President Scarface

How Bill Clinton runs the press like Capone ran Chicago.

By the time the president's obstruction-of-justice episode concluded last year in a mock-impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate--that made-for-TV drama in which "jurors" declared the man guilty of "high crimes and misdemeanors" but then voted to acquit--Bill Clinton had proven himself bulletproof. Even when the press asked him about the compelling, specific, and credible rape allegation lodged by Juanita Broaddrick, all he had to do to shut them up was bark like a Mafia don: Talk to my mouthpiece! I ain't got nuttin' to say to youse!

Counselor David Kendall's pro forma denial--"Any allegation that the president assaulted Broaddrick more than 20 years ago is absolutely false"--got the job done, even as it opened up multiple windows through which Clinton might easily wriggle, (Hey, I wasn't even president 20 years ago!). As The Washington Post, obviously exhausted by its minutes-long pondering of the issue of presidential rape, dejectedly concluded, "Mr. Clinton's word in this realm by now has no value." Clinton was an uncooperative witness, see, so the Post had to drop the case. The New York Times was similarly outraged by "The President's Missing Voice." But rather than fully and vigorously investigating the charges, the Times simply fretted that Clinton's reputation as a "recreational philanderer" may actually mask something considerably more sinister. The paper of record must have sent chills down the president's spine: "Surely there is a limit to how long Mr. Clinton can speak through his lawyer on these matters," sternly warned the Times.

Now a millennium has passed. The Broaddrick story has simply floated on downstream in the toxic runoff from this most ethical administration in history. Even as a lame duck, William Jefferson Clinton effortlessly assumes the swaggering stride of a mobster, brushing off questions any public servant is morally bound to answer. He runs the press like Capone ran Chicago. "No one will ever know the complete truth about Juanita Broaddrick's allegation," mumbled the Times. But of course Bill and Juanita do! That's why investigative journalism to uncover corroborating facts ought to be pursued.

But the Godfather rules this village, flanked by wise guys and hit men on retainer. When Ken Starr popped up as nuisance under Clinton's own special prosecutor law, James "The Ragin' Cajun" Carville took out a contract. Starr, he said publicly, was one mistake away from "two broken knee caps."

Sid "Vicious" Blumenthal spewed presidential lies to journalists on the take. Larry "Hustler" Flynt, a guest at White House functions and a friend of the church-going First Family, gleefully whacked Bob Livingston and Bob Barr. Like a couple of Mafia molls, Cabinet Secretaries Donna Shalala and Madeleine Albright ostentatiously vouched for the Big Fish. And then there's the bottom-feeding administration bag man, Al "No Controlling Legal Authority" Gore, who never missed a chance to finger his capo as "da greatest I eva' seen."

A gutter-based attack on all the dirty rotten squealers saved Bill's operation. Pressed to account for their deceits, mendacities, and cattle-future profits, the First Couple demonized their critics while rallying their henchmen. They pinched the press between its journalistic ethics and its career goals. To question the Godfather was to side with that "vast right-wing conspiracy," and that was an offer the press was all too ready to refuse.

Like a crime boss who blossoms into a local hero, the president has cultivated a sensational market niche: John Gotti as commander-in-chief. No one respects him as a man. Even his defenders in Congress concede he "lied," "debased his office," and "abused the public trust." Yet he has achieved notorious celebrity. He's audacious and flashy, and the rising Nasdaq is giving jobs to all the neighborhood kids.

The economy is Clinton's consigliere. It deftly fixes the little messes and makes everybody happy. Hush money makes up for a few broken knee caps, capisce?

The sad reality--and happy fact--is that America operates pretty well without great leaders. The top slots in our national government are close to modular, and even mobsters plug in smoothly. The Invisible Hand, not the Black Hand, springs for drinks all around, and a half-convincing argument can be made that having Carmine and Guido hanging around the Oval Office is actually healthy for the private sector. After all, when the president has certain, shall we say, image problems, he needs the help of his consigliere all the more. No need getting crazy with a new national health care plan during impeachment week.

Lowlifes and sleazeballs in high public places good for business? Sure. It's just a little annoying having to explain to the youngsters why con men and hustlers live in such nice White Houses. Next time they ask, tell 'em: "Fuggitaboutit kid."

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