What always gets overlooked in this sort of speculation is an accomplishment that may prove to be Clinton's greatest legacy: his entertainment value. Imagine how boring the past seven years might have been without the unending intrigue that the entertainer-in-chief and his supporting cast have brought us. It's been a drama of operatic dimension, starting with that first weasely 60 Minutes interview during the '92 campaign and building up to Monica Lewinsky's appearance with Barbara Walters, when the fat lady sang. Throughout it all, Clinton has proven himself to be a bold new type of celebrity that no star-hungry citizen can resist. Any student of the Madonna school of fame knows that if you lack talent, you tweak your persona every few years to hold the public's attention. What's so brilliant about Clinton as a performer is that he embodies several personas simultaneously. The president's multiple-identity disorder becomes apparent after rifling through three new books that feature him.
Take Uncovering Clinton, Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff's account of how he survived a one-man journalistic sally through the minefield that is the chief executive's sex life. Here, Clinton comes across as a dangerous shadowpresence, plotting and manipulating from a throne of treachery to cover his stains. As the reporter spins an entertaining investigative yarn out of the way he snagged the first interview with Paula Jones, hunted down several women who felt the president's pain, and sniffed out Linda Tripp (first impression: "a somewhat annoyed-looking, heavyset woman with disheveled hair') only to be upstaged by gossip hound Matt Drudge, Clinton emerges as a deeply flawed leader with no compunction about abusing his authority. Suspecting Clinton is a sexual predator allows the author to justify delving into such tawdry subject matter, one of many ethical dilemmas he mulls over for all of two seconds before resuming the hunt. Isikoff's compulsion to defend his dogged pursuit of a hot story reaches its hilarious nadir when he rebuts Lucianne Goldberg's complaint in her testimony that he ate more than his share of her gourmet pistachios at their first meeting: "It was late in the day and I was hungry.' Mostly, though, he spares us his whining and concentrates on presenting only the facts behind Slick Willy's indiscretions.
That's why Joyce Milton's The First Partner: Hillary Rodham Clinton is ultimately more fun to readshe's not afraid to dish. Trying to understand the freak show that is the Clintons' marriage from its shaky beginnings to its frigid present, the writer who previously has written biographies of Charlie Chaplin and Martin Luther King Jr. draws on a number of substantiated and unsubstantiated sources, like the juicy Arkansas state trooper stories. "I need to get fucked more than twice a year!' one of the troopers recalls Hillary shouting in an argument, and that seems to have been one of her better days. Her hubby comes across about the only way he can in the context of his married lifea bumbling, horny oaf. A far cry from Isikoff's schemer, this bubba couldn't finagle his way out of a Happy Meal.
Hillary is the brains of the operation, though she jeopardizes Bill's rise to power as much as she helps it. The ice maiden presented in Milton's pages is partially culpable for nearly every controversy of the Clintons' joint political life. When she's not mercilessly picking apart anything and everything about the First Lady, from her liberal activist roots to her White House Christmas tree decorations, Milton even blames her subject for helping to cover up the sexual indiscretions she's known about from the start of her relationship. A marriage of convenience? In a moment of rare sympathy for these two law-school grads brought and stuck together by measureless ambition, Milton points out all the damage they've done to each other and those around them, noting that there is "very little that could be called 'convenient' about the Clintons' marriage.'
After wallowing in the eight hundred pages of Arkansan depravity between these tomes, Dick Morris' guide to modern political survival, The New Prince, surprisingly proves to be the most upbeat of the three. Clinton's former political consultant uses his most famous client as his shining exemplar of the perfect politicianone who understands what the people want and gives it to them. While it seems unavoidable that sleaze would creep into the musings of a confirmed whoremonger updating Machiavelli by citing the career moves of the most publicly disgraced standing president of all time, the book takes a higher road.
Morris makes the assertion that the twenty-first century politician can only succeed by embracing idealism, being honest when faced with scandal, and stressing issues over image. However dubious his assertions, his predominately glowing references to that which Clinton has done right (balancing the budget, reforming welfare, ushering in an age of micro-proposals for improving the everyday minutiae of our lives) are pleasant reminders that there's no need to feel guilty about enjoying the Clinton Show.
The president, after all, has more or less done his job as effectively as any other chief executive, with an added bonus. Running the country well enough to keep his audience comfortable, Clinton has ensured we can enjoy his living theater of passion, betrayal and stupidity without distraction and free of charge. Steve Wilson
The New York Times Book Review
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The Transition from Madisonian to
The fundamental paradigm that dominates our politics is the shift from representational (Madisonian) to direct (Jeffersonian) democracy. Voters want to run the show directly and are impatient with all forms of intermediaries between their opinions and public policy. This basic shift stems from a profusion of information on the one hand, and a determined distrust of institutions and politicians on the other.
While the media has noted decreasing voter turnout, the corollary is that those who do vote are becoming better and better informed. Americans are now an electorate of information junkies. Through the CNN, Fox News Channel, CNBC, CFN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN TV networks, talk radio, all-news radio, news magazines, the Internet, prime-time TV shows like 60 Minutes and 20/20, and the nightly news on the major TV networks, voters are fed an overwhelming diet of information about the political process. Even entertainment shows focus on public-sector issues, as the cops-and-robbers programs explore the subtleties of the exclusionary rule and attorney-client privilege. Taxi drivers who watch congressional hearings on C-SPAN are better informed about public policy than they have ever been.
With this level of information has come a certitude about political opinions. Where once voters were inclined to subordinate their own views to those of wiser heads, they now feel capable of analyzing public-policy issues themselves. In the 1960s, it was common to hear people say that their leaders had access to more information, that it was wrong to judge them without knowing all the facts. Now, we would laugh at anyone who said that on television.
Impatient with representative assemblies, voters take lawmaking into their own hands when the politicians let them. For example, ever since referenda became popular in California, the state legislature has increasingly become a ministerial body, executing the broad policy decisions made by voters themselves, through the ten or twelve ballot issues they decide each election day.
As the electorate has become more opinionated and self-confident, its distrust of politicians, parties, and all institutions has become more profound. Watergate was the original scandal of modern American political life. But since then, each institution has had its own scandal: doctors have had malpractice scandals; evangelicals have had the Bakker and Swaggert scandals; the intelligence community has had the Aldrich Ames scandal; journalists have had plagiarism scandals; labor unions have had corruption and mob scandals; lawyers have had malpractice scandals; churches have had child sex-abuse scandals; the military has had the Pentagon procurement scandals; police departments have had local corruption scandals and the Rodney King beating. No institution remains unscathed. Voters trust themselves ... and nobody else.
This underlying shift in our electorate's mood, away from blind faith and toward self-reliance, is combining with a new technology which empowers voters as never before. Political polling now rates politicians every day of their term and broadcasts the findings for all to see. Referenda, initiatives, and even recalls of elected officials increasingly dominate policy-making. The proliferation of TV channels and the growth of talk radio offer forums for political debate never before available in such length or depth. Soon, interactive TV-computers will allow national town meetings with direct balloting by tens of millions of peoplethe very core of the Jeffersonian vision of small-town democracy at work.
One by-product of this shift in power from politicians to voters is the decline of ideology. Voters want to think for themselves and will not buy the prefabricated, predictable opinions of either left- or right-wing ideologues. Men of affairs who respond to each new situation with practical, specific ideas unfettered by ideological constructs increasingly dominate our political process.
Felix Rohayten described the difference between French and American politics when he said, "The French respect ideas over facts. Americans respect facts over ideas."
Once, American voters didn't really have access to the facts. News information was sharply limited and controlled by the three networks. Without an impressive array of facts at their disposal, voters had no choice but to rely on ideologies or "ideas." It was easier to learn one point of view which provided a formula for analysis of all issues than it was to gather data about each question and think it through on its own merits.
But now that the information is practically force-fed to the voters, ideology becomes an unnecessary guide. Rather than try to fit the facts into preconceived opinions, voters would rather change their preconceptions as they learn new facts. As Winston Churchill once told a woman who criticized him for changing his position on an issue: "When the facts change, I change my opinions. What is it, madam, that you do?" Ideas, the preconceived formulas of the ideologies, matter less to Americans than do the facts of each specific situation. Voters want what works, no matter whose ideological label it bears.
Americans are more and more independent politically. A plurality40 percent of the electoratenow does not profess allegiance to either political party or vote a party line. Increasingly unwilling to trust Democrats or Republicans, they believe that the executive branch and the Congress should be controlled by different political parties. These independent voters do not care about party labels. They insist on examining each candidate on his or her own merits, irrespective of party. Even when the public opinion shifts support from one party to another, it is voters who were once loyal to one of the parties who switch to the other. Independents remain independent.
The trend from Madisonian to Jeffersonian governance is changing all the rules. Few realize how fundamentally the rules have changed. In most cases, a pessimism stops them from celebrating the transformation which is underway. In the next ten chapters, we will explore how this transition to direct democracy is changing everything.
The right wing liked to say, years ago, that America was a republic, not a democracy. Now it is a democracy.
Meet the Author
Dick Morris served as Bill Clinton's political consultant for twenty years. A regular political commentator on Fox News, he is the author of ten New York Times bestsellers (all with Eileen McGann) and one Washington Post bestseller.
Eileen McGann is an attorney who, with her husband, Dick, writes columns for the New York Post and for their website, dickmorris.com. She has written extensively about the abuses of Congress and the need for reform.
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