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PRINT April 1996

AMERICAN MYTHS

the Remaking of the President

THE POLITICAL QUESTION, as 1996 grew nigh, was this: Would the American electorate remember Bill Clinton as the last liberal—as a funny fat boy, a dysfunctional ditherer? Scarcely a month before the primary season began, the Louisville Courier had caricatured our president as Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley, reassuring his mirrored reflection: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough, and darn it, people like me.”

Step one in the Clinton recovery had been The American President—a muy simpatico portrait of an affable, narrowly elected, pragmatically waffling baby-boom Democrat characterized by a lack of military service, a teenage daughter, and a vague sense of some personal compromise. (Thanks to the subtext Michael Douglas brought to the role, that weakness was sexualized.) Critics had no trouble identifying President Andrew Shepherd, per Time, as “Bill Clinton on his best day.” The verisimilitude was duly certified by former press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who told Premiere that “everything down to the cover of the daily-news summary is exactly as it was during my tenure there.”

Not everything, perhaps. As the makers of The American President hadn’t factored the Brave Newt World of Republican Nation into their entertainment equation, the suspense of politicking the president’s program through Congress proved quaintly obsolete. On the other hand, the filmmakers had intuited the Clinton reelection strategy. The film’s sanctimonious opening credits evoked the 1984 Ronald Reagan TV spots the Clinton team was reportedly studying for 1996: stately music, Old Glory, the Constitution, portraits of George Washington and JFK. While The American President was still in previews, neo-feminist (and wife of White House speechwriter David Shipley) Naomi Wolf, imported by Clinton Svengali Dick Morris to brainstorm strategy, warned that, to counter potential Republican attempts to cast Clinton as a child, the president needed to establish his image as the “Good Father.” The American President, even more utopian, dumped the problematic notion of the first lady to render the president as that nurturing single father romance writers refer to as the “Fab Dad.”

The American President was, as film critic Andrew Sarris noted, “the first salvo of the Clinton reelection campaign.” The second was the state of the union address dubbed “East Coast Oscar Night” in the Washington Post. As The American President airbrushed Clinton’s imperfections (the old ball and chain among them), the speech—the culmination of the president’s yearlong attempt to crash the Republican party—Gumped him into Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Draped in the ceremonial trappings of office, Fab Dad appropriated a host of conservative social issues while reiterating the death of the New Deal—his genial reasonableness only reinforced on TV by a glowering Newt Gingrich and repeated cutaways to the glaring Republican majority.

Burnishing the president’s triumph, Senator Dole’s rejoinder was largely taken as the campaign’s first debate. Not only was Dole’s speech panned in the media, the senator himself was perceived as a geriatric automaton. Though Dole’s advisers had dissuaded him from making reference to The American President—the line “no President has been closer to Hollywood” was dropped—the Republican front-runner could not avoid being characterized on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer as “a grumpy old man” (Hollywood wags would soon be calling him “dead man walking”). Clinton’s notices, by contrast, were sensational. Reviewing his performance on Good Morning America, Cokie Roberts declared the address—which invoked the word “children” some 37 times—as “the most presidential speech that I have seen him give.”

Clinton’s third step came with the anonymously published, bestselling roman à clef Primary Colors. Mythologizing the 1992 Clinton campaign already “documented” by the spin-doctor cinema verité of The War Room, the novel was sensationally vivid—at least in its representation of candidate Governor Jack Stanton, and his wife Susan, as he vied for the Democratic nomination. Here at last was a plausible portrait of political animal Homo Clintonous—his all-encompassing handshakes and “aerobic listening,” the way he “snagged a cold, congealed slice of pepperoni, peppers and onions on his way to the bedroom where Susan was working the phone with a finger stuck in her ear.”

What Anonymous made clear was that Clinton/Stanton had the conviction of his appetites. As a college girlfriend tells the novel’s narrator: “He loved me. He loved every stray cat in the quad. That boy is not deficient in the love zone—he’s got more than enough to go around, and it’s all legit. He’s never fakin’ it.” Nor was the love machine programmed for obsolescence. “It had reached the point of disgust,” the narrator observes of the temporarily faltering Stanton campaign, and the press “didn’t understand why he wouldn’t just quit. Didn’t he know he was history? Everyone had written it.”

History for sure. Inside the Beltway, speculation as to which Clinton-campaign insider or Washington journalist wrote Primary Colors—interest promoted by the book’s hefty film-rights sale and by the president himself, who taunted the press corps by calling the author’s identity “the only secret I’ve seen kept in Washington in three years”—all but upstaged the Republican candidates preparing for ’96’s first caucuses and primaries.

The key moment in Primary Colors comes when Governor Stanton agrees to deal with yet another burgeoning scandal by talking to Geraldo. “Jack, don’t,” his wife pleads, “a president doesn’t do that sort of thing. We’ve got to think about keeping whatever dignity we have left.” To which the campaign’s hard-nosed media adviser replies, “Excuse me, ma’am. But who knows what the fuck a president does these days?” Who indeed? Anonymous has packaged Clinton as destiny’s darling—or, at least, as the best we can expect.

Clinton is surely a lover not a fighter, but his need to be president may be greater than that of any American pol since Nixon. His power, Anonymous attests, derives from “the authenticity of his appeal, from the stark ferocity of his hunger.” We all recognize codependency when we see it. Only nine steps to go.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.