Friday, July 18, 2008

Summer Reading: Carol Felsenthal’s Clinton in Exile

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill, 7/17/08

There is a masterfully crafted scene in Carol Felsenthal’s Clinton in Exile that brings to mind the stillness and awe of Robert E. Lee signing surrender at Appomattox or Nelson’s funeral after Trafalgar. You feel as if you are waiting there for Lee to make his despondent comment on behalf of the heroic vanquished when Grant’s Indian guide responded, “We’re all Americans here.” You feel you are nervously waiting through a dead quiet in a side parlor for Wellington to arrive or perhaps the King’s entourage to enter and offer homage to the fallen warrior and god king of Trafalgar. You sense that the events which brought you to these pivotal passages in the river are larger than you are; larger than your family is and more important and people will look to this great moment as a turning for a 1,000 years to come. But it is not Nelson at Trafalgar or Lee at Appomattox. It is Bill Clinton entering a room of adoring supporters waiting for him to do a crossword puzzle.

And that captures the essence of this downward spiral which is the life and times of Bill Clinton starting on the day he left office. Trafalgar and Appomattox are indeed simply bends in the river of a tribal pre-history which brought us to this, the most important moment in “human history” as Clinton tends to describe the events which led up to this moment; to his moment, the Brahma point from which all past time descends and all future time ascends. He describes the Internet as “the fastest growing means of communication in human history” in 1998 as he so described the cloning of Dolly. Just as he described Hillary as co-winner of the Democratic primary last week while addressing a group of governors.

But he would be uncomfortable with the analogy of Lee and Nelson, even though, as Felsenthal points out, he wanted military medals added to his official White House portrait, although he dodged the draft and like much in this legacy, he lied about it. Likely he envisions himself as a kind of Gandhi or Bodhiharma who saved Africa – although one million Rwandans died on his watch and died by the knife – and cured AIDS, much as Elvis dreamed that he was Jesus later in his life.

This is an odyssey of gold watches and billionaire friends; bimbos, bling and a private airplane bigger than a doublewide; and cash-raising speeches, end on end – three in a day at up to $800,000 a pop, bringing in $46 million in just a few years. But at the center of this political theater nothing holds. There is no Trafalgar. There is no Appomattox. There is no center. In the center is a maze – a crossword puzzle; a maze much like the one Dedalus built to insulate the King and hide him from his obsession.

Felsenthal’s book brings to mind the great writing of Barbara Tuchman; great because Tuchman creates on her canvas a pastiche of such detail that the story which is history is revealed as if of its own initiative. Likewise, Felsenthal, without guile, rancor or interpretation, reveals critical details we need to know to understand what happened to put what we have heard so far into perspective; the conversation between Bill and Hillary when the Monica episode is sprung to the press was quiet and loving; that the Monica episode is characteristic of a life-long journey, and that the key enabler in this fairly squalid story is not Bill’s Hollywood hack producer friends or vain political panderers, but Hillary. Like the plain girl – as Bill’s mother, Virginia, who wore tube tops and played the ponies, described her – who married the fancy man, she seems to expect the controversy and maybe enjoy it, vicariously sharing in its shady celebrity. It is the source and means of her entire public life and persona.

When the subject of Bill’s continued philandering was raised with Hillary, she responded, says one man who knows both Clintons well. “Screw ‘em. If they want to go vote for a pro-life Republican, let ‘em.”

We need to hear these voices and the not so quiet and loving voices as well: Don Hewett recalls a 60 Minutes episode about Vernon Jordan, Bill’s golf pal, when Mike Wallace asked him, “What do you and Bill Clinton talk about on the golf course?” and Jordan answered, “Pussy.”

This is Bill’s story but it is also a generation’s story; or rather, the story of that part of a generation which came to identify with the Clintons. It is the story of that part of the generation born to adulthood on May 4, 1970, perhaps, the day of Kent State, of which hippie leader Jerry Rubin said, “After Kent State you couldn’t get a girl to type your term paper for you anymore.” Rubin declared the hippie movement dead then and said, “Wealth creation is the real American Revolution.” He moved on to Wall St. and that part of the generation which sees Clinton as its avatar followed like a horde.

Felsenthal’s book tells a story of liberalism as it began to take an unusual tack with this group, at a time when Lewis H. Lapham, the venerable Harper’s editor, said liberals began to enter a room in a way that seem to say look at my haircut.

And it is a story of plain people, Bill and Hillary, or people who started out plain and today face the daily terror that history will remember them as plain.

During his lowest moods, Felsenthal writes, Bill worried that the business, policy, and nonprofit worlds would reject him out of fear that their members would be offended by his very presence. “That fed into his biggest insecurity – “ she writes, “that he did not really belong in the elite circles in which he mixed, the he was, after all, just white trash.”

But Felsenthal’s detailed writing reveals an ambivalence; possibly an inherent, subliminal desire by Clinton to flaunt the low life and vindicate the lore and mores of the poor white folk of the agrarian South. In her subtle and skillful telling, the Clintons begin to suggest and original Bill and Hillary counterpart and a historic parallel which some historians have suggested came about in opposition to the hippies and the Sixties generation: The TV preachers Jim and Tammy Faye Baker.

Felsenthal writes: Today Bill Clinton collects high-end watches and wears a Rolex, or a Patek Philippe or a Cartier or an Audemars Piguet or a watch by the young German watchmaker Michael Kobold. These are watches that cost thousands of dollars; some reach to six figures. Clinton has about fifty watches in his collection . . . . In 2004, when Michael Kobold, German born and only twenty-seven, first met Clinton at a small private party, the former president was wearing an Audemars Piguet skeleton watch that was worth well over a hundred thousand dollars.

So many watches, so little time. She goes on and the passage brings to mind Jim Baker holding up his gold watch and joyfully shouting to the TV camera: See this gold watch? Jee-sus wants you to have this gold watch.

Felsenthal tells an important story; a story which took us to the end of the second millennium and to a continuing series of events by a Presidential couple which historians will see perhaps in time as a phenomenon rather than a political process, and possibly even as a millennialist phenomenon like UFO encounters, Wormwood, dreams of the Yellow Monk, Jerry Springer and visions of Armageddon.