Read an Excerpt
IN BC’S LIBRARY
The lights in the administrative wing of the Presidential Library in Little Rock were state-of-the-art in their day, designed to be as omniscient and as easy on electricity as possible. The Library’s designers tried their best to make them a monument to BC’s take on the environment, that the choice between profit and environmentalism is a false opposition. A brass plaque on the Visitors’ Arch says so in plain English, for anyone to read. It also tells you that most of the orientations in the Library match the White House: West Wing, South Lawn, even a Rose Garden, though with an overblown backdrop of a certain lavender-and-white wisteria that BC’s mother was said to love.
The lights are fed information from sensors embedded everywhere in the complex—walls, floors, ceilings, door handles. The building sees you, and it gives you only the lighting it feels you need, unless you trip wall switches manually (which BC does not do, and which is therefore not done). It isn’t that the building’s trying to be stingy. It just feels it knows better.
So no matter where you are in the West Wing, you sit in a pool of light exactly one office and one-half corridor long, with other corridors and archival caches and administrative offices at first darkly visible, then vanishing altogether in the high-tech gloaming. When someone nears your location in the building, they approach in their own moving corona of fluorescent light, corridors winking out behind them.
But the years have accumulated, and the system is past its prime, its wiring and memory and collective sentience degraded. Sometimes lights flicker on in an empty hall, tripped by the ghost memory of a twenty-five-year-old footfall. Without input, late at night, empty of administrators, the West Wing will very occasionally illuminate a whole floor of offices, slowly, one after another, brooding, as though in search of an item lost generations before and all but entirely forgotten. I know this because I’ve driven by at three in the morning and seen it happen, seen the building at its least imposing and most pathetic.
But the designers were big on windows, and during the day the lighting system is mostly beside the point. I prefer to work in the early morning, when the sun is waxing, and to leave by mid-afternoon. Those hours happen to coincide with BC’s workday. He was once infamous as a night owl, working the Rolodex until the wee hours, laying down solitaire on his desk while he gabbed, but no more, not for years.
I can always hear him before I can smell him, and I can smell him long before I can see him. He always wears an extremely expensive Italian cologne, and the bite of citrus precedes him down the hall relentlessly, like a blind man’s stick. In this, as in many things, he takes his cues from Ronald Reagan, an earlier ex-president who never let himself go to seed after leaving office, who despite advanced age and advanced Alzheimer’s never stopped looking presidential. No photo opportunity, no matter how close to death, ever caught Reagan looking elderly.
And so BC too must clothe himself in Italian silk and splashy ties each and every day, wear ten-thousand-dollar black wing-tips when deep inside himself he must crave sheepskin-lined slippers. Why couldn’t he wear those dreamed-of slippers? I ask myself. Who would know, and who could begrudge him?
And how, for Christ’s sake, could a sweater hurt? It’s his due. It’s his Library.
But the first token of BC each morning is the faint sound of magnets and metal snapping disconcertingly into place and then releasing, a noise without context at first, muffled but not drowned by his thin trouser legs. In the smooth marble hallway, the sound bounces everywhere.
Like most of the very, very old, BC uses a walker, but unlike most, his encases his weakened lower body and doesn’t show. It is cutting-edge geriatrics, and it walks him. A padded titanium exoskeleton, custom-built, is locked to his mottled shins and thighs. These flat, slightly bendable, absolutely unbreakable shafts are sequenced with magnetic joints; a sensitive and solicitous computer pack nestled at his lower back constantly searches for the sturdiest pressures and angles. BC’s knees can’t fail him. His backbone is stiffened. The intelligent pack at the small of his back calculates which resistances increase his leverage and which subtract, and it feeds current to magnets or cuts it off accordingly. More than physics, it functions along comfortable political lines, and no device on earth could be more appropriate for a one-hundred-and-nine-year-old ex-president with tricky hips.
His body-walker is only one of several ways that BC has cheated age and gravity, outwitted decrepitude. About six years ago, a year before I came to Little Rock, rheumatoid arthritis was threatening his ability not only to dial phones and manipulate a keyboard but to shake hands—for him, the unthinkable. BC was roused violently into action. Thirty-five- and forty-year-old favors were called in. There was a video conference with the head of the FDA, the president of Johns Hopkins Medical School, and the CEOs of two global underwriters of medical technology.
With acceptable speed, a research team at the Mayo Clinic performed what was then only the fourth complete digital ceramic replacement, a procedure they haven’t yet been able to patent or market. Small, weblike scars at each finger and thumb crease mark the spots where microsurgery removed entire joints and replaced them with smooth ball sockets made of treated dental ceramic, then nailed each construct together with doll-sized pins. Finally they infused the whole works with sea-green polymer gel—a lubricant and an antirejection agent all in one. The fingers work perfectly now, sleekly, and BC has adopted a habit of drumming them on tabletops. When he does it, I can’t hear but I feel as though I can hear the ceramic shuffling and clicking like loosely stacked poker chips.
Like the rest of the very, very old, a group once known as the Baby Boomers, BC insists upon the very best care. He is the nation’s poster boy for raging against the dying of the light.
He remains something of a spokesman for them, the hundreds of millions in the Southwest, the New South, and retirement villages in the Northeast. He is, after all, a two-term president who once made the preservation of the old Medicare and Social Security systems his middle name. The current administration, like the last five or six, works hard to be seen as good sons and daughters to BC. If they have cut subsidies to the Library over the years, they have regularly increased funding for his medical care and staff. When he’s brought down by pneumonia or small cancers, the current Vice-President may drop in with soup and a photographer.
His quadriceps, hamstring, bicep, calf, and deltoid muscles have all been coaxed into hypertrophy with regular gene therapy. His genes have been isolated, sequenced, resequenced, sliced, diced, and julienned. The idea is to create stronger muscle bases, allowing the limbs and trunk to function more easily, with less strain. It does work; I’ve seen BC reposition his heavy oak desk with none of the trembling hands and knees you associate with the very aged. Between the body-walker and the gene work, he gets around. He’s perfectly viable and does without a day nurse.
Still, the proteins produced by the injections are indiscriminate, and the long and short of it is that his geriatric technicians can make muscle tissue regenerate but they can’t stop the process just like that.
So BC has the slightly comical Popeye arms and legs that have infiltrated the gene pool—artificially but literally—of every geriatric community in the country. He has the inflated forearms, the bulbous shoulders. He has a partial fan of back muscle that fills out his Dao/Armani shirt in a way that must be very satisfying when he catches a glimpse of himself in his tailor’s cutaway mirror.
But in other ways he is old, and unable. He is stooped, with none of the tall, straight-carriaged swagger I see in the file photos. His hearing, always dicey even during his years in the White House, is very poor. Only an extremely quiet room and careful pitch can make a voice completely understandable to him. He tells me that my voice gets through, that he needs me for that. But I have a feeling it’s just a little bit of blarney. He’s spent an entire lifetime making people feel especially, particularly close to him.
His own voice is lost, along with teeth and hearing. It is dry now, the voice, powered only by determination and an indomitable larynx; the diaphragm hasn’t worked for decades. Although he can occasionally rouse himself to indignation, for the most part he speaks like an old, old man in a nursing home, asking a passing orderly for a cup of water.
In my apartment, on a row of shelves over my work desk, I have an enormous collection of video and audio discs. Ninety percent of these are BC material. As his only authorized biographer, I have access to it all, the biggest cache of historical material ever recorded during a single presidency. To one side is a small subsection of discs with a little white label beneath, reading simply Greatest Hits.
These are BC’s best: his anniversary address outside the Murrah Federal Building, his first and fifth State of the Union Addresses, the brief spots he did on his opposition to shutting down the government in 1995, his second inaugural speech on healing the breach, and the eulogies—for his friend dead by suicide, for his commerce secretary killed in a plane crash, for Richard Nixon, the evil shibboleth of BC’s youth, for a pretty young woman ambassador killed abroad.
One of these funeral addresses is my favorite. It’s a video of his eulogy for an assassinated Israeli prime minister, and it is devastatingly effective. BC’s voice, with its soft, lower-middle-class, Hot-Springs-and-Hope Arkansas accent, moves out into his audience like a prayer and a promise. Once, when my old boyfriend Steve and I got high and watched it late at night with the lights way down, we both started to cry, out of nowhere. Not racking sobs or anything, but we did both cry.
Partly it was that Steve’s brother had been killed in Azerbaijan the previous year, in the wreck of an Apache attack helicopter, and the memory of his funeral was still too fresh for us both. It was a closed casket, after all, body scorched beyond the reach of postmortem cosmetics. But partly the crying was in answer to the voice itself.
Because BC’s was a voice that reached out and embraced you, comforted you. It knew where you hurt, you personally, for whatever reasons. It understood the depths of American sympathy, our ancient feelings of loneliness without a king, without a God, without real friends in a world always rightly suspicious of us. BC called this slain Israeli minister “friend” and said good-bye to him in Hebrew, and he preached to us about the forces of light and the forces of darkness, and about God’s plans for both.
Steve and I blamed it on the pot the next morning and laughed about it, but the truth is that BC’s voice was one-in-a-million. It could turn night into day, or at least into approaching dawn, and more than intelligent missiles and better early-warning equipment, a nation needs a leader who can move an entire people up and out of grief. It was a seductive voice, but it couldn’t have been nearly as effective if BC didn’t believe in the sound of it himself, if he didn’t speak from his own undeniably scarred heart.
But that voice is gone now. When he walks past the door to my office most mornings, clicking softly beneath his clothes, his greeting doesn’t carry far. If it weren’t for the cologne, I might miss it altogether.
* * *
His mind, his clarity of thought, he’s both kept and lost. In our interview sessions my first year in Little Rock, he could go on for several days about a given topic, health-care initiatives, say. He could speak about them for a long afternoon, then pick up the next morning more or less precisely where he left off. And that’s still true today, that his mind can suddenly and unexpectedly focus like a laser.
“The Republicans screwed me royally on that one,” he’ll say, angry again, “wouldn’t even allow a vote on cloture, not even a vote, but insisted on bringing it up in . . . I think it was the Omnibus Funding bill we made out of funding for State, Justice, Immigration, and Commerce—I’m pretty sure it was, but you check that. Those tight-assed bastards.”
Other times, especially late in the afternoon, in the wash of sun from the tall windows in his office, he’ll turn inward, unfocus. His mind will drift, and worry will crease his lightly spotted forehead. Sometimes the toe of his shoe will start to saw up and down, in a kind of unconscious physical counterpoint. When that happens I know he’s back in the world of what he calls his “troubles,” the scandals and missteps that dogged his presidency and that still eat at him now, nearly sixty years later. The interviews we did on those scandals—and he insisted that we spend long months on them—were clearly painful for him.
I had only recently met him at that time. He seemed to me then like the lone survivor of a horrible jetliner crash or movie-house fire, alive but traumatized and left wondering forever about his own culpability, whether and how much he was to blame for the blaze, whether and how much he’d trampled over others in his panic to escape. In our discussions, he would agonize about the lives destroyed, the promise wasted.
But his defenses, even now, are labyrinthine. He spent a long, gray March afternoon explaining several of his eleventh-hour pardons, an explanation tying together common, civil, and criminal law, the Department of Justice, the Israeli Mossad, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Almost more than the sex scandals, BC remains bitter about those scandals marking his departure from office, the stories about clemency for sale and filched gifts and vandalized offices in the West Wing. In his mind, his enemies bided their time until he was forced to decommission his spin army, to take off his personal armor, and then they struck mercilessly, news cycle after news cycle. BC’s nationwide approval ratings and the invincible Dow Jones Industrial collapsed simultaneously, and like the stock market BC took a good long time to recover, to climb up out of national disgrace.
Not that anyone but BC cares anymore about land deals gone wrong or love affairs gone cold. A tempest in a D-cup, as my dissertation adviser used to call the events that led up to his impeachment. His wife and his daughter and his chocolate Labrador and all of his enemies are dead. Only scholars are interested anymore, and then mostly only to know what glancing effects the scandals had on BC’s foreign-policy motivations. All anyone wants to know about him is how he figured in the making of the current conflicts. But that era of scandal is BC’s own purgatory, and it still has the power to pull him out of a discussion of NATO expansion or the Oslo Peace Accords, to draw his eyes down and his refitted hands nervously to his lap.