PRINT November 1998


the presidential follies

STEEPED IN CELEBRITY AND SEMIOTICS, book packages and product placement, has been a thoroughly postmodern coup d’etat. The investigation preceded the crime. The one who pulled the trigger was not a crazed loner but a star-struck groupie. The conspiracy was hidden in plain sight. The dog was wagged out.

The Contract with America had become a contract on Bill Clinton. A cabal of right-wing plutocrats, well-connected literary hustlers, and political opportunists funded, sold, and promoted a scenario that—whatever objections newsreaders might have had—was far too entertaining for any of them to ignore. Were these so-called liberals in the media compulsively destroying their hapless codependent? The contradiction was no more surprising than the spectacle of the hard-core right insisting that the graphic description contained in The Starr Report appear on the Internet to be read by every schoolchild in America. Thus sex education merged with civics class as The Starr Report garnered an audience far beyond any previous example of state-subsidized American art.

The boomerography doubled back on itself. After successfully defeating two grumpy old men, both of whom had chosen to play sternly befuddled dads, the fifty-two-year-old rock ‘n’ roll president was now cast forever as an unruly, sullen teenager who would have to be disciplined by the fanatics of the religious right. Such were the wages of sin. (It took another perpetual adolescent, Donald Trump, to advise our prez to dump the ball and chain, quit his gig, and party on.)

The first postwar American president without the benefit of the apocalyptic Soviet threat was automatically diminished—compelled to live out the cruel boomer nightmare of downward mobility. But if the parallels between Bill Clinton and Hollywood had been there all along, who would have predicted that this spiral would end with his incorporation into trash culture, making an involuntary confession on the national Jerry Springer show that would be replayed until the end of time? The dysfunctional, no-longer imperial president would rattle his sabers (as in February after the Monica Lewinsky story broke) and even launch missiles—in vain. He was preempted by the very Wag the Dog scenario that everyone at the time professed to disbelieve as too obvious—although it was scarcely less obvious than The Starr Report’s strategic publication six weeks before the election.

As Wag the Dog suggested, the Internet-driven round-the-clock cable coverage would be mediated at every point by Hollywood scenarios. Monica had her first sexual encounter with the president on November 15,1995, scarcely thirty-six hours before the opening of The American President. Their second tryst came the evening after the movie materialized in malls across America. The American President had dared to ask, Is the leader of the Free World free to date? But long before the movie’s blithe Oedipal scenario was liquidated by the tawdry details of Oval Office hanky-panky, Hollywood anticipated the second Clinton administration with three movies depicting the White House as a crime scene. (The first of these, Absolute Power, opened on the same day that Monica addressed the president with a personal Valentine’s Day “love note” in the Washington Post.)

Bill jilted Monica in late May and, as she doggedly attempted to pursue their relationship, it seemed as though she might be taking cues from the Gary Hart-era chestnut Fatal Attraction. But unbeknownst to us, she was a romantic inspired by Titanic to write the president a “mushy” note begging him for one act of sexual intercourse. And so the steamy iceberg approached the ship of state. Did Clinton have a shock of recognition during Meltdown Weekend fourteen days later when, with Monica’s ID photo on every newsstand and the presidential rope-line video in heavy rotation, he hunkered down in the White House screening room to watch the most romantic disaster movie ever made?

Monica-mania segued into the mid-March release of Primary Colors. (With a delightful absence of self-awareness, Time magazine began its seventy-sixth year by running a cover of President John Travolta in his Primary Colors drag.) By late spring, the video panopticon of The Truman Show provided another metaphor: “With 57 channels on 24 hours a day,” the president had become a “real-life equivalent of Jim Carrey’s Truman, Variety reported. And in August, Monica was recalled to testify on, among other things, the provenance of the stain on her Gap party dress. Back in January 1993, then Sony Pictures chairman Peter Guber declared Bill Clinton’s inauguration a ”seminal event." How could he have known that, like the summer’s biggest comedy There’s Something About Mary, the seminal event would be the president’s second term?

Hollywood loved Bill Clinton and yet Hollywood helped bring him down. Now, just in time for the election, we have Pleasantville—another exercise in American magical realism suggesting that TV is the national culture. This revisionist Back to the Future was written and directed by Gary Ross, the former political speechwriter responsible for the screenplay to the first Clinton movie, Dave. A day before the president went before the closed-circuit camera, Ross told the New York Times that he was “surprised and shocked that we’re actually talking about this sort of thing in public as it relates to the President.”

Shocked, shocked. Such a thing could never happen in Pleasantville, the ersatz ’50s sitcom and citadel of “family values” to which two contemporary teens are magically teleported. Thanks to them, this black-and-white Eden is contaminated by sex, literature (!), and color. The more conservative citizens turn into book-burning Moral Majoritarians while the progressive “coloreds” announce that they are merely acknowledging the ordinary impulses of human nature: “You can’t stop something that’s inside you.” Thus does the entertainment machine defend itself against itself, dispelling old illusions with new ones. We are freer to have virtual knowledge of our leaders’ sex lives than we are to ignore it. That no one wants to hear any more about the Clinton scandal but none of us can stop the mechanism that feeds upon it, is part of the schizophrenia of our life in Unpleasantville—although as the president himself said, that might depend on what your definition of “is,” is.

J. Hoberman is the senior film critic of The Village Voice.