The Clinton Show: A Whiff of Leno

Viewers want Bill to do better than Jay, if not quite as well as 'Homicide.'

The Nov. 23, 1993 cover of The New York Observer.

Peter Kaplan’s column, in the Feb. 8, 1993 edition of the Observer.

“Week one: The honeymoon is over. Week two: The administration is over.” — Sam Donaldson on This Week With David Brinkley, Jan. 31

Yup, it’ s been a pretty bad two weeks for Bill Clinton on TV, but that’s show business and, anyhow, Mr. Clinton’s earned it. It’s a bloody game and, yes, the media is a bunch of jackals, but this new Administration has declared itself ready to fight on its own terms. They’re the ones who’ve decided to try and sail right over the press into the TV cameras, to body-mike the President and let him Reaganize directly to his constituency.

The trouble is, the campaign deluded them into thinking they’re consummate television professionals, and they’re not. Not yet, anyway. Running a campaign on TV is not as difficult as running a Presidency on TV, despite the President’s already built set, etc., and the big sign that says “The White House” that hangs behind him whenever he wants to announce something. This new game is much more difficult. President Bill is a different TV entity than President Bush, and—although I hate to say it—part of it comes down to the Jay Leno crisis. Bill is one of us. And whereas attacking Johnny or George was no more dangerous than the usual, Oedipal jumping-on-Dad, when we go after one of our own, we go for blood.

That’s one reason why the first two TV weeks have had such a weird, generational edge to them. The elders, particularly the conservative elders, have been shrieking and sighing with a strange resonance. A few nights ago, I turned on Crossfire, and John Sununu and Michael Kinsley were in the kind of death-grip screaming match that we have not seen on television in a long time. There were veins popping out of Mr. Kinsley’s throat, and there would have been on Mr. Sununu’s if you could have found it. On another night, a C-Span interviewer asked Michael Deaver how it felt to be in generational exile in Washington, and a glazed look of despair clouded his face as he pondered the indisputability of this fact. “I don’t feel out of it,” he said, with an Elmer Fudd tone in his voice.

It was an altogether new television picture, so new that we really haven’t adjusted to it yet: Bill standing at his gays-in-the-military press conference gesturing with a stemmed glass of water, as cool as Dean Martin about to sing “Volare.” He spoke in complete sentences and he made a nimble point: “Normally in the history of civil rights advancements, Presidents have not necessarily been in the forefront in the beginning.” OK, Bill! It was a point, all right. It may not have been a great point, but things had been going so badly until then, the first two weeks of the Clinton Show had otherwise had such a Leno-like scent to them, that the interested viewer breathed a sigh of relief. Finally. Viewers generally (this is fair to say) don’t want the show to flop; they want Bill to do better than Jay, if not quite as well as Homicide.

(And the TV potential of the Clinton Administration, by the way, comes in its Homicide-like altitude: It is a show shot in close-up on handheld cameras. The Reagan Administration was defined by a statelier framed camera, the news equivalent of the classic Hollywood dimensions with which Mr. Reagan was comfortable; the Bush Administration liked the home-movie VHS of the President in his cigarette boat, and also the nighttime video-in-Baghdad, military camera style. The Clinton Administration will be a hand-held, on-the-move kind of administration with intimate nuance and vernacular. But this is not necessarily by design.)

Inauguration Day generally went fine, with its dollops of odd imagery—Bill’s incessant fist thrusts, and Al’s bunny-hop voguing in a daguerreotype-era tuxedo with Tipper in her zaftig, Lillie Langtry, hourglass-shaped gown (MTV edited out the booing she received at its ball), and that star of stars, Chelsea, on every channel. “Now what about Hillary, does she look nice?” the President asked several balls, which had its own Bloodworth-Thomason exuberance.

But even on inauguration night. Mr. Clinton looked like he was winging it. The new President is a crammer, but he hadn’t quite fit it all in. He just wasn’t ready to take over. He rushed to finish (and hadn’t really finished) his speech, he hadn’t really hired his staff, he hadn’t really warmed up that laser beam to blast through the economy on Jan. 21. As a new President, he carried himself like a Yale Law student at orals time.

And Washington was ready to eat him alive. On inauguration night, Charlie Rose moved his mobile salon down to D.C., and sitting on one of his panels was a blonde spider-woman named Sally Quinn who sounded like something out of a Henry Adams novel. Practically peering through a lorgnette, she complained about the part in his speech about “pain and toil and this and that. It was word for word a toast he gave at Mrs. Graham’s.” Meanwhile C- Span (there are not fine enough words to convey my gratitude for C-Span’s work on Inauguration Day) turned on a camera and just held it at the top of an escalator at the Arkansas Inaugural Ball, showing the dazed succession of formal-weared Clinton partygoers holding plastic cups of white wine as they appeared at the top landing and were pushed off, stunned and disoriented, into a Razorbacchanalia. C-Span 2 showed James Fallows and the aforementioned Mr. Deaver wrestling over the speech as well. Mr. Deaver said he was disappointed the Clinton boys weren’t up to it; Mr. Fallows was incensed and told Mr. Deaver he was just a bitter old washrag, but within a day or two, Mr. Deaver looked to have had a point.

For there was George Stephanopoulos, in his new black wire-rimmed glasses, up there in the White House press room trying to explain the gays-in-the-military thing on several news channels. And when some reporter asked him about the sodomy rules in the military, a corner of the press room cracked up as a burst of sodomy jokes went off, and the White House Communications Director lost control, as though he was the good boy running a student council meeting: Come on, George, the reporters seemed to taunt, are you one of us or one of them? Mr. Stephanopoulos looked scared on camera, conferring a sense of amateur night on the new Administration, until he got the idea—throw the cameras and radio out. Daily briefings would henceforth not be broadcast—the pre-Clinton policy.

The media is out to fry the IICW President, that much is certain: He hasn’t seduced them properly and his great chance is going to be in approaching television directly. Mr. Clinton has this potential, we know, but he’s got to seduce the camera with all the eroticized sincerity he’s got if he’s going to win and avoid the Donaldsons, the Deavers, the Quinns, the voices that say: “It is not easy t0 say with certainty whether his left-wing or his right-wing supporters are the more deceived. The reason is that (he) is a highly impressionable person, without a firm grasp of public affairs and without very strong convictions … he is not the dangerous enemy of anything. He is too eager to please.”

That was Walter Lippmann writing off Franklin D. Roosevelt on Jan. 8, 1932. And Lippmann wasn’t even on television. Bill Clinton has a television battle to fight: His friends, enemies and bedevilers are on television constantly, evaluating him, describing him, viewing him, framing him, defining him. Like almost any President chosen in this era, he is more than a television star; he is television itself. Mr. President is really Mr. Television. We think of him as TV, its embodiment and its developer, the essence of its identity, its ideas, the stuff of its parody and its evolution. He will either manage with it, become its great auteur, its Prospero, or lose the nation because he bores us and confuses us. With his bitten bottom lip and growled cottony voice and his amazing intellectual self-confidence, he stands a chance to reach through the camera to defy conventional wisdom, overcoming, through sheer power, the community that Sam Donaldson represents like some stock villain: entrenched Washington. In time, of course, he will—as Jedediah Leland predicted when Charles Foster Kane absorbed his rivals—become one of them. But there’s a lot of china to be shattered between here and there, before Bill Clinton becomes another one of the Sunday voices himself that talks and evaporates practically before its sound flutters away through the Sunday morning air.