MAXWELL:  Bill Clinton’s presidency has been the most American of them all

12/12/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Bill Clinton’s presidency has one year left, and I am glad he is leaving. I am not glad because I have come to dislike the president. To the contrary, I still like Clinton. I am glad because the nation needs to move on.

All that said, Clinton has been good for the nation in more ways than not. And I am talking about more than the booming economy.

Politically, several bad things have happened. The worst perhaps are the president’s ham-handed failure to reform health care, the post-impeachment foolishness that paralyzed Congress and our potentially long-term military entanglement in the Balkans.

On the positive side, Clinton, along with his wife and their very real American marriage, has helped America begin the slow process of growing up, of seriously examining the old Puritanism that keeps us longing for a time that never was _ a mythic age when Americans, including our elected officials and pundits, were not adulterers.

Clinton’s essential normality, his composite warts, has been one of the best things to happen to the American psyche in recent memory.

Wait, hear me out.

First, the sex thing. Clinton is sexy. Women love him. And no one can convince me that we do not have a healthier sense of sex and sexuality after endless episodes of the Perils of Monica. Granted, we have not adopted the Europeans’ blase attitude toward the peccadilloes of their leaders and public figures, and we have yet to permit our prez to openly keep a paramour. But we _ except for Tampa City Council members who have never seen a lap that they like _ are not as uptight about sex as we were before Clinton hit the national scene.

If you do not believe Americans have loosened up, ask the pollsters. They will tell you why GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a Christian zealot, did not suffer when rumors surfaced that he may have had an affair with an aide. This new disinclination to rip up private lives is directly attributable to the Clinton saga. It also may be a sign of growing up.

After the president confessed that he had messed around with “that woman,” Time magazine reporters Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy explained part of his puzzling mystique: “Presidents aren’t like kings, but they are not supposed to be like the rest of us either. The office confers a mystic expectation, a combination of Roosevelt’s brains and Johnson’s clout and Reagan’s grace, that helps presidents persuade Congress and the people to follow their lead. The agony of Clinton’s choice was that his best chance for survival demanded that he declare himself less than we expect a president to be and more like the rest of us after all.”

More like the rest of us.

One of the things that I like most about Clinton, in fact, is that he is like the rest of us. And many other Americans, who will not say so publicly, like him for the same reason. Aside from his brilliant mind, Clinton’s ordinariness accounts for much of his Teflon resilience.

Even his marriage is ordinary. By ordinary, I mean being like the rest of us. By all accounts, his marriage has problems. How many other American marriages do not? Instead of calling the first couple “weird,” as so many critics do, I applaud them for giving us just enough information to let us know that they have problems.

Listen to the president speak of his wife’s move to her new digs in New York: “You know, it’s not the best arrangement in world, but it’s something that we can live with for a year. But I’ve got a job to do, and she now has a campaign to run, and so we’ll have to be apart more than I wish we were. But it’s not a big problem. She’ll be here quite a lot, and I’ll go up there when I can, and we’ll manage it and I think it will come out just fine.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton, moreover, is like thousands of other wives in at least two important respects: She is a mother and a professional who has carved out her own career. She will stand by her man until she is ready to strike out on her own. Where is the weirdness? Her situation is very American. Even if she loses the Congressional race in New York, her professional future is bright, and her example will be one for other women to follow.

The president’s dirt-poor beginnings in Arkansas also give him a commoner, Everyman aura that has confounded the Eastern Establishment. These traits have also embarrassed and angered many Southerners, especially white males, who hate being reminded of their own yeoman roots.

But Clinton has given all Bubbas, even self-loathers, every reason to hope, to know that they, too, can become the most powerful person on Earth. Clinton’s Southernness helped reduce the distances between Dixie and the various regions, and we are better off for it. Even the president’s accent has become part of our shared background noise. When was the last time Leno or Letterman made fun of Clinton’s twang?

Many white people, especially conservatives, and most leading pundits remain bewildered that most African-Americans still love Clinton. Aside from his support of their causes, blacks see the president as a spiritual soul mate. They like his personal style _ his savoir-faire and his unpretentiousness in their company.

They like that his golfing buddy is a brother, his personal secretary a sister. They like that the U.S. president invites himself to their churches, that he prays with them and sings black gospels without using a hymnal. Clinton regularly brings jazz musicians, rock stars, athletes, children and business owners to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In return, blacks love this complex, brilliant, funky saxophonist with the ordinary touch.

Although time has made Bill Clinton a lame duck and although he leaves office under the stench of scandal, his lasting legacy may be that, as Everyman, he was the most American of all U.S. presidents.