Back in the days when George Bush-remember him?-was flailing about in search of his missing vision-thing, columnist George Will caustically noted that two sorts of people are attracted to politics: Those who wish to do something, and those who wish to be somebody. Mr. Will seemed to suggest that Mr. Bush fit into the latter category, an understandable assessment, given the former President’s inability to explain what he wanted to do, exactly, with the power that had been placed in his hands.
Of course, all of that was before Bill Clinton transformed the office of the leader of the free world into a bachelor pad for the country’s First Celebrity. When he was challenging Mr. Bush for possession of the White House, Mr. Clinton wanted us to believe that he was interested in reading test scores. In fact, as we now know, he actually was looking for a cool place to score chicks. Once installed in the Oval Office, he surrounded himself with all sorts of baby-boomer policy wonks and studious types. This invited images of the sons and daughters of the best and brightest sitting around and doing all the exciting things that the best and brightest generally do-identifying and solving the problems of people with mere public-school educations, preaching the values of elite institutions of higher learning, and so on. All the while, however, Mr. Clinton was planning sleepovers in the homes of those thoughtful folks known as movie moguls, whose company better suits this President’s real interests.
So Bill Clinton ran for President to be somebody, not to do something. He was not the first, and he surely will not be the last. But it is hard to imagine anyone being more successful at it. Recall, if you have the stomach for it, Tina Brown’s assessment of the President, delivered in what turned out to be her waning months at The New Yorker . Her panting portrait of political fame-“a man in a dinner jacket with more heat than any star in the room”-was the sort of thing that would embarrass a serious person. But, as Ms. Brown shrewdly realized, it is exactly the sort of notice Mr. Clinton deserves. She wrote nothing of the beneficial effects of, say, the earned income tax credit (a Ronald Reagan innovation that the Clinton Administration has put to good use). She saw no need to mention the White House’s peace-brokering in Haiti or Ireland. Fame was all that mattered to Ms. Brown. She and her subject were well matched.
So in the end, the President is just another famous person; indeed, in the way of so many otherwise unaccomplished boldface names, he is famous simply for being famous. His place in the culture is attached to no achievement, an unfair assessment, but one he brought on himself, as it is difficult to think of him pondering affairs of state when there were others to consider. And since his fame knows no bounds, he persists, he dodges bullets that would cripple a person of lesser fame, because we live in an age when being famous means never having to say you’re sorry-except, of course, when an apology is judged to be a clever marketing tactic.
In bygone years, a President hoped for Walter Lippmann’s respect. In the Clinton Era, the President hopes to seduce (the word is used advisedly) Tina Brown. Formerly, a President had to display a working knowledge of the job and the world. Now, he must look good in a designer suit.
It is said that when Mr. Clinton leaves office he will go to work for one of those movie mogul types who understand the power of fame. (According to The New York Times , the future Clinton Presidential Library may be designed by, yes, Charles Gwathmey, the architect who designed two of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s houses and more than a few in the Hamptons. Perfect.) After the White House, there will be no wonkish university post for Bill Clinton. No putting on jeans and building homes for the homeless. No photo ops with third world children left legless by land mines. And absolutely no retiring quietly and gracefully from public life.He will spend his post-Presidency as he spent his Presidency: He will spend it by being famous, for giving us Paula Jones and her new nose and Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress.
If we are sufficiently disillusioned in a year and a half (a crash or recession would speed the process along), we very likely will choose for our new President in 2000 a candidate whose marriage is flawless and whose career can withstand minute inspection. In other words, an anti-Clinton, in the way that Jimmy Carter was an anti-Nixon.
With any luck, that unstained contender also will have the self-confidence to be content with his or her place in life. A candidate, in other words, who already is somebody, and who will spend four or eight years doing something other than using the Presidency as a springboard for something really cool. Like making movies, man.