Selected Skirmishes: Tabloid Trash

Bill Clinton's mounting problems


Braced by polls indicating that 57 percent of the American people will believe anything President Clinton chooses to tell them, provided he looks right into the camera and clenches his jaw a little bit, the White House elected to deal with the "Flytrap" affair (Slate's contest-winning name) by hunkering deeper into denial than O.J. The instant popularity of this approach was revealed in a groundswell for the libertarian view that Bill Clinton's moral choices are between him, the Missus, and his Maker.

We've been watching the prez for going on six years now, and the idea that he regards personal characteristics as off-limits for public discourse is a makeover on the order of Geraldo's becoming a serious newsman. Bill's private life is all he has ever offered up for electoral consumption. He rose to the highest office in the land not on any recognizable policy platform or coherent philosophy of government but on the emotive yelp, "I feel your pain." He billed himself as "The Comeback Kid," the triumphant son of a broken home.

In 1992 he proudly hurled his married life to center stage with the offer: "Buy one, get one free." He boasted to 60 Minutes: "If a man's got sense enough to over-marry, it's…evidence he might be good enough" to be elected president. Please, Governor Clinton–not so personal!

Aw shucks–soccer Moms just ate it up. Clintonites took notes. The subtext of each carefully crafted soundbite, speech, gesture, and photo op in the Clinton White House has been: "I care." This was a Bushism–but poor George, a similiarly philosophy-less president, could never even remember the price of a quart of lowfat. Out of touch is the opposite of I care, and we now know, perhaps, how out of touch Mr. Clinton hasn't been.

Is it mere coincidence that, in the era of Bill Clinton, Jerry Springer has surpassed Oprah in the daytime talk ratings war? Springer scours the nation for the most sensational trash America has to offer, sets them up in gaseous conflict, strikes a match–and is blown back in mock terror as women pummel women, women pummel men, men pummel men, men pummel women. An awesome spectacle to behold; H.L. Mencken referred to such freak shows as the American's "libido for the ugly."

You've heard of instant gratification. Think of Springer as instant sanctification. Bounding out of the violence is always a moral, and salvation is never more than a commercial break away. No matter his failings (or high crimes and misdemeanors), a serious person who appears chastened and who earnestly gestures that he will do better brings a roar of approval: moral rehab made fun and easy.

America is now Bill Clinton's extended dysfunctional family, and the polls serve as his enablers. In January 1992, a fading candidate Clinton went on national TV to allow as how he had "caused pain" in his marriage, but that he and his loving wife were working to put all of that behind them. Mr. Clinton ostentatiously put his private life on display, and with about as much fact checking as accompanies the standard Jerry Springer Show claim.

The president's apologists are correct when they insist that today the real issue is the commander-in-chief's performance on the job. I have no doubt that the mendacities Bill Clinton dispenses with compelling certitude on the science of global warming, his "mending" of affirmative action, and the employment consequences of the minimum wage will be far more deadly to Americans than any little bug we may pick up from debaucheries in "the Johnson presidency" (my favorite Slate runner-up). But his eagerness to confuse our office with his office–well, as The Nation's Christopher Hitchens notes, "even the French understand corruption."

And so, of course, does Bill. He sees the connection between heart and head more brightly than anyone. That's why he prefers to fib about his "private life" rather than to claim privacy as a right. Bill is first in his class to "go personal," flamboyantly flashing his (publicly) sweet side, assiduously hiding his (private) bursts of temper, and aggressively savaging his foes as "mean-spirited" and "partisan." When the leaders of the GOP Congress disagreed with the president on taxes and the budget, they were cold-hearted bastards who shut the government down in order to protect their rich and powerful friends. Clinton frames his opposition not as disagreeable ideas but as evil people.

Which brings us back to Jerry Springer. In his parallel universe, good intentions trump performance. On a similarly tawdry stage, Bill Clinton employs every special effect to make his fiscal demagoguery appear a grand vision, to pass off America's great capitalist engine as a mere spinoff of the Clinton economic recovery. It has not gone unnoticed that the national leader who now regrets how small his zone of personal privacy has shrunk was the same man who in 1991 retained a private investigator to cap much-feared "bimbo eruptions." The same man sent forth his shameless minions to tar various citizens of this Republic–folks with stories to tell that were shockingly omitted from the Thomasons' Man from Hope video–as "tabloid sleaze" and "trash for cash."

It worked so winningly–at least until the "vast, right-wing conspiracy" got organized. Bad, mean, terrible men (and women, the tramps!) are again out to destroy the president. I sure do hope that Janet Reno is able to expose and bring these demons to justice. Then, perhaps, we can devote our full energies to helping O.J. search for the "real killers."

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.