September 17, 1998
Up Close and Too Personal
By Marlene Adler Marks
In the hours since release of the Starr report last Friday, the American public has been just like my husband's jury. We've gone from fear and titillation, to shame and disgust. Then we felt despair and finally, ennui. Polls show that, yes, the vast majority of the public disapproves of Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but they seem unwilling to act upon it. The American public has no stomach for resignation or impeachment. The majority feel that to acquit Clinton is best. They are willing to tolerate two years of potential governmental inactivity with a lame duck, rather than go through the bruising battle of proof and counterproof, to no end.
And this is a good thing. Inaction is action, after all. Keeping Clinton in office, weakened by censure both personally and politically, may bring its own valuable consequences. Clinton's excesses after all, have been festering and are not his alone.
The End of Charisma
Perhaps now the American public will finally break its serious addiction to selecting charisma as the most desirable quality for elected officials.
Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debates 30 years ago, America has been playing out its own Picture of Dorian Gray: Our presidents have been increasingly photogenic, telegenic, projecting the domestic ideal of the nuclear family into the Ballot Box. This plays out in any number of hypocrisies. We look for a Renaissance man, a matinee idol, a cowboy, but one who can withstand the allure of women who fall at his feet. We want a man who has had boyhood pain, but cured himself of all his dysfunctions -- without therapy, of course. We also expect the wife to be both brilliant and bake cookies, etc., a mother and a corporate executive. We practice wedding-cake politics, creating in our first couple our image of ourselves: Jack and Jackie, Ron and Nancy, Barbara and George -- the political equivalent of Steve and Edie, putting on a good show, singing in harmony, no matter what the stresses are in family and political life.
Later, we learn the truth, leading to best-selling biographies: FDR had physical pain and a mistress, JFK had many mistresses and a bad back -- just like Clinton. We're "shocked, shocked," but that's all part of the game, the unveiling of the man and woman whose myth we gratefully accepted.
With Clinton, the shock is of a different order. Clinton has always been one of us, no paragon, but a real man. The question might be asked whether what we knew about him from the beginning -- his views on boxer shorts, his appetites for McDonalds and Gennifer Flowers -- deprived him of his ability to lead; but it's an unfair question. We asked, he told. He pierced the mythic veil, but we asked him to do so.
Whatever else we may learn about Clinton (please, God, no more) through a protracted legal hearing, the real message of the Starr report may be that as a nation we have come to the end of political cinema verité, the thrill of being in the unblinking public eye. Perhaps we'll finally lose our fascination with the camera and see the dangers of "up close and personal." Dare we use the word "modesty?"
The exposure and revelation of the presidential sexual appetite is the logical consequence of a disrobing of American life that began with the Loud family documentary of about 30 years ago, a '60s version of "The Real World" and JenniCam -- average citizens doomed to combust before our eyes. We learned nothing from these people, until the president joined the circus.
End of the Cult of Celebrity
As a corollary to the end of charisma, another good purpose of the Clinton meltdown would be an end to the cult of celebrity. No, People magazine and the Drudge Report won't lose their audiences. Yet already I hear people saying "I don't want to know," and it's a thrilling chorus. Years ago I actually wrote a column in which I suggested I wanted my next marriage to be just like Bill and Hillary's. Ha!
"The Truman Show" was no brilliant exposé of the media, but it sums up the transfixion that many of us have with the Clinton family. We are a nation not of voters but of adoring fans, staring at the Clintons in their bubble, sympathizing with Hillary's thwarted brilliance and wondering how poor Chelsea fares beneath our inquiring gaze. Public life as a soap opera, in which few of us believe we have anything real at stake.
The Cult of Celebrity has its devious downside, the cult of the destroyed celebrity. Find the tragic flaw! Find the addiction! Find the wart and the abscess in our national leader. Bring the leader down! The True Story of Bill and Hillary may read like a Danielle Steel novel, but it's ripped from the pages of The National Enquirer. Watching a president brought low by a scorned lover and an overzealous prosecutor may remind us that unless we protect the privacy of our leaders, all of us are doomed.
A Return to the Cult of Humanity
Finally, the Clinton meltdown shows us the costs of being human -- living on the mercy of our appetites, desires and each other. Given $50 million, Starr never found a shred of evidence that Clinton's appetite for sex interfered with his performance on the job. Clinton certainly made a mess of a dress and traded our trust for his lust, but his lie is one that is so common as to make a jury yawn. Are we any better, any less vulnerable, any less ridiculous or flawed?
When it comes to his private life, let the guy be.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is email@example.com