodward's Agenda appeared with a shocking passage in it. Leon Panetta, writes Woodward, had been told by campaign aides that Clinton was "deadly slow to make decisions." And then George Stephanopoulos told Panetta something far more troubling: "The worst thing about him," said Stephanopoulos, "is that he never makes a decision." Never? There it sits on page 86 of The Agenda. Never.
Finally, in July 1994, Michael Kelly in The New York Times Magazine wrote: "[I]t is no longer surprising to hear the president spoken of with open and dismissive contempt. In mainstream journalism, and even more so in popular entertainment, President Clinton is routinely depicted in the most unflattering terms: a liar, a fraud, a chronically indecisive man ... " Kelly considers some of this vicious and unfair, but he does not challenge Clinton's indecisiveness. By now, not only every journalist and comic in America knows that Clinton is indecisive but dogs know it; cats know it; the readers of this magazine know it.
So why am I telling you what you already know? Because you don't already know it. You know a concept, "indecisive." And you know a false implication, that indecisiveness is a self-contained phenomenon, that it is like an epileptic seizure--a powerful but limited mental event which suddenly knocks Clinton out at the end of the decision-making process. But it doesn't start at the end, it starts at the beginning. And it is not a decision-making process, it is a decision-killing process. It has six component parts. At one time or another every one of them has been described, but only Woodward has integrated most of them, and that was not his primary purpose. I'll list them, elaborating on components described only by Woodward:
1. Clinton possesses a perfectionism that interferes with the completion of his projects because his standards are never met. According to Woodward, Clinton always wants to produce a solid piece of work. The sight of aides knocking out a document at high speed frightens Clinton because he knows it will not produce intellectually serious work. He wants each aspect of a project to be checked, he wants to consult people he deems to be authoritative sources, and he wants to consider a very broad range of opinion and debate.
Clinton is never satisfied with the work at any stage. Woodward describes Stephanopoulos's reaction to Clinton's unending demands: "He had seen Clinton act like this before, disliking, discarding, or wanting to change what he read. His initial reaction was always to resist, to say no, to force more discussion and debate." What is most irritating to his political advisers is his responsiveness to arguments he has not considered or to which insufficient attention has been paid. He will always want to incorporate them into his project even if they come from a political opponent.
No scholar could object to such standards. But in practice Clinton's standards are never met. The passages in The Agenda that portray Clinton's standards are reported by Lloyd Bentsen and by Stephanopoulos, both of whom see Clinton's unrealizable perfectionism as an expression of what Bentsen calls his intellectual "doubt."
2. Clinton is preoccupied with details to the extent that the major point of his activity is lost. This is precisely what Clinton means when he says he often can't "see the forest for the trees." It is what everyone means when he uses that expression. It means he cannot arrive at or retain the abstract purpose of a project because he is so immersed in the details.
So long as reporters admired Clinton's grasp of details, so long as they described him as "loving" the details, they did not recognize that his preoccupation with details is an epistemologically morbid attribute and assumed that the paralysis comes later on. But it is often, perhaps always, at the very beginning of a project that Clinton loses contact with his abstract purpose.
Of the writers I have read, only Woodward seems to understand clearly that Clinton cannot hold on to the connections between his abstract purposes and the concrete details which are his daily preoccupation. One of the most dramatic sections in The Agenda illustrates the severity of this problem. Almost all reviewers relayed the political story without paying attention to Woodward's accompanying epistemological analysis. To put it simply, Clinton was so preoccupied with the details of the deficit-cutting aspect of his budget that he forgot the rigorous caps that Congress had placed on the "social investment" part of his budget. It was a budget resolution which, says Woodward, the president dealt with every day, but he "didn't grasp what had happened." An aide had to tell him: "Slamming his fist down on the end of his chair, Clinton let loose a torrent of rage and frustration ... Why hadn't they ever had a serious discussion about the caps? Day after day, in dozens of hours in the Roosevelt Room going over the smallest programs and most trivial details, there had been no meeting, no discussion of the caps? The president turned red in the face. Why didn't they tell me? he asked. This is what I was elected for, he said. This is why I am here."
Much later, when Clinton had calmed down, he realized that he bore some responsibility in the matter: "Clinton indicated that he had never quite connected the earlier discussions of that seeming abstraction, 'caps on discretionary spending,' with their impact on his investments. He had never really fully grasped the relationship."
The "investments" were Clinton's most important purpose. He had let that abstraction float away while he was preoccupied with the "most trivial details." Clinton had been paralyzed by the harsh caps on discretionary spending, but the paralysis started the instant, the millisecond, that he severed his abstract purpose from the concrete details in which he immersed himself.
3. Clinton is unable to set priorities among his projects. Indeed, journalists and scholars have clamored incessantly that Clinton cannot set priorities. Asked Princeton scholar Fred Greenstein in Political Science Quarterly, "Why does an intelligent, politically aware leader who knows in his heart that he should 'focus like a laser' begin his presidency in a fashion more reminiscent of a cluster bomb?" Or, as Judy Woodruff put it anxiously to Vice President Al Gore, "Why can't he prioritize?"
This is actually the same problem as the one above but writ large. To know one's priorities, one must know their relationship to one's abstract and overarching purposes. In the case of President Clinton, he would have to know the relationship of his multiplicity of projects--all of them--to the overarching purposes and themes of his presidency. But he forgets them, too.
Woodward shows how it was Clinton's political consultants who realized that "Clinton's presidency was off the tracks in a fundamental way." Stan Greenberg grasped it first and prepared a memo for Clinton, first reviewing it with political consultants James Carville, Paul Begala, and Mandy Grunwald. The memo was dated April 20, 1993, just before the press clamor started. It warned Clinton, says Woodward, that he "had failed to communicate both the central values of his presidency and an organizing idea for his economic program. Side issues such as gays in the military were still getting in the way." The memo recommended that Clinton return to the plan with which he campaigned, and "recreate the vision of jobs, work and responsibility."
But Clinton, Woodward shows, did not know how to emerge from his concrete-bounded world to establish those priorities and goals for his administration or how to focus his thinking on them. Once again Woodward describes a dramatic and terrible moment. After the political consultants gave their analyses in turn to Clinton, the president erupted. "'I know what's wrong!' Clinton finally screamed. 'Give me a strategy.'" He wanted an outline, a plan with instructions: one, two, three. The consultants, Woodward says, continued to talk about "abstract themes, communications, values and ideas." Clinton kept snapping angrily that all he was getting from them was "analysis." What he wanted was a "strategy," a "plan." Says Woodward, "Clinton wanted something concrete."
It is a remarkable fact that the political consultants to President Clinton think far more abstractly than he does and can easily explain his priorities to him. But to Clinton, only the concrete is real, abstractions have no reality--and that is to say that his presidency's themes and goals have no reality. But without them he cannot rank his projects in importance. He cannot set priorities.
4. Clinton's decision making is avoided, postponed, or protracted. This is the phenomenon that draws the journalistic crowds. But as we have seen, the press has been primarily concerned with the end of the drama--the last two or three days, even the last two or three weeks, of vacillation and indecisiveness.
But the entire period of time, often many months, spent in avoiding and postponing a decision, the time spent in sheer procrastination, cannot be severed from the phenomenon of indecisiveness.
Clinton is a spectacular procrastinator. And occasionally, in different political contexts, journalists have expressed amazement over his capacity to avoid accomplishing anything at all. Even Mary McGrory, who is a dedicated member of the choir, has expressed profound irritation over this quality. Under the headline, "Hail All Hail 'William the Procrastinator'," McGrory wrote in The Washington Post (May 20, 1993), "He's too compulsive not to know what's going on and too smart not to know how it looks ... Connect the dots and what you get is a picture of a president who hates to make up his mind ... If he were an English king, they would be calling him 'William the Procrastinator.'"
Two weeks later in the same publication, Ann Devroy and Ruth Marcus interviewed a series of nameless White House officials about Clinton's decision-making process. Even officials who were "reluctant to blame Clinton himself cite as fundamental problems the president's propensity to avoid decisions." Clinton, the aides assured the dubious reporters, had agreed that he must change.
Despite talk of change, nothing changed. A year later, Clinton was still procrastinating. A Washington Post editorial titled "Appointments Dithering" discussed his approach to various appointments and asked irascibly, "Why, in this administration, does it have to be so protracted a process? Why can't the president just do it instead of making such a production out of it?"
From books, one learns that procrastination is in fact characteristic of every aspect of Clinton's political life. In Bill Clinton: As They Know Him, David Gallen reports that during his campaigns Clinton's tardiness was almost institutionalized; he was consistently an hour late. In On the Make, Meredith Oakley tells us he was 40 minutes late to the first joint session of the Arkansas legislature a week after his inauguration. In Strange Bedfellows, Tom Rosenstiel writes that during the presidential campaign everyone campaigning for Clinton managed to be on time for local satellite interviews--Mario Cuomo did 100 of them--but Clinton himself did very few: "To do local satellite interviews you had to run on time. Clinton never did." And Rosenstiel also reports that on election night, "the rejected president came out after 10 o'clock and said all the right things," but that "Clinton made them all wait past midnight, late for his own victory speech." And once in the White House, Clinton continued to be chronically late. George Stephanopoulos, to be funny, wore a black and white sticker around the White House saying, "He's running a few minutes late."
5. Clinton's time is poorly allocated: The most important tasks are left to the last moment. You have surely read two dozen descriptions of Clinton's wild last-minute rush to decision and action when the clock or the calendar will tolerate no delay.
You may also have witnessed one such race with time. In September 1993, Clinton delivered a speech to Congress in which he presented his plan for health-care reform. He arrived at the last conceivable moment. When he began to speak, the TelePrompTer gave him the wrong speech. He had been revising, changing, writing, and rewriting his speech all day and had been deciding and undeciding what it should say until time ran out and frantic aides rushed him to the Congress. In the agitation, an aide running the TelePrompTer hit the wrong button, merging the new speech with another.
Before the mistake was corrected, Clinton spoke without the correct text for seven long minutes. His delivery was only slightly marred. He greatly impressed everyone who did not know that he was relying on an almost photographic memory.
This perpetual leaving of crucial work to the last minute is yet another integral part of Clinton's pattern of paralysis.
6. Clinton insists that others submit to exactly his way of doing things, and is reluctant to allow others to do things because of the conviction they will not do them correctly. In the first month of Clinton's administration, the press learned that Clinton refused to delegate authority. David Broder analyzed Clinton's first appointments and quoted "Clinton insiders" who observed, delicately, that the choices revealed "Clinton's intent to keep the policy reins firmly in his own hands."
Five months later, in June, Newsweek investigated managerial problems in the White House and reported that Secretary of State Warren Christopher and attorney Vernon Jordan had "told Clinton that the problem began with him" and urged him to delegate some of his decision-making power.
Five months after that, in November 1993, Ann Devroy reported in The Washington Post: "Clinton, by most accounts, wants only one person to be in charge: himself."
And Al Hunt in The Wall Street Journal observed that "the White House, taking its cue from its leader, is a managerial nightmare." Hunt further reported: "One of the smartest Democratic hands in this city is appalled by the president's style. 'He lacks any discipline, he hates planning or strategic thinking, and he doesn't want to be surrounded by bright, independent-thinking people.'"
A half year later came The Agenda, in which Woodward relayed the exact words Lloyd Bentsen had addressed to the president when he implored him to delegate more power: "I've sat beside you when somebody else is talking at one of these meetings, and I watch your eyes just fog over." Bentsen told Clinton he was passing out at meetings because he was trying to make all decisions and to go without sleep. The older man told the younger he simply had to stop. Clinton agreed sorrowfully, says Woodward, but things did not change.
Clinton's refusal to delegate authority is the final component in his paralysis. By distrusting others to live up to his standards, by insisting on holding on to all power, he turns his own disordered and exhausted consciousness into a bottleneck through which all decisions must pass--and he does this even as he flees constantly from the burden of making decisions. His mind is like a Rube Goldberg machine set to throttle itself.
This is the Clinton who, even as he complains that he does "too much, too fast," even as he blames public rejection on his "doing too much, too fast," even as he vows year after year that he will stop "doing too much, too fast," senses in some unacknowledged realm of his being that he is paralyzed and cannot move.
It is unsurprising that Clinton desperately needs Hillary's "brains, logic, and focus." He is too damaged to function without an epistemological crutch. And it is unsurprising that, while she was preoccupied with her health-care project, Clinton had another epistemological crutch with him all day long: George Stephanopoulos. In a Time article, April 4, 1994, Stephanopoulos's function as an epistemological support system to Clinton was clearly described. Writer David Van Biema quoted Kiki Moore, a former aide to Clinton, as saying, "George has an innate knowledge of the president's thought process." And Van Biema reported that Stephanopoulos was the president's "policy body man" who hovered near the president all day, "providing continuity and calculating each issue's relative importance."
This interesting job consisted of providing Clinton with the logical integrations he cannot perform and with the priorities he cannot identify.
Van Biema also interviewed press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who said of Stephanopoulos, "He's the place where all things come together. He is the one person who doesn't lose the forest for the trees." Stephanopoulos has been one of the solutions to the problem Clinton confided to Arsenio Hall.
Clinton's cognitive paralysis does not exist in a void. It exists in a context, and it is not static. It affects others, it affects Clinton himself, and ultimately it affects his presidency. The most visible effect, which has appalled the political-media establishment, is the disorder that reigns at the White House. In the course of the publicity debut of The Agenda on 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace said incredulously to Woodward, "Chaos?" And Woodward replied unsmilingly, "Chaos. Absolute chaos." It was not that Wallace or his audience had not heard something like that before. Clinton's White House had already been advertised by Al Hunt in The Wall Street Journal as a "managerial nightmare." But chaos is a far more terrible word, with metaphysical and evolutionary repercussions: It is reality before it has been ordered by consciousness. And that is what Woodward intended to convey. Embodied in a political narrative, The Agenda is a primordial drama in which crippled consciousness cannot create order.
One can fix "a managerial nightmare." One cannot fix crippled consciousness. One cannot fix Bill Clinton.
It appears to calm the nerves of the editors of The Washington Post to analyze the Clinton White House as though the Post were a management consultant and the White House a client. Its editorials set forth simple organizational errors and recommend sound changes--all in a disturbed, even irritated, voice. Clinton, they say, "seemed to countenance--and, thus, authorize--the unstructured, fragmented, weak-accountability, free-form professional lifestyle that has marked his White House."
But editorials are too short to convey the magnitude of the problem. So on March 28, 1994, Post Editorial Page Editor Meg Greenfield used her column in Newsweek to describe it in detail. And the details are deadly. One can only list some of the subjects Greenfield discusses--all of them manifestations of grotesque irresponsibility.
After making her devotions before the altar of "balance," Greenfield considers:
* "The tendency in the Clinton White House to finesse accountability for much of what goes on."
* The "almost blithe disregard of the importance of establishing lines of responsibility for actions in government."
* The role of Mrs. Clinton, "who wields enormous derivative power without any visible institutional check on it."
* The existence of "endless White House aides, the swarmers, who are more or less into everything but held to account for nothing."
* The meetings with "large hodge-podges of wanderers in, of kibitzers from down the hall."
* The "awful lot of important people who are known as 'in and outers'--friends, consultants and so forth who come and go and who have a considerable influence over decisions the government then makes--but who in no way have to deal with the ill effects (or ill repute) when what they counsel goes wrong."
The White House is presumed to be the brain and central nervous system of the presidency. As portrayed by Greenfield in Newsweek, the Clinton White House is the brain and central nervous system of an idiot.
Greenfield reaches the conclusion that only Clinton "can fix this, because it couldn't occur if he didn't let it happen." In saying that, Greenfield is looking reality in the face. Then, a few sentences later, she flinches and looks away. She advises Clinton "to intervene," as if, somehow, he were separate and separable from the chaos.
But Clinton is not separable from the chaos. It is his chaos. Left to his own devices, Clinton always generates chaos around him.
That is what young Hillary Rodham discovered when she joined young Clinton in Arkansas as he was campaigning in his very first election in 1974. All biographers tell the same story in greater or lesser detail. Norman King, in Hillary: Her True Story, writes: "Hillary was stunned at the absolutely anarchic lack of discipline at Clinton's headquarters. Instinctively, she stepped in and began turning things rightside up. Soon enough she was barking out commands. The words 'Hillary said' became a cry that everyone heeded."
This has been Hillary's function from that day to this. It is her consciousness that has always imposed order on Clinton's chaos.
There are actually two islands of order suspended in the primordial Clinton mess: the self-contained universes of Vice President Gore and of the first lady. In a foray into comparative epistemology, Eleanor Clift writes in Newsweek (September 13, 1993) that where Clinton runs a meeting "throwing out ideas and endlessly circling the subject," Gore is linear. Linear, of course, is the post-Marshall McLuhan word for purposeful, logical thinking. Gore is intellectually organized, says Clift; he is "focused," and so is his operation.
The other island of order is Mrs. Clinton's. She has a bigger staff than does the vice president, and it is the very model of efficient organization. In Time (March 21, 1994), Nancy Gibbs transmits a description of Hillary's work universe from Ann Wexler, a career Democrat who was a "senior officer" in the Carter White House. Said Wexler: "[Hillary's] operation is the most organized, the most focused, the most coordinated, and the most disciplined in the White House."
Gibbs says two other significant things:
* Mrs. Clinton moves throughout the various activities of the Clinton White House at will: "Hillary functions in the White House rather like the queen on a chess board. Her power comes from her unrestricted movements."
* And conversely, Clinton and his staff always consult Hillary. Staffers "chart her moves and interests with as much care as his. Few were hired without an audience with her; when the President has a question about almost any sensitive issue that arises the refrain is the same: 'Run this past Hillary.'"
Time is supplementing Greenfield's analysis. In Time, the brain and the central nervous system of the White House is not exactly the brain of an idiot. It is the brain of Hillary Clinton, which she shares with her cognitively crippled, acutely dependent husband. As Woodward put it, she is part of Clinton's brain. As Woodward didn't put it, this does not add up to one single, decently functioning mind.
Now, a brief look at the impact of Clinton's cognitive damage on him. Specifically, we will look at how he responds emotionally to his predicament. The most important and least surprising fact about Clinton's emotional state is that he is in pain. As he circles endlessly around his unresolved policy conflicts, he lives in an epistemological hell. In all the publications and books I have read, I have found only four people who see him as a real human being who is suffering. David Gergen, quoted by Woodward, describes Clinton as being in "psychological anguish." Lloyd Bentsen, cited by Woodward, describes Clinton as revealing intellectual "doubt." At the very end of a long article about Clinton, Joe Klein of Newsweek, with no contextual preparation, drops in a single word, "tortured." And when David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times wrote about Clinton, he said that decision making for Clinton was an "excruciating" process--which clearly implies pain or suffering. These are insightful and deeply sympathetic reactions to Clinton, but this perspective is rare.
By contrast, Clinton's defenses against pain and suffering are almost universally observed. Because all are tied to, if not solely caused by, his cognitive deficiencies, and because they have had dreadful effects on his presidency, I'll list three of them. You know them already:
* Clinton values work and productivity, but only as a means to status and power. By his own say-so, he has valued nothing more than status and power since he was young. He is always aware of his relative status in power relationships. And he is extremely sensitive to criticism, especially if it comes from people with high status and power. His record of "caving" under pressure, of betraying both principles and people, is due most fundamentally to his lack of confidence in his own mind. In the face of an array of power, he capitulates. He has betrayed every significant group in the Democratic party and numerous friends to win favor with their enemies. The loyalty he commands from his natural political allies is paper thin.
* Clinton's mind is out of control. He has an unusually strong need to be in control of factors outside of him. When he is unable to control others, he grows angry, although the anger is usually not expressed directly. His entire relationship with the national press has been a covert battle for control, and it has been far more intense than you may know. See Tom Rosenstiel's Strange Bedfellows for a shocking report on the spying by the Clinton campaign on the national press during the presidential campaign.
* Clinton's perfectionist demands, which delay and inhibit his decision making, are due in great part, as Lloyd Bentsen says so diplomatically, to his intellectual "doubt." Clinton is inordinately afraid of making mistakes. He is in so far over his head, over his capacity to do the work required for the presidency, that he exists in a state of terror. It apparently builds up in the night, and, according to Woodward, the next morning he vomits out the accumulated terror all over George Stephanopoulos in the form of uncontrolled explosions of rage. Clinton's eyes bulge, his face grows scarlet, he yells, he screams, he shrieks. While Clinton is quite capable of controlling this rage and conceals it from the public--it has only been glimpsed by accident and briefly--he does not control it in private. According to Meg Greenfield, he takes his rage out on vulnerable members of his family and on employees--on those over whom he has power.
Stand back and look at all these defenses against pain and fear: Clinton is traitorous. Clinton is a devious manipulator. Clinton grovels before the powerful. Clinton bullies the weak.
These are the attributes of Clinton that are known in both his public and his private life to those he has conned and betrayed. They co-exist with what Joe Klein calls "his relentless huggy, weepy emotionalism"--and relentless is a significant word. Huggy and weepy in this pale-eyed man with the eternally crooked smile are also manipulative weapons.
These do not begin to exhaust Clinton's defensive repertoire. But they are enough to explain waning political support. All of the epistemological problems and all of the emotional defenses listed under "I Can't Move" and "Chaos" are too well known for Clinton to win sustained respect.
There is only one Clinton defense mentioned so far that does not fit this pattern. It is the mysterious one--the strange robotic repetition of "I do too much, too fast," that broken record that Clinton plays in all ears, especially when public approval drops and when important people criticize him.
Do we have a better idea now of what this half-boast, half-lament might mean? We are certainly in a better position to speculate. Clinton, to repeat, prizes work and productivity, almost to the exclusion of pleasure and interpersonal relationships. He knows they are the crucial means to his end: status and power. But the subject of productivity fills him with dread, because he is cognitively paralyzed. When he recites monotonously that he tries "to do too much, too fast," or that he sometimes "works hard but not smart," he is actually saying, "I am very intelligent. I work terribly hard. I am not slow, I am fast. I think and I work with great speed." It seems painfully clear that with those words Clinton is denying his cognitive paralysis and is asserting his self-worth.
And he has been doing this over and over and over again for more than 15 years.
But in one way, the "I do too much, too fast" phenomenon still remains mysterious, because that mechanically recited formula is both a boast and a lament. It is as if Clinton, in robotically asserting pride, is also robotically confessing shame. It reminds one of that strange pledge he made before entering the governor's office in Arkansas, that he would "try not to do everything at once." He seems to be saying that he is under some kind of compulsion to do something irrational--something involving intellectual scattershot, something involving speed.
It is not surprising that of all the questions asked at the beginning of this article, and all the questions answered, that this one endlessly reiterated formula of pride, of shame--of helpless, disintegrating racing--remains the code that is hardest to break.
In a New York Times Magazine article (March 8, 1992), Peter Applebome reports the following information: As a result of Roger Clinton's jail sentence for drug trafficking, the Clinton family went through counseling sessions in which Bill Clinton participated. Clinton told Applebome that his principal discovery about human relationships was this: "I finally realized how my compulsive and obsessive ambition got in the way."
There is no reason to doubt that Clinton was diagnosed as being "compulsive and obsessive," since that is what journalists have been documenting since Clinton entered the White House.
All of Clinton's thinking problems and emotional defenses described in this article are symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder as identified by the American Psychiatric Association. (See Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd edition revised, pages 354-356.) In fact, I have used their words to introduce each psychological trait and I have italicized them to call them to your attention. You will recognize them from my text.
The diagnostic literature says that at least five of the criteria of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder must be present to identify someone as suffering from this disorder. Here are five that describe Clinton:
1. Perfectionism that interferes with task completion, e.g. inability to complete a project because [the person's] own overly strict standards are not met.
2. Preoccupation with details...to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost.
3. Unreasonable reluctance to allow others to do things because of a conviction that they will not do them correctly.
4. Excessive devotion to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships.
5. Indecisiveness: decision making is either avoided, postponed, or protracted, e.g. the person cannot get assignments done on time because of ruminating about priorities.
1. No matter how good an accomplishment is, the person does not feel it "good enough."
2. The person allocates time poorly; the most important tasks are left to the last moment.
3. The person usually keeps postponing the pleasurable activity, such as a vacation, so that it may never occur.
4. The person may avoid or postpone decision making because of an inordinate fear of making a mistake.
5. The person may experience considerable distress because of the indecisiveness.
6. The person has an unusually strong need to be in control. When unable to control others, he often ruminates and becomes angry.
7. The person is often extremely sensitive to social criticism, especially if it comes from someone with considerable status or authority.
I have omitted several symptoms about which I have read nothing or which clearly do not describe Clinton, but the vast majority do describe him. That is why the clinical language readily served to introduce journalistic observations.
These psychological classifications are not fixed. Their boundaries are not absolutes. But they are not tone poems or impressionist paintings either. What journalists have been observing about Clinton for two years, what Clinton calls "my compulsive and obsessive ambition," conforms strikingly to the clinical descriptions above.
Personality disorders range from the mildest of cases to the acutely severe. And there are also psychotic forms of these disorders. Clinton clearly is not psychotic--he is not "crazy." But his problem is nonetheless severe.
Its severity is captured by its duration, by his dependence on his wife and on Stephanopoulos, and by the fact that he has found it impossible to conceal the problem from the press. And it is captured most shockingly by the word Stephanopoulos uttered to Panetta: never. To say that Clinton "never" makes a political or policy decision may be exaggerated. But even if exaggerated, it communicates the intensity of the problem. Only acute distress over Clinton's cognitive paralysis could inspire Stephanopoulos to use the word never.
It is important to remember that Clinton's indecisiveness--his paralysis--is not consciously acknowledged. He is literally unaware of it. It is surrounded by a Chinese wall of rationalization, reinterpretation, and evasion. He does not even have language to describe it. He only knows that he tries "to do too much, too fast." "I can't move" is the expression I have given him.
And he surely does not know that beneath this Chinese wall, yet another psychological conflict lies buried. It, too, first presents itself in an incoherent confidence to an interviewer and it too must be decoded. But this time, you will see, the voyage into Clinton's conflicts comes to an end, leaving only the consequences to contemplate.
THE SECOND CONFLICT
"It's a very difficult thing to be raised with a myth. All of my relatives tried to make it a positive rather than a negative thing. But I think I always felt, in some sense, that I should be in a hurry in life, because it gave me a real sense of mortality.
"I mean, most kids never think about when they're going to have to run out of time, when they might die. I thought about it all the time because my father died at 29 before I was born. By the same token, I feel as if I've had a very full life. I mean, whatever happens to me, I've already outlived him by years. And I think it's one reason I was always in such a hurry to do things--which is both good and bad ...
"But any way, I think when I was younger that's one of the reasons I was always in a hurry. And I also think I thought I had to live for myself and for him, too. I sort of had to meet a very high standard of conduct and accomplishment, in part because of his absence." -- Bill Clinton discussing the death of his father before he was born, in an interview with Charles Allen, March 15, 1991
We clearly see here the roots of one theme in Bill Clinton's psychology that we have already encountered in a different form: "hurry," the rapid, racing, staccato theme of "I do too much, too fast." But there is a second theme here: "death." When a child ruminates about his own death "all the time," the first thing one thinks of is depression. And depression, which immobilizes people, seems to evoke the second familiar theme--"I can't move."
As Bill Clinton experienced them in childhood, the themes of inertia, his "I can't move," and of action, his "too much, too fast," were originally "I'm going to die when I'm young" and "I must hurry to do things." I foreshorten them here to "death" and "hurry."
Clinton has not identified depression in himself as far as I know. That has not kept people from continuously talking about it and writing about it. What kind of depression we do not know--there are many kinds--but Clinton seems to have had sleeping and eating disorders since he was young, with intermittent periods of crashing self-esteem. These symptoms show up in all types of depression. Childhood
In addition to thinking about death "all the time," Clinton ate too much as a child: Soon after he was elected, this psychology-conscious president staged an encounter session with formal "facilitators" at Camp David to encourage his new cabinet members to "bond" with each other. The session leaked, and Newsweek on February 15, 1993, published the following item: "[Clinton] talked about how he was a fat kid when he was 5 or 6 and how the other kids taunted him." Georgetown
In college, classmates noticed that Clinton didn't sleep much. His roommate Tom Campbell repeats what Clinton told him: "During freshman year, he developed that habit, he says, of sleeping only four hours a night, and then taking a couple of 20 minute naps during the day." Campbell says Clinton also told him that he had a deliberate policy of not sleeping, because "Napoleon and all the great leaders" got by on very little sleep.
Clinton was glamorizing his insomnia.
In his early 20s, Clinton entered into correspondence with his draft board, writing the letter which has been so highly publicized. A section in Clinton's letter to Col. Eugene Holmes dated December 3, 1969, says: "At that time, after we made our agreement and you had sent my 1-D deferment to my draft board, the anguish and loss of my self-regard and self-confidence really set in. I hardly slept for weeks and kept going by eating compulsively and reading until exhaustion brought sleep." In this letter, Clinton does not compare himself to Napoleon and other great leaders but reports, in adult language, on a crashed self-esteem, severe insomnia, and "eating compulsively." Arkansas 1980
By this time, the Sun King had made his appearance, the man who was ravenously hungry for adulation. It was the Sun King who was expelled from the Arkansas governorship after one term. The massive rejection was a frightful blow to Clinton, and his reactions as he grasped what was happening to him are painful to read.
Kathy McClanahan, a childhood friend of Clinton, told David Gallen about Clinton's hysterical weeping when he realized he was losing the election, and how he hid in the bottom of the back seat of her car so that no one could see him. It was an extraordinarily appropriate reaction for a man whose sense of reality is dependent on the perceptions of others.
Some biographers after interviewing his political friends report that he rebounded briskly from the shock of defeat. Some biographers tell a different story--that following his defeat, Clinton withdrew into partial seclusion and suffered for a few months from depression. Some say it was severe and even dangerous; some say it was mild. There is no earthly way to know.
What one can know, because Clinton has described it, is the depth of his despair during that period of defeat. In a May 1992 article in Vanity Fair, Gail Sheehy reported that "Bill remembers during this dark period being haunted by a sense of imminent death."
That "sense of imminent death" could not be seen from the outside, but what could be seen is appalling to read about. It was the hysteria of the Sun King trying frantically to understand the loss of the highest value of his life, and his struggle to find a way to get it back. Clinton abased himself before the Arkansas electorate: He pleaded, he begged, he apologized, he groveled. He tried to clasp the hands of everyone in the state of Arkansas to ask forgiveness. It is quite clear that Clinton's self-esteem had crashed.
Of all the published interpretations of this period in Clinton's life, by far the most interesting and important comes from Charles Allen, an Arkansas educator whose Ph.D. thesis became The Comeback Kid, and Jonathan Portis, with whom Allen wrote the book. Portis is a former editor at the Arkansas Gazette and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis and has observed Clinton in action since the 1970s: "Clinton is a captive to his fear of losing ... [His loss in] 1980, when he was tossed out of the governor's chair for two years, crushed Clinton's self-esteem and sent him into an emotional tailspin. He became withdrawn, muttering to his friends that Arkansas didn't deserve a man of his ability. He now professes to believe that he learns more from tough times than from easy experiences. What he learned in 1980 is that a political loss, especially one that threatens his career, hits him deep in the psyche. Losing made him terrified of losing." (Emphasis added.) It was for this reason, say Allen and Portis, that Clinton will do anything and say anything to win--that is to say, he will do anything and say anything not to lose.
The Presidential Campaign
Here, representatives of the national press got their first close look at Clinton. In between the political coverage and the coverage of Clinton's most striking lies--about the draft and about adultery--reporters learned about some of Clinton's symptoms: the nonstop eating, the nights with only a few hours of sleep, the explosions of rage. Some of this, particularly the eating, which was visible, trickled into the news coverage. Most of it did not.
ABC correspondent Chris Bury, interviewed by David Gallen when the campaign was over, knew he was looking at psychological difficulties: "Everybody in the press bus thought that [Clinton] performed poorest in the morning and that he was kind of sluggish. I don't know if depressed is the right word, but he was often off and he didn't really get going until late in the day when he gave his best performances.
"He's an extraordinary performer and if he was able to mask depression and anger and other emotions which might leave others with a negative perception, I think he did a good job of it."
Bury, who found Clinton to be a "masterful politician," was most afflicted by Clinton's dishonesty: "I think he's got a terrible problem with the truth ... " As Tom Rosenstiel shows in Strange Bedfellows, many, perhaps most, journalists who covered the Clinton campaign knew that Clinton had told serious lies. But the most astute among them also came away from the campaign with the uneasy sense that Bill Clinton seemed to be suffering from and "masking" some kind of depression.
After his first six chaotic months in office, during which Clinton lurched from one self-made crisis to another and the public opinion polls dropped like stones, a rumor sped from the White House to the press. Frightened aides were whispering to reporters: "He's lost his confidence."
Margaret Carlson in Time reported, "His downward spiral in popularity and his shift in positions are creating a sense of public vertigo. More than ever, Americans regard their new president with two nagging questions: Is he up to the job? And, What does he stand for? One long-time friend who spoke with the president by telephone last week reported that he never sounded 'so sad in his life.'"
And then, after the president named Gergen as his adviser, the story changed. Dan Balz and Ann Devroy of The Washington Post wrote, "The impact on Clinton [of Gergen's appointment] has been noticeable to his advisers: 'He had become so uncertain thatall the political surefootedness that he used to be known for was gone,' says one. 'That is starting to turn around.'"
This is the same period when the New Clinton had suddenly become decisive and had suddenly stopped doing "too much, too fast." Now he had suddenly become self-confident. The reporters had no idea just how fragile was the president's self- esteem.
But the Gergen solution didn't last. By August 1994, Clinton's administration was again in a chaotic state, again facing a hostile Congress, again in danger of losing on its major initiatives. The polls again crashed, this time to their lowest level to date. And reports of black emotions again began to leak from the White House. Again, Clinton confronted the possibility of political death, and again it hit him "deep in the psyche."
Jack Nelson and John M. Broder of the Los Angeles Times (August 26, 1994) said the president and first lady were describing the political hostility they encountered as a "surreal nightmare." Depicting "an intensely frustrated Clinton," Ann Devroy and Dan Balz reported (Washington Post, August 14, 1994): "Associates describe Clinton as having struggled through a period of intense anger and bitterness, combined with a belief that no other president had been as mistreated by the news media and by partisan opponents."
One "associate" said Clinton has compared the situation to his loss in Arkansas--the loss that left him, in Gail Sheehy's paraphrase of his words, "haunted by a sense of imminent death."
We cannot know his present state. All we know is that a panic-stricken Clinton, who will do anything not to lose, has for the first time agreed to delegate authority. He has ceded unprecedented power to his new chief of staff, Leon Panetta.
Clinton has also communicated his despair with an analogy. Nelson and Broder report that he has been "comparing himself to Ahab, locked in a death embrace with Moby Dick in the form of an unruly Congress. The beast keeps dragging him under and he can barely catch his breath before another dive carries him down again."
When a well-known person tells a preposterous lie about himself--the kind of lie that everyone who knows him or who has worked with him or for him or has read about him knows to be untrue--there is always a strong possibility that he does not know he is lying and that he is denying something about himself that he cannot endure to allow into consciousness. There is something about Clinton's "hurry"--his "hurry to do things" because he might die young--that caused him to tell such a lie.
In the same long interview with Charles Allen on March 15, 1991, in which Clinton communicated his incoherent and childish "hurry" problem, he also gave an adult name to that problem. He described himself as "compulsively overactive."
He told Allen proudly that he was the kind of person "who just likes to organize every minute of the day," immediately observing that he is "compulsively overactive."
Clinton's portrayal of himself as superlatively organized was a staggering untruth. Clinton has always been supremely disorganized. He has always functioned in chaos. He has never adhered to a schedule. And his chronic lateness is measured by intervals of half hours and hours, not minutes.
In making that statement to Allen, Clinton was violently denying some of his most obvious and politically damaging characteristics.
The strange statement is also reminiscent of something we have seen before. Like "I try to do too much, too fast," it is a boast combined with a lament. Clinton was proud of his "compulsive overactivity" but by redefining his compulsion as organization, he was revealing shame.
For Clinton, the entire phenomenon of "hurry" contains some component over which he is in deep conflict.
Before we can begin to fathom the meaning of that conflict, however, we must understand the nature of Clinton's "compulsive overactivity." The symptoms are so obvious, and so disturbing, that they have generated whispering within the administration and, startlingly, a diagnosis among psychology-conscious members of the public.
Based on the few scattered memories of the young Clinton in print, it seems he has been compulsively overactive, has been hurrying, all his life: He and his mother report that, as a child, he got a D in conduct for talking too much and not giving the other children a chance to answer the teacher's questions; he says, "I could never keep my mouth shut"; a high-school friend recalls that "it was hard for him to relax really, and just take it easy"; while at Oxford, he wrote to a friend that aside from the "unavoidable" library work, he was "continuously on the move"; he later recalled that he spent his first two weeks at Oxford walking 14 hours a day.
More detailed observations start with Clinton's entry into public life, when reporters began to observe him. One of the first things they discovered was his extreme distractibility.
Arkansas news reporter Anne Jackson, speaking to David Gallen, has many memories of Clinton as governor. Talking about Clinton's chronic lateness, she says, "Clinton is one of those people who is distracted by people, and by stories, and by things. I mean, he's like a kid in a candy store about the environment around him. He'll see something, and if it gets his attention, he's gone. There's no clock in his head."
A particularly striking description of Clinton's distractibility, but one in which Clinton--now a presidential candidate--is avidly pursuing such distractions, comes from former UPI correspondent Steve Buel. Buel describes what he saw at 11:30 p.m., after a "grueling day" of campaigning: "I went to the gift shop looking for a copy of the Sunday New York Times and suddenly, I felt almost like there were too many electrons or something. Clinton had come in. He's looking at the shelves and browsing ... [H]e's been at it nonstop for 18 hours and my butt's kicked, but he's wired, walking the edges of this gift shop, picking up magazines and flipping through them and picking up Sidney Sheldon-type novels and picking up North Carolina tourist curios and it's like he's eating the wall of the place. He's just picking the stuff up and it doesn't satisfy his need for stimulus ... He's the ultimate stimulus junkie; at 11:30 at night he needs more. He's almost like one of those Japanese monster-movie characters that the more people it eats, the bigger it gets ... I buy my newspaper and flee."
The same kind of information emerged from the White House once Clinton was president. He boasted to a C-SPAN reporter who interviewed him in the Oval Office that "sometimes I read four or five books at once," adding "I never finish them but I get the gist of them."
And Newsweek reporters Eleanor Clift and Bob Cohn, with Jonathan Alter and Joe Klein, spent a week at the White House "to chronicle seven days in the life of a president" and reported in the July 12, 1993 issue: "During the campaign, his advisers observed that Clinton seemed most in his element when he was watching two TVs, conducting three conversations, playing cards, and eating--all at once. The challenge for his aides--and particularly for his wife, Hillary--has always been to slow him down and make him focus on one thing at a time."
It appears that even when Clinton relaxes he tries to do everything at once.
His most striking activity, however, is talking. As Leon Wieseltier observes, Clinton has "a horror of silence." His capacity for talk is legendary. During the presidential campaign, Clinton customarily talked for 12 to 16 hours a day, leaving his entourage of reporters, photographers, chauffeurs, and pilots dropping in their tracks. As governor of Arkansas, Oakley reports, he was given to regaling the press with half-hour-long "stream of consciousness monologues" until his own press officer dragged him away. Woodward also reports on Clinton's "monologues" and describes him as "rambling on inconclusively," or as holding "endless, rambling policy seminars." David Broder says that Clinton has a "penchant for talking issues to death." Jonathan Alter in Newsweek reports that Clinton "thinks out loud in endless meetings" and that he can "talk for seven hours and not notice the time."
Clinton not only talks all day, but even when he is alone, he talks into the wee hours of the night. He telephones people late at night, when they are asleep or going to sleep, with no awareness of their possible discomfort.
Occasionally, a reporter grasps that something strange, something irrational, is going on. Meredith Oakley writes, "[Clinton] becomes very restless when left alone and seeks out conversation, however mundane or inconsequential." And later, "He is almost compulsive in seeking people; many of those midnight telephone calls for which he is famous have no bearing on politics or business of any kind. Sometimes he has no more in his mind than contact with another human being ... "
Clinton's continual talking has caused him immense political trouble, both at home and abroad. And journalists, among others, have criticized him sharply for the results. Thus, Murray Kempton wrote in the Los Angeles Times when Clinton had abandoned his pledges to the Bosnian Muslims: "William J. Clinton is an undisciplined and inveterate babbler. That habit, while tiresome, is comparatively harmless in the ordinary realms of life, but grievously damaging to any president who cannot shake it off. The loosest-lipped of us might be wary of babbling if we remembered that words have consequences inescapable for an American president, for Clinton occupies an office from which no babble can emanate without carrying the risk of being mistaken for a statement of fixed intention."
And, on the domestic front, the awareness of Clinton's "babbling" is repeatedly identified as a threat to his dignity and authority. Thus, Ann Devroy writes in The Washington Post (May 22, 1994), "For Clinton, there is virtually nothing he won't comment on, and a normal day for him brings a gush of speeches, statements, remarks, and photo session interviews. Even some of his own aides lament, as one did recently, that he has 'cheapened the currency' of the presidency this way."
Such observers are making valid points. But after chastising Clinton and, effectively, telling him to shut up, they do not ask why he babbles, and why, even when the entire national press corps seems dedicated to the goal of telling him to shut up, he keeps on talking.
Every once in a while, however, a journalist reveals an awareness of a deeper problem. Matthew Cooper, reporting on the summit in Tokyo for U.S. News & World Report, July 19, 1993, writes: "[N]ot every moment in Tokyo was enjoyable for Bill Clinton. On a personal level, he had to endure his own version of hell: sitting silently.
"At the first meeting of the heads of state, he was surprised to find out that all the leaders were to speak one at a time. Clinton sat listening to interminable speeches, especially from French president François Mitterand, before he got to chime in.
"'He found it extremely confining,' says an aide."
The teacher who gave the young Clinton a D in conduct because he would not take turns and give the other children a chance would not have been surprised. Nor would the legions of people he has torn out of deep sleep to talk to him. Sitting silently has always been Bill Clinton's "version of hell."
But it is only in silence that one can concentrate and that one can think. And, repeatedly, those who are politically closest to Bill Clinton--those who feel able to advise him--have implored him to take time off from the incessant talking so that he can find the time to think. Whenever Clinton agrees, it is considered news, though the adviser usually does not speak to the press directly about it. But at least once, a major political figure, Vice President Al Gore, has told the press what he advised Clinton to do.
Kenneth T. Walsh reported in U.S. News & World Report on July 19, 1993: "White House advisers say Gore brings to the White House several important traits that the president lacks, including self-discipline and in a strange twist, Clinton has begun emulating Gore ... As Clinton's approval ratings dropped in recent weeks, the vice president gave his friend some blunt advice: Pace yourself, get your schedule under control and set aside more private time to collect your thoughts. Clinton finally agreed. 'Everybody around the president has advised him to take more time off,' Gore told U.S. News."
Clinton did not then, or at any other time, keep his promise to set aside more private time "to collect his thoughts." He can't "collect" them, and it is a promise he can't keep. It is not a matter of "self-discipline." It is a matter of being unable to shut his mouth--save under very special circumstances, when he sees a clear-cut advantage in listening or being silent.
Recently, as the polls have dived to their lowest point since the election, all these criticisms and recommendations have again welled up in print. They are being published as I write these words. And almost always, certain things are assumed: that Clinton can voluntarily change his ways, that Clinton can "collect his thoughts," that Clinton can use quiet private time to think.
But there is evidence now that some people have finally grasped that those assumptions about Clinton are false, that Clinton's problem is located in the realm of attention.
On August 20, 1994, the most overt expression of concern appeared in an article by R.W. Apple Jr. of The New York Times: "The question now, therefore, is how long the President, whose attention can wander like a teen-ager's on Saturday night, manages to keep himself squarely on target."
The condescension is undisguised. The teenager on a Saturday night is intended to be amusing. But one thing is deadly serious. Apple is identifying a "wandering" attention span.
Two other references to the same phenomenon are entirely covert. One can be found in a passage in Woodward's book. Another appears in a comment by a "senior diplomat" speaking anonymously to John M. Goshko of The Washington Post--both in the summer of 1994.
Woodward's passage will give you little new information about Clinton, save for one word, which I have italicized: "At night the president attended a social event or a working or family dinner. Then he would flit among the kitchen, his bedroom, the living room, the family room, and the office in the residence. Little piles of paper that he was reading would accumulate. He would watch some TV, call people, or get into long, late-night conversations with a visitor known or unknown to Stephanopoulos."
And the anonymous senior diplomat says something equally significant, and again I have italicized it: "[Secretary of State Warren] Christopher has tried to keep a steady course but he has been hampered by Clinton's tendency to flitter between issues like a butterfly."
People who use verbs like flit and flitter have large vocabularies and know exactly what they are trying to convey: They are saying that Clinton cannot concentrate.
An inability to concentrate is a disturbing attribute in a president, and one can understand people using code language to communicate with each other about it. They are wasting their time, however. The latest embarrassment to hit Clinton is a mass diagnosis of him as suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. That is the childhood disorder, which can continue in adulthood, that is characterized by a scattered mind, an inability to concentrate, and acute distractibility. According to Time (July 18, 1994), people with the disorder have decided that Clinton is one of their number. And Wired (June 1994) has carried an article by Evan I. Schwartz saying that some 7,000 sufferers from the disorder are logging onto the Attention Deficit Disorder Forum on CompuServe, where they acquire knowledge about the disorder, offer each other support and encouragement--and discuss famous people who they think share their symptoms. One of these famous people, says Schwartz, is Clinton.
The bizarre truth is that the president has become the poster boy of the Attention Deficit world. And Schwartz explains why. He describes the most important characteristics of a person with ADD as "ashort attention span" and "a multitasking mind"--a mind that seeks to perform many tasks simultaneously.
He then elaborates: "Those afflicted are constantly scanning their environment seeking for all things captivating. They may read lots of books, but they finish few ... They're news junkies and channel-clickers/cable-surfers. In conversation, they often detour into parenthetical tangents, never returning to the main point ... They juggle too many projects and are chronically late. But when something grabs their full attention, they can launch into hyperfocus marathons that last well into the night. It's not so much that they lack the ability to pay attention. It's more that they cannot control what they pay attention to and how long their attention lasts."
It is easy to understand why Attention Deficit sufferers want to claim Clinton as their own, but they are probably deluding themselves. Clinton's record of academic achievement--and his last-minute cramming, which requires a capacity to muster attention when it is absolutely essential--is such that it is inconceivable that he has ever had this disorder.
But it is nonetheless significant that the president's fractured cognitive state is so widely known that it is being publicized in a major newsmagazine and chattered about in cyberspace, and that it will inevitably run its course through the media. The White House aides, State Department officials, and others who are now whispering about Clinton's inability to concentrate would do better to realize that they don't just have a secret on their hands, they have something resembling a public relations emergency.
Clinton's fractured attention span, his acute distractibility, his incessant talking, are further manifestations of his compulsive disorder. He is undoubtedly accurate when he describes himself as "compulsively overactive." This diagnosis is yet another way of looking at his cognitive damage. It provides further evidence that we have a mentally impaired president in the White House.
There is one last symptom for us to consider, the one we set aside--the extraordinary untruth Clinton told Charles Allen in 1991 when he redefined his "compulsive overactivity," his "hurry," to mean amazing organization and tight control over every minute of his life. It is only now that we can see the full magnitude of that untruth. But it would be an enormous error to think that Clinton was consciously lying when he described himself as superbly organized. One need only remember more than 15 years of profoundly unconscious and robotic invocations of "I do too much, too fast" to know that Clinton has no understanding of his "hurry."
Clinton's assertion that he is superbly organized is an almost ferocious denial of his cognitive impairment.
We have now seen two variations of the same clashing themes in Clinton. There is the dark, dirgelike theme of paralysis and fear. And there is the racing, rushing, striving theme which seeks ceaselessly to escape from and to override the dirgelike theme.
The first is the theme of "death" and inertia: "I can't move" "I will die" The second is the theme of life and action, of doing: "I must hurry and do things", "I try to do too much, too fast", "I will try not to do everything at once".
Those two warring themes seem central to Clinton's very being. Whatever else is wrong with him, and whatever may be right with him, he is riven by this particular conflict. Clinton is deeply proud of and deeply afraid of his own mind. He is in ceaseless flight from its tragically damaged aspects. But no matter how fast he races, no matter how proud he is of racing, he cannot outrace it. It is with him always--assaulting his confidence, corrupting his efforts, and mocking his dreams of glory.
At the opening of this article I said that a psychological perspective on Bill Clinton should contribute to one's understanding of him, of his presidency, and of the political events of the past two years. I now add that it should contribute to one's thinking about the political future.
After two years, Clinton's presidency has degenerated into chronic crisis and, to all intents and purposes, it is now in receivership while three California Democrats try to rescue that presidency in time for the 1996 election. Clinton alone cannot rescue it. He was not psychologically qualified for the presidency, and he is not now able to save it from the corrosive effects of his own psychology.
This profile does not exhaust the subject of Clinton's psychological problems. He has others I have not discussed, such as grandiosity, and I have scarcely mentioned the first lady, save to say that she is in far better cognitive shape than Clinton. But even this discussion of a few key problems should suffice to tell the reader that the California trio--Leon Panetta, the new chief of staff; Tony Coelho, the new de facto head of the Democratic party; and political consultant Bill Bradley--will not solve Clinton's problems with managerial reorganization and Reaganesque appearances in the Rose Garden.
Coelho has been quoted as saying that all the White House needs is "some old pros who know the town." Clearly, he does not know, any more than Gergen knew, what he is walking into. "Old pros" cannot heal the fractured cognition of the man in the Oval Office, whose morning ritual includes vomiting out his terror of the burden he cannot carry.
While the Californians have their unrealistic honeymoon with their captive president, others can use the time to reflect more soberly on the political implications of the situation.
Since Democrats, liberals, and leftists have the most thinking to do, I'll review quickly the major implications for Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians. First, it is preposterous to attack Clinton as a leftist or a socialist. A man who collapses in the face of corporate hostility is not a leftist or a socialist. Second, it is preposterous to carry on feverishly over the disposition, past or present, of Clinton's genital organs when the man has a fractured mind.
It is demanding, I know, to ask older Republicans to think about something radically new. But the younger ones might start paying close attention to the fact that Democrats have put a cognitively disabled man in the White House. Defenses of the family, moral homilies, and economics lessons do not address the problem.
As for Democrats, liberals, and leftists, they must answer the question suggested by Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, who, on learning of the California trio's plans to resurrect Clinton, observed, "Their chances of succeeding are based on the assumption that he is educable." (Quoted by Howard Fineman in Newsweek, August 29, 1994.) Hess's formulation implies that he does not think Clinton "educable."
Actually, if it is simply a matter of saying words, of memorizing chunks of information, of delivering speeches, Clinton is entirely educable: He can learn to say anything. And in sheer terror of losing, he will say anything anyone wants him to say. But if rescuing Clinton requires any change in his psychology, he is totally ineducable. No one can change his psychology on command.
Thus, Hess and like-minded liberals have other questions to consider: Does Clinton's charisma compensate for his problems? Is there really no other unimpaired and reputable Democrat who could be nominated to run, with a good chance of success, in 1996? Must Democrats prop up a cognitive cripple? And, if they must, why must they?
This is just a hint at the kinds of questions it is time for both Democrats and Republicans to consider. Above all, political thought for the future requires that both Democrats and Republicans retain the awareness of Clinton's past.
It is not an accident that Clinton has ended up in Democratic party receivership. It is not an accident that the first attempt to control him personally was directed at his compulsive talking. It is not an accident that the first attempt to control the White House was to deal with the chaos that Clinton always generates around him. It is not an accident that the public sees him as weak and indecisive. It is not an accident that mainstream journalism, to quote Michael Kelly, treats Clinton with "dismissive contempt." And it is not an accident that his fractured attention span is so obvious he is now the poster boy for the Attention Deficit world.
None of this is an accident. That is what one can learn about the political past by thinking about Clinton's psychology.
It is now time to think about Clinton's psychology in terms that will shape the political future: What is it about contemporary politics that has put such a damaged man in the White House? Why, rather than repudiating him, has his party rallied to save him by camouflaging the reality of his fundamental incompetence? Why can we be certain that Republicans in the same situation would do the same thing?
And how, in the face of all this, does anyone dare to chastise the public and the press for their cynicism?