With the publication of New Yorker editor Tina Brown’s description of the White House dinner dance for Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, E.B. White’s shade must have snapped a pencil point. Harold Ross’ ulcer may have kicked in one last time. William Shawn’s spirit must have distracted itself with thoughts of better days and better writing: “Now see your President, tall and absurdly debonair, as he dances with a radiant blonde, his wife … Amid the clichés about his charm, his glamour is undersung. For those of us who had dismissed him … see him instead as his guests do: a man in a dinner jacket with more heat than any star in the room (or, for that matter, at the multiplex) … his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes project a kind of avid inclusiveness that encircles every jaded celebrity he passes. He is vividly in the present tense and dares you to join him there.” Tina, Tina, hast thou borrowed Monica’s kneepads? Why hast thou donned the tools of shame?
‘Tis a pity that the money-losingest magazine editor of our epoch didn’t budget in one naysayer. Surrounded as she seems to be by her yes-persons, there apparently was no one to tell her that some day she would be glad she didn’t print that unfortunate trope about the “neo-puritanism of the Op-Ed tumbrel drivers.” Oy! and double oy! And how could the yes-persons, who must love Tina, if for nothing else than for the money she pays them, have let her expose herself in public with: “Blair has a kind of elfin glow. His slight figure and youthful purposefulness give him the air of a clever, unsullied young cousin of Clinton’s, visiting from across the water to learn more about the venal perils of big-time power.” Mirabile visu ! Glowthsome elves whipping their Op-Ed tumbrels through our city’s congested streets! To think time was when America’s teachers of English held up The New Yorker as a model of prose style.
Shall we chalk up Ms. Brown’s gush to the venal perils of big-time magazine editing? Do we attribute her woeful prose to her being a foreigner? She is an Englishwoman who mistakes the sentiments expressed by her darling, well-dressed buzzables with whom she daily lunches at the Royalton with what may more closely resemble the thoughts and feelings of the nation whose guest she has been for these many years.
Though Tina may lack the talent for either invective or praise, she may be on to something without knowing it. Foreigner and monarchist though she is, her treatment of Mr. Clinton as near-royalty can serve to remind us of an aspect of the Presidential office left unremarked during these past weeks of fun and gossip.
The men who wrote our Constitution designed the office of President with the office of King of England much in mind. The pardoning power, the power to conduct foreign affairs and wage war, etc., were taken from the monarchy. But something else was taken from the British system, something invisible and neither written down nor formally expressed in the Constitution.
The President was to be not only the head of government but the head of state, to wit, he was to be, in some extralegal sense, an elected monarch, a republican king. The monarchical aspects of the office were so apparent in George Washington’s time that he was scrutinized by apprehensive republicans for signs of conduct too kingly. Washington set just the right tone, regal, but not too regal, a man above the people and of the people at the same time. Henceforth, Presidents have had this dual role, which results in their formal photographic portraits being hung in every public place while their political enemies pillory them in the most disrespectful language.
Nowhere are the rules of kingly comportment written down. Monarch and subjects just know them, and any crowned head who loses the touch of proper behavior, symbolic or otherwise, is in for a rough patch. Vide Queen Elizabeth II after her former daughter-in-law’s death. In a trice, though she had done nothing wrong, though she had broken no rule, though she’d survived the Blitz and a million ribbon cuttings, a reign of more than 40 years was close to being wrecked.
It is the kingly part of the office which inclines us to use expressions like the First Family, the First Lady, although not the First Gentleman, which is just as well in Bill Clinton’s case. The duties of the First Gentleman of our republican realm are nowhere spelled out, but until Mr. Clinton they were understood by all of his predecessors.
Whatever the distasteful facts of his private life, the American king is expected to keep them just that-private, and, in public, the elected monarch is asked to be a plausible example of a proper person as that is defined by a profoundly bourgeois society. During his brief years in office, our temporary monarch is made the symbol not of what we are but of what we would like to be. Our uncrowned king is the Father of the Year and the Husband of the Year. Though we ourselves may cheat on our wives and husbands, get drunk or do awful things to our families, he mustn’t seem to do the same. We don’t like it and we don’t approve of it in ourselves, and we won’t hear of it in our monarch. He is the fountainhead of an utterly middle-class nation where God, family, children, hearth and home are the incessant themes of public discourse, and please, don’t look too closely at our divorce statistics.
Yet it is not so difficult for a President to cut a figure because of the kindly conspiracy not to look too closely or squint too hard at the First Family. Nancy Reagan left Hollywood and came to Washington, for example, moderately famous for her ability to make persons of the other gender exquisitely happy by means we need not dilate on here.
All the men who came before Mr. Clinton found that being a more or less satisfactory national paterfamilias wasn’t too taxing a burden, though a few did run into some minor problems. Andrew Jackson’s enemies made him out to be too coarse and too rude for the role, but the country didn’t think so. Abraham Lincoln was made out to be somewhat oafish by his non-admirers. In the end, he and Jackson were good enough elected monarchs for most of the people. John Kennedy probably was a whoremaster, but in his lifetime, few Presidents played the monarchical role with better grace than he. To the nation, he and his wife and his two winsome children were the epitome of democratic manners and royal glitter. It was not for nothing that the White House was called Camelot when he and his queen lived there. Foulmouthed Lyndon Johnson couthed himself up whenever he was before the cameras even as his wife came to be a much-loved First Lady.
Mr. Clinton is the first shtupmeister who couldn’t be bothered to keep up appearances, the first to make his motto, Any Warm Hole and I Don’t Give a Rat’s Ass Who’s Watching. His temerarious conduct is coupled with an indifference to who sees and who knows that he has committed lèse-majesté on himself. He makes it impossible to wink, shrug or turn away.
He is the first President to be both sexual predator and sexual exhibitionist. He is the first President to be well thought of as a chef de gouvernement and to be despised as a chef d’état . Good executive, rotten king.
In the face of this never-before-seen contradiction, most of us have had the good sense to recognize impeachment would be too disgusting and too embarrassing, if not for Mr. Clinton, then for the nation. You can’t proceed against a king because you’ve found out all the court gossip stories are true.
Then what to do? We can and we do enjoy slurping up the gossip, every tasty bit, and we crack jokes. Sick jokes, happy jokes, silly jokes, stupid jokes, dirty jokes, shaggy jokes. Never, never, never has a President been the butt of so much comedy on TV, on the Internet, the telephone, at the beauty parlor, the water cooler and Burger King. This guy really is a laughingstock. As for Tina, we nominate her president of the G.O.B.’s. These are not like the much-spoken-of F.O.B.’s, or Friends of Bill; these are the Girls of Bill, and at their next meeting, they’re going to be knitting booties, because gossip has it Monica is expecting.