Bill Clinton has forged a unique relationship with show business over eight years, but of course he's not the first American president to connect with that world. John Kennedy went to Hollywood on sex-hunting expeditions and learned from movie stars how to make his public image glow. Ronald Reagan transferred an actor's poised good humour into politics. With Clinton it was different. He started out among dowdy Arkansas politicians and slowly attached himself, almost like a groupie, to the world of glamour and fabricated excitement, with startling results for himself and American culture.
Clinton both anticipated and helped establish the mass culture of the present. He created the climate in which Bob Dole, once the most sophisticated senator in Washington, could appear in commercials to explain that Viagra had cured his erectile dysfunction.
Clinton helped bend the culture in the direction of personal exposure, sentimentality and a heartfelt "sincere" liberal belief that you can never go far wrong if you feel compassion and blatantly exhibit your admirable feelings, whether or not they affect your actions. He soaked up the populist, hopeful American spirit from birth, and in turn marked that spirit with his own eager yearning and his clumsy groping toward fulfilment.
He radically changed the tone of what was always called, with an implied roll of drums, the most powerful office in the world. He made it more personal, more frivolous, more boyish.
Where other presidents had tried to be fathers of their country, Clinton became an erring son, a mischievous lad who's so loveable that he's forgiven everything. Clinton switched the presidency (as Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times) "from a paternal model to an adolescent model." Like a teenager waving for attention, he became a self-dramatist. He began to resemble an actor impersonating a president in a road show production of a melodrama called White House in Crisis. He learned to show emotion in theatrical ways. At a funeral, whether for a close associate or for dozens of strangers killed by terrorism, he always gave what critics call a richly detailed performance, with tears that flowed for the camera. Others go to funerals to mourn. Clinton (his performance shows) went there to be seen mourning.
People called him vulgar and silly when he played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall's TV show or discussed his underpants on MTV. They didn't understand, as he clearly did, the extent to which the entertainment industry was dictating the style and attitudes of America. He was personally attracted to TV and the movies, and Hollywood executives and stars became his passionate allies. In 1998, at the height of the impeachment process, no less a thinker than Alec Baldwin, an ardent supporter of the President, declared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien: "I'm thinking to myself, if we were in other countries, we would all right now go down to Washington and we would stone Henry Hyde [chief congressional tormentor of Clinton] to death! ... And we would go to their [Congressmen who vote for impeachment] homes and we'd kill their wives and children." It was a moment of bully boy horror and histrionics, a Hollywood moment and a Clinton moment.
It encapsulated the Clintonization of Hollywood and the Hollywoodization of Clinton. It reminded us that in the 1990s, whether you liked it or not, the greatest show of America, therefore the greatest show on earth, was Clinton, his self-generated traumas, and the furies they let loose.
At the centre of it, as in any good drama, was character. People earnestly discussed "the character issue," but the nature of the president's character was never much in doubt. He's a narcissist, and would probably be more at home in Hollywood than anywhere else. Narcissists, possessors of high but unstable self-esteem, need incessant praise and often require many sexual partners. They regulate their self-esteem by searching for reassurance, rationalizing mistakes and -- most crucial -- displaying wounded feelings whenever possible. A narcissist occupying the Oval Office must act like a movie star faced with bad reviews or declining grosses. Despite a lifetime of success, Clinton still presents himself as neglected and rejected. George Stephanopoulos, in his memoirs, quotes Clinton whining that no president has ever been treated as badly as he has (presumably forgetting those who were assassinated). In Rolling Stone magazine he complained of "never" getting credit for his accomplishments.
Like every narcissist, he's still showing his wounds. As recently as Oct. 20, The New York Times reported that he was "hurt" and "bewildered" because he hadn't been invited to take part in Al Gore's big campaign rallies. Narcissists are notoriously incapable of empathizing with others, and Clinton hasn't yet understood the shame his lies brought down on the heads of his associates, including Gore -- shame they surely relive during any appearance shared with him. In a Hollywood movie, as Clinton knows, problems don't linger that way. The scriptwriter produces a resolution, everyone experiences "closure," and all "move on."
Denial is an essential strategy to the narcissist. The White House ran a vicious disinformation campaign against Monica Lewinsky for seven months, but that was typical of the administration's style. As Rem Rieder noted in the American Journalism Review: "Whenever the president's personal behaviour has been called into question -- the draft, smoking marijuana, bimbo eruptions, the Whitewater land deal -- the response has been the same: bob and weave, counterpunch with abandon, unleash the world-class spin machine." Clinton pioneered, or at least perfected, the unapologetic apology, a petulant display of anger rather than contrition.
In the 1990s, under Clinton's influence, Hollywood found itself tugged toward the presidency. The movie people had always made a few presidential biographies (such as Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 and Wilson in 1944), political satires (such as The Best Man in 1964 or Being There in 1979) and films on political scandals (All the President's Men in 1976). But until the 1990s the White House was not a favoured locale for movies. Why did that change? Perhaps Hollywood warmed to Clinton's puppy-like friendliness. Or perhaps the Clinton administration cooked up such a rich stew of drama (illicit sex, vague corruption, widespread mendacity, hysterical disorganization, a famous suicide) that it made the White House irresistible to producers.
So Hollywood began turning out presidential movies in unprecedented numbers. The Internet Movie Database identifies 83 features focused on presidents since motion pictures were invented; of these, two dozen have been made in the Clinton era, far more than under any other president (see selected filmography, below). In 1999, television followed, with the most sophisticated political TV series ever, The West Wing, featuring a staff of neo-Clintonians headed by a high-minded president who is morally as far from Clinton as it possible for a character to get and still remain credible.
Clinton was a gift to show business. He changed the presidency from something august and distanced to the motherlode of American humour and drama. He did scriptwriters the great favour of proving that everything the tabloids imagined about the secret lives of the powerful was true -- only more so. (No professional tabloid fantasist ever came up with anything like the FBI analyzing presidential semen on an employee's dress). Sex is Hollywood's main subject at all times, and it likes nothing better than new variations on the theme. Clinton created a national discourse dominated by sex: Americans to their astonishment found themselves discussing whether fellatio is adultery. There has never been such a sexualized presidency, nor had anyone imagined there could be.
His style was grounded in lowbrow entertainment. As Joe Klein recalled recently in The New Yorker, the 1992 Clinton campaign, from New Hampshire primary to White House inauguration, appeared to exist "entirely within the grammar of popular culture -- a cross between a disaster movie and a country music song."
>From Hollywood he also imported the sexual ethics of the casting couch. And something more: sexual inadequacy. Like many stars, he revealed eventually (through those painful Kenneth Starr tapes) that his radiant public sexuality masked private fear and incompetence. As details of his "affair" with the intern emerged, it sounded like the fumbling of frightened teenagers, afraid of their own sexuality but anxious to experiment so long as their parents didn't find out. It was dreadful to contemplate that a man of such eminence and experience was, in private, such a boy, but it accords with what we know of the bedroom lives of many great stars, such as Marilyn Monroe. His story illustrated what psychiatrists have always known, that narcissism is not the road to joyful sex. Stardom is an institutionalized form of narcissism, with a vast industry to support it. It is also a way of avoiding reflection. A movie star says "I am a very private person" in the course of giving an interview about her marriage, and never notices a contradiction. That was Clinton's style, too: He offered the world a warm, soft-hearted, caring and "open" personality that had absolutely nothing to do with the way he lived and acted. It didn't matter to him. He was far too intoxicated by the spotlight to notice anything as mundane as logic and continuity. He sought stardom, and in his grotesque way he found it.