A Question of Character

Culture and technology.
Dec. 20 1998 3:30 AM

A Question of Character

Can even the great works of world literature explain Bill Clinton?

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If Bill Clinton didn't exist, would it be possible to invent him? Of all modern political leaders, he seems the least likely as a character. A Henry James or a Joseph Conrad might do justice to the tensions in Clinton's political career--the tug of war between idealism and cynicism, the empathy for others, and the calculating self-interest. Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser might depict his climb from provincial obscurity. But who could concoct the juxtapositions of the president's personality? It is hard to think of a figure from English or American literature who combines, for instance, self-destructive sexual interests with an insatiable appetite for domestic policy, or Clinton's mix of high intelligence and low taste. Has anyone scripted him? Let us consider the writers whose inventions capture aspects of the presidential personality.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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William Shakespeare: When you think of political tragedy, you think immediately of Shakespeare. Richard Nixon, the last president to face impeachment, was clearly a Shakespearean character. To be precise, the Nixon of Watergate was Richard III, the self-pitying monster. The Clinton of Flytrap is not half so dark a figure--underhanded, perhaps, but not purely malevolent. If Clinton exists in Shakespeare, it might be as an amalgamation of the bad qualities of Falstaff and Henry V. He has Falstaff's appetites for food and fornication (without his humor or ironic wisdom). He has Prince Hal's political ambition and disloyalty to his old friends (without his heroism or rhetorical eloquence). But Shakespeare isn't right for Bill Clinton, who even in collapse lacks the grandeur of the Bard's tragic heroes and the absurdity of his comic ones. Shakespeare may provide more models for the first lady. She thinks of herself as Portia, the clever lawyer in The Merchant of Venice. Republicans think of her as a scheming Lady Macbeth. Lately, the public sees her as that unfortunate victim of her husband, Othello's Desdemona.

William Faulkner: Our general image of Clinton's past--Southern poverty with overtones of alcoholism and inbreeding--comes mostly from Faulkner. In the Snopes trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion), we find the models for Clinton's father, Will Blythe (in the ramblin' bigamist I.O. Snopes); Virginia Kelley (the chunky child bride Eula Varner); and Roger Clinton (the no-goodnik Byron Snopes). Bill Clinton is apparently based on the main protagonist of the three books, Flem Snopes. Flem rises from rural squalor, getting a job as a clerk at Varner's store in Frenchman's Bend, then taking over the store, then moving to the town of Jefferson. He aspires to become president (of the Jefferson Bank) and succeeds. Alas, Faulkner captures the milieu of Gothic dysfunction from which Clinton emerged but describes Flem's rise only in terms of venality, missing the all-important element of idealism.

Philip Roth: A closer match is found, surprisingly enough, in Philip's Roth's portrait of a middle-aged Jewish intellectual. "Portnoy's complaint" is defined on the first page of the novel of that name as "A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature." Sound familiar? Alexander Portnoy, after he outgrows his autoerotic obsession, works for the liberal John Lindsay administration in New York City and does his best to demonstrate his concern for the poor and the oppressed. Meanwhile, however, he is shacked up with a girlfriend he calls the Monkey, who fulfills his sexual fantasies but leaves him living in fear of tabloid scandal. Like Clinton, Portnoy is highly intelligent, mother-obsessed, and pretty much out of control. Another similarity: Portnoy flees to Israel when faced with crisis. Drawbacks: Portnoy is more of a neurotic and less of a liar.

Mark Twain: My colleague Walter Shapiro ("Chatterbox") suggests that Clinton is a Tom Sawyer figure. He's thinking of the famous fence-painting scene, in which Tom tricks his friends into paying him for the right to do his chore. Tom Sawyer does capture rather nicely, I think, Clinton's gift for talking his way out of trouble that better sense might have kept him out of in the first place. Tom is, as Bob Kerrey once said of Clinton, "an unusually good liar." There's also the great scene where Tom and Huck Finn, who are thought to have drowned, watch their own funerals as spectators. That's a bit like what Clinton seems to be doing now. We know that he'll pop up at the end, Sawyer-like, to announce that, contrary to popular belief, he is not, in fact, finished. Bonus: Hillary as Aunt Polly, who is driven to distraction by Tom's deceptions but always forgives him in the end.

Charles Dickens: The great artist of character types is Dickens, but he seems never to have drawn anyone much like Bill Clinton. Republicans might propose Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. Heep, synonymous with unctuousness, is a fawning fellow who worms his way up through oozing manipulation. He does have some Clinton-like traits, such as his obsession with his mother, his smarminess, and his flattering blather. There's a scene in the novel where Copperfield sees Heep asleep, with his "mouth open like a post office." The phrase fits Clinton beautifully. But Heep is repellant. Clinton, though hated by many, is seductively charming. Newt Gingrich, as he was getting clobbered in budget negotiations in 1995-96, said he "had to go through detox" to prevent himself from being overcome by Clinton's winning ways. Heep is, however, a fine stand-in for the House Majority Whip, Tom DeLay of Texas.

Herman Melville: At an anti-impeachment rally this week, the novelist Mary Gordon suggested that Clinton was in fact Billy Budd. "There is something about a kind of accusation that takes on a life of its own in which a punishment is completely incommensurate with the nature of the crime that comes from a sort of sexual madness that I believe is at the root of a lot of the otherwise incomprehensible opposition to Clinton," Gordon noted. This is a clever nomination, but it doesn't transcend the immediate circumstances of the scandal. Melville's Budd is a naive, good man who is punished unfairly for an accidental murder he is provoked into committing by someone who tried to frame him for a crime. Clinton's impending punishment may be unjust, but as a character he lacks Billy's innocence and forthrightness. Billy steps up to take his undeserved punishment, declining to let others risk their necks by trying to help him. Clinton has consistently done pretty much the opposite. Gordon may be on to something with the issue of sexual jealousy, but neglects the key difference: Budd is lusted after; Clinton lusts. However, there's a silver lining in this one, too. In Claggart, the officer who tries to frame Billy for the crime of mutiny, we find a nautical version of Kenneth Starr.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: While we're considering unlikely comparisons from American literature, we have a proposal from Joe Klein, the author of a fine fictional portrait of Clinton--Jack Stanton in Primary Colors. Klein once wrote of Bill and Hillary: "They are the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of the Baby Boom Political Elite. The Buchanans, you may recall, were F. Scott Fitzgerald's brilliant crystallization of flapper fecklessness in The Great Gatsby. They were 'careless' people. They smashed up lives and didn't notice." There are some surprisingly good parallels here. Tom Buchanan avoided service in World War I and is a reckless adulterer. But as a personality, he's all wrong--he's a bully and a racist who doesn't care what anyone else thinks about him. And Tom and Daisy are aristocrats; their miserable behavior is the outgrowth of his having too much money, the one thing Clinton has never had and has never seemed to care much about.

Lewis Carroll: The indispensable guides to contemporary politics are Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which happens to be where Clinton's most direct literary antecedent appears. Coming upon an egg-shaped man, Alice wonders why someone so fragile would sit on such a high and narrow wall. Humpty Dumpty explains that he can always be put back together again in the event of an accident. Further discussion ensues, reminiscent of Clinton's Paula Jones deposition and his grand jury testimony:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

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