"I intend to reclaim my family life for my family," Bill Clinton said, petulantly, in his nonapology of August 17, explaining further, "Even presidents have private lives." And so some may, but not this one. This man, who has long since surpassed even Richard M. Nixon as our strangest president ever, has no private life to reclaim or return to, having long since ceded it, and his family, to his public ambitions.
Even as Clinton spoke, or pouted, Jesse Jackson -- that mediaphilic political preacher, the only pastor in the world without a church but with a CNN contract -- was filling the networks and the pages of Newsweek with detailed accounts of the personal grief of Clinton's wife and daughter, pouring out their intimate sorrows before hundreds of millions of strangers around the world. Days later, Clinton himself was still leaking the particulars of his family's pain, trying to spin a political tale of obstruction of justice into a domestic story of sin and redemption for which no further public rebuke is required.
What was he doing? Trying to recast as a private mistake a public affront to the courts and the country that, though rooted in a personal failing, took place during work time, in a federal office -- the very seat and symbol of the national government -- with a young woman employed by the government. So is this scandal public or private? It is neither entirely, because it is both.
It is appropriate that Clinton have this sort of trouble, for never before in American history have the lines between public and private become quite so blurred. From "two for the price of one" through "pain in my marriage" through the bathos-soaked convention speeches of himself and his running mate -- from the co-presidency shared by his wife to the current commotion about lust and lying -- the Clintons have commingled the realms of public and private as no one before them. They have made us spectators to their private convulsions, and have made policy arrangements and government appointments an adjunct to their intimate lives. No president before has been so investigated, and so mocked, for his private indisciplines. But no president before has told us so much about his feelings, his life, and his underwear. His administration has been largely shaped by his wife; his campaigns have been won by exploiting emotion, by subjugating party and platform to personal stories. And he is paying the price.
Repeatedly, Clinton has had problems with women and working, alternately pouncing on lower-grade female aides in the workplace (a volunteer, an intern, and a one-time state worker are the source of his current political troubles) and handing off large chunks of power to his wife. Whatever else it may be, his marriage has been a political union, formed among other things to maximize the fulfillment of public ambitions. Together, the Clintons made up for each other's deficiencies. "Each saw in the other a partner for a political future," wrote Connie Bruck in the New Yorker. Said Clinton biographer David Maraniss, "They realized they could go further together than either could go on his own." And so they struck a bargain: His career would become their endeavor. His power, when they won it, would be shared.
Then the personal, already political, became all the more so through a purely private aspect of their married life. Mrs. Clinton's decision to cover up his adulteries -- to defend him and to attack his accusers -- added to her personal leverage, putting his career, and his future, in her hands. This private bargain was to have huge public consequences, as it greatly empowered an unelected non-official, who had never won a vote or explained her views to the voters.
With the personal now entirely political, it was no surprise at all when Mrs. Bill Clinton began to remake the contours of government, insisting on naming part of the cabinet (including two failed nominees for attorney general), imposing "diversity" standards that left some posts vacant (or staffed by incompetents), and filling the Justice Department with her professional cronies (one of whom would be jailed for embezzlement). For this sterling work, she was given control of health-care reform, seen as the crown jewel and legacy of the two-for-one couple, yet which produced a bill so badly planned and marketed that it never reached the floor of a Democratic Congress for a vote. In the course of the debate on health care, no one, least of all the president, dared to advise or correct this so-public first lady. But the debacle helped to shape the 1994 mid-term elections, which gave both houses of Congress to the Republican party for the first time in almost 40 years -- a ground-breaking feat for a woman.
Mrs. Clinton, who gained all her power through her pact with her husband, used her role as first lady to evade accountability, taking refuge in her station as wife of the president and in the unwritten rule that the families of politicians are to be treated with courtesy. Her interviews and press availabilities were few and carefully controlled by her agents; she was never subjected to the intense questioning routine for department heads and members of Congress. Don't beat up on my wife, an enraged and oddly chivalrous Bill Clinton told Jerry Brown in a debate in the 1992 primary campaign when Brown raised the issue of Mrs. Clinton's prior professional dealings. Clinton implied that the little woman should be above such ungallant intrusions. But those intrusions are the accepted price of political power, either through congressional hearings or the rough-and-tumble of political campaigns. Except for the Clintons, who use the terms "public" and "private" to amass power and evade accountability for it, undermining the idea of responsible government.
While Hillary Clinton shuttles back and forth as convenient between being Pretty in Pink and Prime Minister, there have been new incursions into presidential privacy.
From Theodore Roosevelt on, canny politicians have known the value of putting forward attractive children, pretty wives, or appealing pictures of family life to shore up or warm up a personal image, but crucial rights of privacy were long maintained. TR did not tell us of his desperate struggles with childhood asthma, his crippled sister, his dissolute brother, or that dreadful day in 1884 when within a few hours his beloved mother and adored wife died. His cousin Franklin did not share with us his dark night of the soul about polio or his troubles with his mother or his wife. John Kennedy did not involve us in his many health problems or fill us in on his retarded sister or his brother's and sister's deaths. True, a boundary was crossed in the 1988 election, when their handlers, concerned that George Bush and Michael Dukakis were seen as unempathetic, pushed their families to talk in public about the loss of children; but it was not until Bill Clinton ran four years later that the walls truly came tumbling down.
Personal details became not the background to, but an equal partner with, policy talk. In fact, they became the very bona fides for public service, offered in a flood of invasive family stories that truly were none of our business. Even the sympathetic Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the New Republic, appeared stunned by this open-door policy,
the avalanche of intimate detail set forth in the two acceptance speeches and the films preceding them . . . Clinton's father's death in a car crash before he was born, his stepfather's drunken violence against his mother, separation from Mom at age 3, her breast cancer, how he met his wife and proposed to her, what his daughter looked like ("all sqwunched up") as she emerged from his wife's womb while he watched.
From the delivery room, we were taken to the sickroom, the deathbed, and then to the therapy session, as Al Gore, possibly a contagion victim, told us all about his son's near-fatal car accident and the family counselling that helped them all cope. Four years later, Gore upped the ante with a drawn-out and lachrymose account of his sister's death from lung cancer, as his parents, then in their eighties, teared up in the audience.
So, in the Clinton years, it became perfectly all right to use your dead sister -- your sick child -- your dead father -- your addicted brother -- to further your political interests. Already long before, in Bill Clinton's family, it had become all right to drastically alter your private persona to fit the requirements of politics. Prior first ladies all looked like themselves through adulthood, remaining true to some internal self-image. Barbara Bush stated that she would do anything at all to win an election except diet, dress younger, or color her hair. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was willing to transform her appearance in response to her husband's defeat as governor in 1980. She tossed out her maiden name and thick glasses; cut, dyed, and softened her hair; and went in for feminine dresses.
Today she resembles nothing so much as a focus group's idea of an acceptable public woman, buffed to a highly professional gloss, her stiff hair a glaring, improbable yellow, the total political artifact.
With all this in mind, it is only fitting that, as the Clintons fight to survive this most intimate scandal, their intimate actions are treated as spin. What are they showing us? Why are they showing it? Are their displays of rage and forgiveness genuine? Or are they put on for effect? Networks broke into their programming on August 18 so that viewers could watch the Clintons, Chelsea between them, walk across the South Lawn to the whirly-bird, then transfer to their plane, and later disembark on Martha's Vineyard. People scanned their expressions and gestures for portents. How close are they standing? Are they touching? Are they relaxed, or do they seem anxious? And what does it all mean?
Almost as one, journalists questioned what Maureen Dowd called the Clintons' "counterfeit privacy" -- the constant talk about family rage, the "healing process" -- seeing it as part of a plan to help them stay in office by framing the scandal as a drama to be played out not in Congress, but in a family setting, with Mrs. Clinton, not the Senate, as judge. "Even Hillary Clinton's much-publicized frostiness as she walked across the White House lawn . . . may not be real," cautioned Fred Hiatt in the Washington Post. "The agitprop machine has dialed up frostiness because it may be politically useful if we think Clinton is paying a price at home for his sins."
Much suspicion fell on Jesse Jackson's visit to the White House to offer spiritual counsel -- a political favor cynically framed as a mission of mercy, by a man who could pretend to objectivity while dealing out dollops of spin. Jackson, said Jason Zengerle in the New Republic, "allows Clinton to play the Chelsea card. The public likes Chelsea, and feels sorry for her, but the White House could never exploit that directly by having the carefully protected first daughter plead her wayward dad's case." The public never forgave Richard Nixon for letting his daughter go out and defend him. The Clintons know better than that.
Weeks after his public confession of lying, Clinton appeared still deeply unknowing about what the words public and private can mean. "He is apologizing for what is arguably none of the public's business (infidelity) while continuing to conceal what is inarguably the public's business," wrote Daniel Wattenberg in the Washington Times. Clinton finally apologized to Monica Lewinsky, who was his consensual partner, but not to Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey, whom he harassed and assaulted. He has not apologized for breaking laws. He also seems to have a peculiar conception of his job. "I tried to be your friend," he told a Florida audience. Yet he wasn't elected to be anyone's friend, but to lead the country and look after its interests. Instead, Clinton seems to see his role as forming a private relationship with each of more than 200 million individuals. People who, after this, may not want him around.
Those devoted to Hillary Clinton report that she is pained especially by the constant prying into her married life. But she and her husband make their marriage their platform -- their signature as feminists and as progressive-minded brave new people. They can hardly complain that we are still curious, now that their marriage appears to be something other than what it was sold as; something bizarre and corrupted. Nobody asked them to make their marriage an issue; to talk about "pain in their marriage," as if it concerned us, or to badger us now with tales of their "healing." Why should we care about any of this? The Roosevelts had plenty of pain, and very little healing, and they managed to run things much better. This is not what governing is.
Among the several species of damage the Clintons have done to this country, one surely is the damage they have done to the concept of privacy, at least for people in politics and public life. In their blunderings, their opportunism, their power grabs, their evasions and excuses, their affronts and their insults, not the least of these being their scorched-earth attacks upon the private lives of others, the Clintons have helped to injure the concept of privacy, along with the concepts of decency and truth.
It is only fitting then that Bill Clinton, who wanted to stand in a hall filled with heroes, now seems like someone out of Philip Roth. Clinton's Complaint -- President Portnoy -- where will it all end? The Clintons will be remembered now not for public works, but for private pathologies, and it is all their own doing. As they scurry in search of the "zone of privacy" Mrs. Clinton invoked when they invited us all into the world of their marriage, they have nothing to run to. They leveled it, all by themselves.
Noemie Emery is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.