It was summer 1996, and the writer George Plimpton was sitting opposite Bill Clinton on Air Force 1 en route to the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Mr. Plimpton, who was on assignment for Sports Illustrated , asked the President to pick an Olympic event in which he could envision competing.
“He answered the decathlon,” Mr. Plimpton said. “He said it was because, there, you had 10 disciplines that you could concentrate on … And it’s quite evident that he has the ability to do it, too. This is a man who is able to stand and give a speech and not have you-know-who popping up in the back of his head.”
In a word, Bill Clinton is the national embodiment of a neurotic symptom that has showed up as the self-description of overreachers everywhere: compartmentalization. And, boy, can he compartmentalize. Never before has American public life been witness to a man who can open and shut the many doors of his mind and soul with such chilling self-assurance. The country has watched with wonder and nausea as Bill Clinton has diffracted himself into several Bill Clintons-the adulterer, the good father, the loyal husband, the lousy husband, the liar, the truth-teller, the empath, the charmer, the politico, the policy wonk, the man who loved Yitzhak Rabin, the man who strokes Yasir Arafat, the peacemaker, the missile launcher, the liberal, the social conservative, the moral arbiter, the seducer. Is he polymorphous? Is he perverse? He is the man about whom Toni Morrison wrote, “He’s our first black President.” And yet he’s not a black man. He’s just trained, as his generation was, to be all things to all men, and women. And not too much of anything to anyone.
And at last count, 62 percent of the country loved the guy.
And 62 percent of the compartmentalized nation said they couldn’t trust him.
Because just as Bill Clinton long ago chose to abandon rigid character for cagey adaptability, we, too, suspect that it may be the only way to survive in the new Mad Max century. Compartmentalization is the neurosis of our time, the psychological refuge of the privileged and the spoiled. It’s the malady of a society with endless choices. Got a problem? Create a new window for it!
Since Monica Lewinsky spurted onto the scene one year ago, the Republicans have been trying to sell us on character, and it hasn’t worked. George Bush had character. So did Bob (“I’m just a man”) Dole. But character is an inhibiting constraint in this era; it keeps you from doing everything you want. Like our President, we don’t want to deny ourselves anything, we don’t want to be pinned down, we don’t want to do the hard work of integration. We all want to wriggle free. We want to present many versions of ourselves to everybody. And we don’t want to disappoint anybody. What did Dick Morris tell the President? The American people would accept adultery, but not perjury. What is adultery? It’s showing affection to too many people. What’s perjury? It’s getting caught lying.
When Linda Tripp told the TV cameras, “I am you,” she was laughed off stage. Because deep down we already knew: Bill Clinton was us. We’ve all got a you-know-who or a you-know-what popping up in the backs of our heads. And we continue to marvel at a man who has been able to pull it off. Until recently.
“When the scandal first broke last January, and he had to deliver his State of the Union address, Clinton hit a grand slam using his ability to compartmentalize,” said Clinton biographer David Maraniss. “All the senators and Congressmen in the hall were staring at him, wondering, ‘Could I have done this? Could I have concentrated on this speech while everything was breaking apart around me?’”
Mr. Clinton may be the prime specimen of the compartmentalizer, but take a look around New York. In a city which thrives on that sense of everything continually breaking apart around one, we are surrounded by a city of compartmentalizers. It’s just that no one really wants to admit it.
Compartmentalizers eventually have to make a decision: a healthy dose of self-disgust may drive them to change their lives, or they must tip the scales of their own destruction, à la Bill Clinton. If only to silence the unbearable noise of all those opening and shutting doors.
“On the one hand, you probably can’t succeed in modern life without being able to compartmentalize,” said Peter Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac . “This culture favors people who are able to not grieve for long periods of time, to be very flexible, to put things aside and move on. On the other hand, there is some loss involved, in the way that we think it’s a fully human trait to be deeply affected by things; that if you’ve done something wrong that there’s some virtue in really sitting with it, contemplating it, being some way moved to deep changes, and feeling oneself as a whole person. That’s a psychological ideal that could be counterpoised to this other ideal, of being able to say ‘Well, that was bad, and now, what’s on my agenda for today?’”
“Compartmentalization is what allows us to focus,” said Sharyn Wolf, a West Village psychotherapist and author of the book Fifty Ways to Find a Lover . “Manhattanites have massive stimuli from all kinds of places funneling through our heads at all times … A woman who when she’s at home, she’s a mom, when she’s in the office, she’s a lawyer, when she’s at a party, she’s a good, funky dancer-compartmentalizing is part of what helps us just sort of be in the moment. Basically, if you have no compartmentalization whatsoever, you’re probably schizophrenic.”
Dr. Bertram Slaff, a psychiatrist affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital who has a private practice on the Upper East Side, holds a similarly benign view. “I don’t think that it should be thought of in terms of an illness,” he said. “It seems to me a coping technique that many people have, which is to have something for being a parent, and something for being a social individual, and something for being a worker. I think of it not as something wrong but just as something that is. It requires that we be able to prioritize, what we would call focusing.”
However, Dr. Jerome Levin, New York psychotherapist and author of the just-published The Clinton Syndrome: The President and the Destructive Nature of Sexual Addiction , thinks he knows the First Compartmentalizer all too well. “I compare Clinton to the Titanic ,” he said, “which had these watertight compartments, but they only went up to the sixth deck. Once the water went over that level, the ship sank.”
The ship was sunk, of course, by a blowjob, the sex act of choice for the modern compartmentalizer. “You separate your genitals from the rest of you,” said Dr. Levin. There’s no real relationship there, except that she brings him to orgasm.”
“Monica Lewinsky truly wanted it,” said Mr. Plimpton. “She kept pleading with him, ‘Put it in me.’ The reason he didn’t do it: discipline. He kept himself from going all the way. Clinton must have been telling himself that although they were having fun, I must be careful. I mustn’t go all the way.”
The President learned early. “This form of compartmentalizing is nothing new for Clinton,” declared Mr. Maraniss. “It goes back to his childhood … His mother taught him how to create different fantasy worlds to help keep him going. As the wife of an alcoholic, it was the same thing that she had to do.”
Then again, sometimes compartmentalization makes swell bedfellows. Politically divided power couple Mary Matalin and James Carville prospered personally and professionally through rigorous compartmentalization. During the 1992 Presidential campaign, Ms. Matalin told the Los Angeles Times , “I had to compartmentalize my sweet baby James and Carville the Ax-Murdering Consultant From Hell, whose face I wanted to rip off every day.”
Since the Lewinsky scandal broke, said Ms. Matalin, their temporarily integrated household has recompartmentalized. “My New Year’s resolution is to no longer take out my husband for the foibles of his President,” she said four days into 1999. “It’s been much worse than quitting smoking.” Ms. Matalin said their differences over the Monica matter is on a par with their debates about partial-birth abortion. “We obviously have to compartmentalize now more than we ever did. Last year was the supreme test of my capacity to do so within the house.”
New Yorkers who admit to compartmentalizing tend to cast it as a positive thing, a time management skill. “I certainly feel, well, that relates to me,” said Kate White, author of Nine Secrets of Women Who Get Everything They Want and freshly appointed editor in chief of Cosmopolitan. “I remember my very first editor-in-chief job, at Child magazine, and what it was like when everything’s really resting on you and you in a sense own it. For the first time, I didn’t just slam the door on the work and forget about it. It went with me. I was giving my 9-month-old son a bath and I realized I was thinking about the magazine.” Then she compartmentalized and presto! All was well.
“I think that if you want to get to the top in many ways, in any industry, that you have to be able to claw on your way up, and a lot of that has to be compartmentalized,” said Women on Top author Nancy Friday, who is married to Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine. “It’s so tied into a career, having business goals. The workplace is the workplace and you don’t want to bring your feelings into it.” Is her husband, well, you know …? “Let me put it simply,” she said. “He was compartmentalized when I met him, but I always thought that was the first work that you do in getting a man to fall in love with you, is talking him into dropping those barriers.” (Mr. Pearlstine did not return a phone call seeking comment.)
“The demands on character are much higher here [in New York],” said Ms. Wolf, the therapist. “The ability to be fragmented in a thousand places is much more prominent. The simple business of noise around us! The simple business of how much we need to earn to pay our rent. The simple business of the kind of shape people expect us to be in somehow.”
Naomi Wolf, the Rhodes Scholar, mother, wife, post-feminist babe, anti-makeup author, pro-makeup author, recently reinstated New Yorker, had this to say about the “C” malady: “Anyone in this kind of alpha, hyper, success-driven culture is encouraged and rewarded to split off any aspect of themself that is vulnerable, complex, or weak … I think it’s one of the great sort of diseases of late industrialized society, that we’re not integrated. It’s dangerous, because the more compartmentalized, the more amoral you can tell yourself to be.”
Are Rhodes Scholars, like the President, particularly susceptible? “If what you’re talking about is dishonesty to the self, then definitely the need to present a perfect front, a perfect facade generates-I mean, it’s a recipe for dishonesty, to others and to the self,” she said. “I wouldn’t think Rhodes scholars any more than anyone else in our own particular cultural rat race, which is about competitiveness and naked ambition at the expense of integration of real values.”
What does she think of her fellow Rhodes scholar in the White House? “I can’t talk about that!” she said, slamming shut that compartment. “I have so many partisan conflicts , my husband’s ties to the White House and so on. But I can talk about compartmentalization as a thing .” For example, she said, “I can’t bear to bring my daughter’s photographs with me when I’m traveling on business, because I wouldn’t be able to leave her if I had something so concrete to remind me of her.”
Does success require compartmentalization?
“I suppose it’s a very good way to organize oneself. I don’t really think about it much,” said Manhattanite Todd Solondz, director of the film Happiness , with its psychologist-father-pederast protagonist. Of the characters in his movie, Mr. Solondz said, “I thought they were quite functional … I mean, you know, they all held jobs and took care of, managed their families and so forth, and were materially O.K.”
Tom Freston, the chairman of MTV Networks, remembers growing up in a world where compartmentalization was actually easier . “My father seemed to have his life completely compartmentalized,” he said. “He would get out of work at 5 P.M., maybe go to a conference a year, and that would be it.” Mr. Freston has a more difficult time of it. “With all the things we have to carry now, cell phones and beepers, I’ve found that it’s harder and harder to compartmentalize and stop things from my business life seeping into my personal life,” he said. “The premise of 1984 was that it was the government watching you. Now it has expanded: It’s your friends, the people you work with.”
Take Josh Byard, rising star in New York’s Silicon Alley, 27, former P.R. man. “I’m highly compartmentalized,” he said. “For example, I have a certain group of friends that I knew when I was in college that I do certain things with, and then I have people that I work with who I also get along with, and I also have other friends that I’ve met since I’ve gotten out of college, and it is very rare that I bring people together in that way.”
Others hear the word compartmentalization and snort. “The idea of compartmentalization has the same qualities as Ivory soap,” said Dr. Robert Cancro, chair of the New York University psychiatry department. “It’s 99.44 percent froth. Why do we have to explain how people deal with adversity while continuing with their day to day responsibilities? What you have to remember is that organisms much simpler than humans are able to adapt. There is a tendency to believe that whenever anything is granted a name, it exists. To grant this a name beyond adaptation and coping is just plain silly.”
Dr. Slaff tended to agree. “Surely you are aware,” he said, “that there are many men who have wives who are put on a pedestal whom they respect, and they have fucking good fun with whores. Isn’t that compartmentalization? It’s generally thought of as part of the real world.”
Of the President, Dr. Slaff said, “I think he was horny! He’s 52 years old, and do individuals that age have the right to be horny? Of course they do!”
“In the past, when we heard someone saying one thing, then doing another, we assumed it was just outright hypocrisy,” said Dr. Gail Reed, an Upper East Side psychiatrist . “And by just looking at the external behavior, it is … But what do we consider it if the person is really not aware of what they are doing? There are various degrees by which people are dishonest about things which make them ashamed, from the most psychotic form of lying (when the person is completely aware of the lie) to various ways of trying to protect themselves from pain and embarrassment because they’ve done something they know they shouldn’t have done.”
“Clinton is not the first person of whom this has been said,” said speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who was a genius at taking the various compartments of Ronald Reagan and George Bush and wrapping them into one compact point of light. “It was said 30 years ago, admiringly , of John F. Kennedy,” said Ms. Noonan. “In that case, what they meant in those days when they said that a man had a gift for compartmentalization, they meant in a way that he was a gifted generalist that could go from one demanding subject to another, and who could balance in his mind. It was considered an intellectual gift; now it is viewed as a emotional process.”
And her fellow New Yorkers? “It is a hard-shouldered city that we have here,” she said. “It is full of geniuses, risk takers, dreamers … and to make things a little more confusing, a lot of the geniuses, risk takers, dreamers, are also operators , too. So, are there a lot of people in New York who will say, my gosh, I compartmentalize, too? Yeah, there are. And I suppose some of them might even mean something good about it.”
One New Yorker, George Stephanopoulos-Washingtonian-turned-West Side resident, Rhodes scholar, Stairmasterer, White House aide, ABC News employee, Columbia University faculty member-had the last word on the topic.
“Compartmentalization,” he said, “is just too Clinton. I’m sorry.”