Columnists > Judgment Calls

What's in a name?

Clinton did to himself what his detractors could never do

Issue: "Mel Martinez: HUD's man," March 3, 2001

Bill Clinton brought to mind a Three Stooges episode 40 years forgotten: A dapper and distinguished millionaire has inexplicably taken an interest in the bungling trio, who are gleeful at such good fortune and already practicing life on easy street. But in the final scene, two burly men in white coats appear, chiding, "You've been naughty and run away again, haven't you? There's a good boy now, come along quietly." And the "millionaire," his gravitas dissolving into the prattling protestations of a petulant child, is whisked away to the asylum-as Moe and Co. look on with mouths agape.

Tell me you weren't just a little freaked out-even you who never joined the Friends of Bill and Hillary Club-to discover in the end that this Bonnie and Clyde of American politics were not only immoral all along but, in the words of the Cheshire Cat, "not quite all there." I don't care how you define insanity-a worldview or behavior inappropriate to reality?-is it not bizarre to contemplate the last days of the Clinton Show: the tacky bridal registry, the amassing of mansions, the lucrative Viacom deal, the $800,000 Manhattan office, the purloined White House furnishings, and, pièce de résistance, a free pass from jail for the biggest tax-evader-turned-fugitive in history?

The couple who had wriggled out of Whitewatergate and Travelgate and Monicagate with Houdini-like deftness in the 11th hour managed to do what Ken Starr and the whole "right-wing conspiracy" were not able to do-destroy themselves.

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To be sure, proclamation of the Clintons' political death turns out to be premature. And even Revelation alerts us to a baffling principle, figures who "seem to have had a fatal wound that was healed." Still, it may well be that the cat of nine lives (turned petty cat burglar of White House sofas) has seen his last resurrection. Once invincible under the mystique of the presidency, he said to himself, "I will continue forever.... No one sees me" (Isaiah 47). But the aura that covered a multitude of sins has left Bill; stripped of "Hail to the Chief" and the aphrodisiac of power, Citizen Clinton's antics aren't working like they used to.

I guess the "comeback kid" had started believing his own folklore. I guess too that in the vacuum of absolutes, the moral free-fall made down look like up. I guess Mr. Clinton just got careless in the end, the kind of carelessness oft seen in married men having secret affairs for so long that they get sloppy and start leaving lipstick-smeared collars in the hamper. (I'm just trying to make sense of this, ladies and gentlemen.)

For sin is a kind of insanity, no? Always self-destructive at the last. What will a man take in exchange for his name, after all? What is worthy to be weighed in the scales against it? "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold" (Proverbs 22:1). Would a sane man not reason, "Naked came I into the world and naked will I depart-sans Spode china or silver by Fabergé-except for my name"?

Let me have the job of emptying wastebaskets in the Oval Office rather than occupying its plush chair but with a bad name. Let me have poverty with good repute rather than a U.S. Senate seat and a stench about me. Ask O.J. Simpson what value money is without a good name, or if acquittal tastes so sweet when you're a byword in the mouths of children across the land.

History is fickle, and we may yet see occasional seasons of rehabilitation of the Clinton name. But the best Bill can hope for now is "they love me, they love me not" ambivalence, not the unalloyed worship he craved as his legacy. The Clinton presidential library will be a monument dripping with irony (God is nothing if not ironic).

The Clinton era is over, except for messy loose ends to be tied by Congress and federal prosecutors. And so "it's time to move on," as President Bush wisely said. But let us pause just long enough for mothers to tell their children this morality tale, of a latter-day Esau who traded what was valuable for a bowl of lentil stew. And of those who followed him, and threw themselves on minefields for him, and (while he walked away whistling inanely) stood with mouths agape, feeling a little like the Three Stooges.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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