"I think I did something for the worst possible reason -- just because I could. I think that's the most , just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything. When you do something just because you could ... I've thought about it a lot. And there are lots of more sophisticated explanations, more complicated psychological explanations. But none of them are an excuse ... Only a fool does not look to explain his mistakes." bill clinton (discussing the "circumstances" surrounding one of his crimes) to dan rather.
The consensus about Clinton initially was that, because he was a "draft dodger" during Vietnam, he wouldn't take America to war. Yet even before Yugoslavia this was quite untrue. Clinton, according to Ramsey Clark's book, The Children Are Dying: The Impact of Sanctions on Iraq,2 managed through his embargo of Iraq to kill one million Iraqi children--nearly as many as the number of Jewish children that were killed in the Holocaust! Clinton's delegated role in America seems to be to provide sacrificial victims in a way that doesn't stir up our guilt feelings: in Iraq by his "invisible" killing of children, in Yugoslavia by focusing on the expulsions of Kosovars that his bombing triggered and even in the case of his own scandals, where he provided America for a whole year with himself as a suitable victim to punish for our sins.
That Clinton unconsciously volunteered to be a sacrificial victim is clear. The weeks prior to his starting his affair with Monica Lewinsky were filled with media reports and late-night staff meetings in the White House about how the Chief Sacrificial Priest Kenneth Starr was hot on Clinton's trail for sexual misdemeanors for which he could be convicted. Staffers warned Clinton daily not to risk another "bimbo eruption" lest he be caught this time. Yet Clinton, sensing the group-fantasy of sacrifice was asking him to volunteer as the victim, started the affair nonetheless, looking out the White House windows while he was being sexually serviced by her to see if Starr's snoopers were looking in.
According to his biographer, Clinton's family role was also as a sacrificial hero, who was "caretaker and protector of the family" and of his mother, Virginia.3 His alcoholic stepfather was so violent toward his mother that Clinton recalls him firing a gun at his mother when he was five, and little Billy "twice had to stop real violence when Roger threatened to kill Virginia."4 Clinton's "Family Hero" role was of course what has made him such a superb politician, being able to sense the unconscious emotional needs of others and sacrifice his own values for the adulation he gained. There was little love in his family. His stepfather physically abused him during his drunken rages, and his grandmother, who was his primary caretaker in his early years while his mother was elsewhere, had a "fierce temper" and undoubtedly used "a whip" on him as she had done on his mother when she was a child.5
Besides this physical abuse, Clinton was also a rejected child, whose mother left him as an infant for two years with her mother while she moved to another city to learn nursing and then routinely left him while she gambled as he grew up. "I was raised in that sort of culture where you put on a happy face, and you didn't reveal your pain and agony," he says.6 Psychotherapist Jerome Levin attributes Clinton's sexual addiction with hundreds of women directly to his lonely childhood:
Virginia Kelley [Clinton's mother] looks extraordinarily like Lewinsky.
Kelley's hairstyle, heavy makeup, and the overall impression are strikingly
similar to Lewinsky's. Bill Clinton, the man who had lost his mother, had found
a replacement for her....His legacy as an adult child of an alcoholic compelled
him to fill the emptiness of his childhood and to repeat the addictive pattern
of both his biological and his adoptive parents...7
That Clinton repeated his longings for his absent mother with Monica Lewinsky can be seen when he said to Monica after she was transferred out of the White House, "Why do they have to take you away from me?", the same question he had for his mother when she left him as a young boy. Even Juanita Broaddrick--who accused Clinton of biting, assaulting and viciously raping her twice--looked very much like Clinton's mother, and was, in addition, a nurse like Clinton's mother.
Of course, in addition to restaging the betrayal he felt by his mother, Clinton's continuous humiliations of his wife over the years can be seen as expressing his unconscious rage toward his mother for her early abandonment of him--with the difference that in his affairs he would reverse roles and he would be the betrayer and his wife would be the betrayed.
Indeed, the Clinton scandal wasn't "all about sex," it was "all about loss." Clinical studies of sex addicts find they aren't "expressing their drives" so much as combating desperate inner feelings of maternal abandonment, impotence and self-fragmentation through their repeated conquests of women.8 Feelings of impotence, not excess potency, is the source of all sex addictions. And wars.
Purity Crusades--like the impeachment of Clinton and the Yugoslav War, which The New York Times described as a necessary "Cleansing of Serbia"9--are periodically encountered in history, usually after periods of peace and prosperity.10 They are usually conducted against "too much sexual freedom," with various designated sacrificial scapegoats. The most famous took place prior to WWI, with a hysterical Vice Commission closing down brothels and regulating dance halls. Before the Civil War, reacting to the feminism and new sexual freedom of the 1850s, purity reformers suddenly decided to "protect the sexual purity of America" by starting a civil war to clean up the "one vast brothel" in the South. Before the Vietnam War, following the first legal publishing of Henry Miller's books, Citizens for Decent Literature conducted nationwide letter-writing campaigns and harassed drugstore chains to stop the distribution of "obscene" literature. Time even ran a cover story in January 1964 on "Sex in the U.S.," full of shocked prose on how America had become "one big Orgone box of Freudian" pornography and promiscuity. America's Purity Crusade during Clinton's secnd term wasn't justabout Presidential sex.From New York to California, cities were attempting to close down X-rated video stores, politicians were "outed" as adulterers as "the sex police runs around Washington checking everyone out," and television programs featured specials declaring "The whole nation needs to repent!"11
That impeachment of Clinton functioned for a time as what columnists called "a renewal process" and a "cleansing of America"12 seems odd until it is considered as an age-old device for purification of a nation for its hubris, its prosperity, its sinfulness. In ancient Mesoamerica, when the state became convinced its prosperity had made it too sinful, the Chief Priest would tear out the heart of its best football player on a sacrificial stage and present it to the bloodthirsty goddess, who might otherwise punish all the people by not raising the sun the next day.13 The "Sacrificial Hero" was turned into a god himself since he, like Clinton, had willingly volunteered to be sacrificed. Thus Clinton's polls, which had been sub-par until his affair was revealed, soared to over 70 percent approval "for the job he was doing for his country"--in other words, for being a sacrificial scapegoat, a poison container for our guilt--an approval level never before reached by a peacetime president.
That nations sometimes choose their leaders because of their personal emotional dysfunctions seems an odd notion. Of course, other nations often choose dysfunctional leaders--like Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein--who have serious emotional problems, starting wars that end by costing the lives of millions. But we usually think: "not us." Yet I wonder. Many historians, for instance, now argue that America chose John F. Kennedy for his phallic cold war personality, so it should not have surprised us when he ordered the Cuban invasion and risked incinerating millions of Americans with Russian nuclear missiles during his Cuban embargo, saying, "If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt, it's all over."14 In fact, it turns out that it was Kennedy's taunting of the Russians with a 1962 "practice invasion" exercise near Cuba that actually pushed Khrushchev into putting his missiles into Cuba in the first place.15 With Kennedy, there was an intimate emotional link between his sexual addiction--requiring almost daily conquests of mistresses and prostitutes--and his equally compulsive need for military conquests. The same is true of Clinton. He has many of the characteristics of what Robert Tucker calls the "warfare personality"--self-dramatization, extreme narcissism, repeated feelings of conspiracies against him by enemies and an ability to call for a great Crusade that will defeat Evil abroad and cleanse the world of its sinfulness.16 I would only add to these: a deep well of loneliness, frequent revenge fantasies and an ability to dissociate.
That Clinton dissociated and distorted reality when he began the bombing of Yugoslavia is little reflected in the media, since Americans overwhelmingly have dissociated along with him on the key facts of the outbreak of the war. Virtually everyone tacitly agrees by now that the NATO bombing began because Kosovars were being killed, raped, and forced out of their homes. But that wasn't what in fact happened. Even the head of the CIA told congressional leaders the bombing would cause the Serbs to attack, for "military action could include the chance of ethnic cleansing...[since] if we stuck a stick in this nest, we would stir it up more."17 Richard Holbrooke agreed, warning that bombing would undoubtedly trigger ethnic cleansing. The following report from the Princeton University student newspaper was the only one that gave the true figures about the actual lack of violence before the bombing began:
Key members of the U.S. Senate sat slack-jawed through a confidential
briefing last Thursday from the Clinton administration foreign-policy team...After
the foreign-policy wise men asserted that the United States has a moral imperative
to stop the murderous Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, one senator
asked: How many Albanians have Milosevic's troops massacred this year? The president's
emissaries turned ashen. They glanced at each other. They rifled through their
papers. One hazarded a guess: 'Two thousand?' No, the senator replied, that
was the number for all of last year. He wanted figures for the last month--or
even the year to date, since the president had painted such a grisly picture
of genocide in his March 24 address to the nation....Nobody knew. As it turns
out, Kosovo has been about as bloody this year as, say, Atlanta. You can measure
the deaths [prior to the bombing] not in the hundreds, but dozens.
That the Serbs then used the NATO bombing as an excuse for the expulsion of a million Kosovars is not the same as proving it would have happened without the bombing. Any local sheriff knows that when a crazy bank robber has a bank full of hostages, one doesn't start bombing him. The bombing obviously triggered the expulsions, not the other way around. And a ground war is likely to trigger even more needless horrors. But the time is ripe in America after the recent years of peace and prosperity for a new war, a new Purity Crusade, a new sacrifice to cleanse us of our sins. Milosevic is an ideal Hitler-substitute, the Serbs, products of generally brutal childrearing, are ideal enemies, and NATO, as Madeleine Albright once told Colin Powell, is an ideal instrument of war, saying that, after all, "What is the use of this marvelous military force if we can never use it?"18 We have entered a new war trance; the ritual sacrifice may now begin.
is director of The Institute for Psychohistory, editor of The Journal
of Psychohistory and author of Foundations of Psychohistoryand Reagan's
No moment better captured the reasons for my own frustration with Bill Clinton than a single segment of Meet the Press in the Fall of 1996. In the final discussion segment, Tim Russert spoke with David Maraniss, author of this terrific Clinton biography, and Richard Ben Cramer, author of the great 1988 campaign book What It Takes, parts of which had been reissued as a Bob Dole biography. For his last question, Russert asked each man what one thing he thought the American people should know, but didn't, about the man he'd written about. Richard Ben Cramer said that he was truly sorry that people did not get to see what a decent, caring and humorous man Bob Dole really was, that the public perception, though it was Dole's own fault, really did a disservice to the man.
David Maraniss, though I may remember this more harshly than he meant it, said that the public persona of Bill Clinton, as a warm caring, empathetic man was also inaccurate and that he thought it would be better if the American people realized that he was really much colder, more selfish, and more self absorbed than they understood. I've surely misremembered precisely what the two biographers said but the implication was clear, Bob Dole was a significantly better, Bill Clinton a much worse, man than we understood them to be. That exchange, along with the PBS special called The Choice, and both this book and Joe Klein's roman a clef, Primary Colors, all combined to leave me with the really dispiriting certainty that, though the true Bill Clinton had been revealed, by impartial or even sympathetic investigators, the willful ignorance of the electorate was about to give us four more years of scandal and posturing. Sadly, that has proven to be the case.
Now, I'm not so anti-Clinton that I think he's a totally illegitimate figure, as some on the Right admittedly feel. I think that he would have had a more difficult time getting elected in 1992 if Ross Perot had not decided to pursue his bizarre vendetta against George Bush, but there is no question that President Bush's tepid response to the mild recession and his dutiful but suicidal decision to raise taxes had left him, an already weak political figure, in truly dire straits. It would have taken a much bolder and adroit approach to the reelection than Bush was temperamentally suited for, to beat back a gregarious, youthful, activist Southern challenger, regardless of his personal scandals. So that first election of Bill Clinton doesn't bother me much.
But it is just appalling to me that with all we knew about him by 1996, voters actually returned Bill Clinton to office for a second term. At the depths of the Impeachment, watching his transparent angry denial of ever having sex with "that woman", his weasly testimony or his vituperative initial apology, it was hard to fight off a sense that the American people had gotten exactly what they deserved. And in large measure, they deserved it because this excellent biography (Gary Wills has correctly called it "The best biography ever written about a president in office.") had presented us with an invaluable portrait of just what kind of man, politician and leader Bill Clinton is and, though Maraniss is fair to a fault, it is hard to believe that if every voter had first read this book, Bill Clinton could have won.
It is particularly remarkable to return to this book in the waning days of the Clinton era and to see how thoroughly his past was prologue. There's no need to rehearse the events of Bill Clinton's life, they've long since entered into myth, but it is instructive to see how thoroughly his earlier life predicted or shaped the past eight years.
1) The effects of Alcoholism
Bill Clinton's step-father, Roger Clinton, was an alcoholic. He was, at least, verbally and mentally abusive to Bill's mother on a regular basis, and sometimes physically so. Bill Clinton, though he towered over Roger by a fairly early age, does not seem to have ever confronted him during the physical altercations. Moreover, the entire problem was one which the family appears, not atypically, to have kept behind closed doors as much as possible.
Maraniss identifies one abiding influence that he feels this situation had:
In the literature on children of alcoholics, there
is a type sometimes referred to as the Family Hero,
who plays one of two well-defined roles, either a caretaker and protector of the family or as its
redeemer to the outside world. ... As redeemer, the Family Hero is often excused from the family's
inner burden and dispatched into the world to excel and to return with praise and rewards that will
make the entire unit feel worthy. In this role, the Family Hero becomes a vessel of ambition and
the repository of hope.
As the author pretty clearly demonstrates, young Bill took on just this role within his family and, though Maraniss sort of drops this line of argument, I think you could argue that it is a role that he has inhabited in his personal career. There is a certain sense in which we all pull for him to redeem something out of the squalid mess that surrounds him, and us.
But this is the other part of the influence of the culture of alcoholism, because Clinton himself is the dysfunctional member of the family. The experiences of his own family would appear to have taught him that a family will often go to great lengths to readjust their own behavior, expectations and morality, in order to avoid conflict with or over the person who is causing the problems. Clinton, who is nothing if not intuitive and chameleonlike, has made good personal use of the understanding that no matter how atrocious his behavior, those around him and ultimately even the American people, will find ways to change themselves to deal with it, he is simply not be expected to change himself.
Then, in that unique twist, having warped our own souls to accommodate him, we turn eagerly to him to redeem the mess. This was perhaps never demonstrated quite so clearly as in the State of the Union that he delivered as the whole Lewinsky scandal was breaking. Even if you hate the guy, and I do, there was something thrilling, albeit soul destroying, about watching him give that speech in those circumstances. He has that uncanny ability to rise phoenix-like from ashes of his own making and it seems likely that he learned both of these roles largely as a result of being the child of an alcoholic.
2) The selfish ambition
Time and again in his life, Clinton casts aside tradition, societal norms, friends, supporters or peers in pursuit of purely personal goals. One of the first instances of this was when he ran for class secretary his senior year of high school, though the post was traditionally held by a girl and he had to challenge a close friend to do it. That first time he was unsuccessful, but the trail since is littered with many a Dick Morris, Lani Guinier , Harold Ickes, or whomever had to go so that Bill might advance and he leaves the presidency a much weaker institution after having exercised and lost nearly every legal privilege that the office had previously enjoyed.
3) Listening as caring
Whether sucking up to a teacher, scamming a chick, or wooing a voter, Bill Clinton has perfected the skill of seeming to care about people and their concerns simply by listening intently to what they have to say. Now, there are many instances in the book where he was there to support friends when they needed emotional help, he was by all accounts a doting son and an excellent older brother, and his relationships with Hilary and Chelsea seem to be complicated but genuinely loving; I'd not suggest that he is not capable of caring for others. It is legitimate though to point out how brutal and callous he is capable of being to even his closest friends and family. His tendency to direct his rage towards staffers, who obviously are not his peers, is legendary and really inexcusable. His willingness to play off blocks of voters against each other and to drop a constituency when it's politically expedient is genuinely despicable. His predatory behavior towards women-- much rumored when Maraniss was writing, now well documented--raises serious questions about whether he views females as anything more than sexual playthings. And one of the most troubling things about him is his complete lack of friends. Christopher Hitchens titled his polemic, No One Left to Lie Too, and there was that notorious rainy day where he played 36 holes of golf by himself. One wonders about a 54 year old man who is as alone as this one. It is eminently fair to ask whether someone with this mixed legacy really deserves the reputation for empathy and sympathy that he enjoys. Is the dewey-eyed, lip-biting, glad-handing, good ole boy for real? How much is shtick and how much is him? And can even he tell anymore, or has the performance finally gone on so long that the actor is lost in the role?
4) The lack of core beliefs
One of the reasons that Bill Clinton has always been such a good empath may well be that he can easily imagine himself as someone else since he so lightly inhabits himself. At this late date, if you were asked to write down the three things that Bill Clinton really believes in, what would you put down other than "Bill Clinton?" A lifetime of horrific behavior precludes the notion that he has any moral core. Nor can you distinguish any ideology from his public life. His political philosophy is that of the 51st percenter. If the 51st person out of 100 polled wants health care, he's willing to socialize medicine. Let that person change his mind and poof!, health care is gone. At what point does pragmatism end and mere hollowness begin?
Of course, all this is interesting enough in it's own right; Clinton is an undeniably fascinating character. But it would all be just a very minor footnote to history if not for the "Permanent Campaign," as Maraniss calls it. This is essentially a master political gameplan that Clinton and Dick Morris crafted, one set of strategies to rely on both during campaigns and while in office. In a fundamental sense it is simply the application of political tactics to governance. There were three original rules to the Permanent Campaign:
(1) Means and ends, pragmatism and idealism, have to be completely interwoven.
(2) Never rely on the press, the free media, to get your message across.
(3) Use perpetual voter surveys to shape the substance and rhetoric of policy debates.
To these rules which worked so well in Clinton's first comeback in Arkansas, was later added the War Room, that notorious Clintonian Spin Machine which works to demonize opponents and accusers.
In a very real sense, all you needed to know in 1992 about what the next few years would be like you could have learned from understanding these four tools. They reflect an intent to politicize everything, a combative attitude, a willingness (heck, an eagerness) to abandon the concept of principles in favor of popular opinion, and, most importantly, a decision to place Bill Clinton at the center of his own campaigns and governments. To a stunning degree, the career of Bill Clinton has been about getting and keeping elective office, with scarcely a thought given to what to do with that office. As Maraniss puts it:
The essential question of his permanent campaign
became whether his will to survive would
overwhelm his convictions.
If the answer to this question was not yet clear when Maraniss was writing, it is certainly clear now. Clinton's true legacy really amounts to little more than survival.
Nor did they simply learn the broad outlines of a plan that would help them realize this goal. It's amazing how many devices from these early years of Bill Clinton's career have come back to haunt us. One of the most obvious is the famous apology that he issued to the people of Arkansas after being ousted from the Statehouse. Several aspects of the episode are particularly instructive. First, polling showed that the voters didn't particularly dislike Clinton even after having voted against him. They had almost a parental sense of ownership and indicated that they wanted to teach him a lesson. So as he began the next campaign, they filmed the apology ad, very much against Clinton's wishes. To Morris's horror, clinton's numbers dropped precipitously in the immediate aftermath of the ad, but as the campaign went on, they realized that the apology had made Clinton bulletproof. When opponents attacked him, the public's attitude was, he's already apologized for that, leave him alone. It's amazing how closely this whole episode parallels his Lewinsky apology.
There are numerous crises like this one, that crop up throughout his
life and which he's forced to deal with, and as Maraniss delineates the
means he used to cope with them back then, the reader can clearly see what
lessons Clinton learned, good and bad. Considering how chaotic and
random the Clinton presidency has often seemed, it's remarkable how completely
this history of his life before he ran for President, predicts all of the
subsequent events of his tenure in office. One hopes that Maraniss
will continue the story in a succeeding volume, or volumes, and even that
he will reexamine some of the incidents of these earlier years in light
of all the information that has since been revealed or corroborated.
It is just a terrific book.