Jewish World Review March 17, 1999 /29 Adar 5759
(JWR) ---- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com)
Who, after all, is better equipped to praise defense counsel than the certifiably acquitted?
For fanciers of chocolate cheesecake and irony, Saturday night's dinner had everything. For those who like this sort of thing, this was just the sort of thing they'd like. Hail, hail, the gang was all there, or at least those who hadn't been indicted or convicted.
But amusing as the tableau was, there was something ineffably sad about it, for the people on the dais were not stick figures in cartoons, but all too real, and all too obliged to choose their words diplomatically, cautiously, warily, lest they say too much. Never have American public figures been so acutely aware of the double entendre; you could almost see the speakers editing each phrase to avoid anything untoward.
It's what gives these gala occasions their only air of suspense: The ever present danger is that some speaker might in all innocence allude to what should not be alluded to whenever this president appears in public. Instead, everybody is supposed to applaud and ignore the obvious.
And everybody did.
The applause and laughter are usually enough to cover any awkwardness, and indeed the obvious ironies were scarcely noticeable most of the time amid the happy buzz all the high-paying guests made, like flies in a barnyard. The whole program was an exercise in tact, from the Very Important People at the head table to the clergy in attendance like the court prophets of old, ready to give their blessings to whatever the king wished.
But now and then, the sadness of the scene, and the nature of the sordid triumph actually being celebrated -- mere survival in office -- could not be entirely effaced.
Strangely enough, it was William Jefferson Clinton, as he was and is and will be known in the Articles of Impeachment, who cast a pall. With two years still to go in his term, Bill Clinton already sounded nostalgic for his presidency, or at least for the presidency that might have been. For just a moment in his speech, he stopped to muse like a man much older than his years, and with more regrets than he should have acquired:
"It seems like yesterday I was first excited about Dale Bumpers coming out of Charleston (Ark.) in 1970. It seems like yesterday when we were all young and beginning, and everything was new. And it passes in the flash of an eye.''
Yes, like yesterday when it is gone, as the Psalmist says. And some of us thought back to that election night in 1992, when hopes were so high and there was still talk in the air of Arkansas Chic, instead of what became unfairly known as Arkansas Mores -- when they are only Clinton mores.
In a flashback of light and dark, I again saw Bill Clinton and Jim Guy Tucker, his now-convicted successor as governor of Arkansas, descending the long grand staircase of the state Capitol to applause and cheers when the governor's office changed hands. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher.
"And when it's over,'' the president was saying. "what remains is the feeling that you have been human and alive to the needs and aspirations of other people. ...'' Arkansas' aspirations for its native son, and the country's, had been so high. And the only thing other people needed from him, the only thing they asked, was simple honor. And back then it had seemed so ... attainable. Now it seems the one thing that isn't.
Whatever happened to the Happy Warrior, to the snap, crackle and pop of a fragile glory? Yes, in the flash of an eye it is gone. The president sounded almost wistful, in that premeditated way of his when he makes some confession that is more an attempt at justification.
But then, quick as it had come, the somber mood had lifted and spirits were artificially high again, as the familiar parody resumed. "We learned,'' Bill Clinton was telling the audience, "that public service is truly a noble endeavor.'' And nobody laughed. Not out loud. Imagine: Bill Clinton speaking of nobility. Nobody can say it wasn't a grand show.
Nobility. One wonders what theme this president will choose for his next extemporaneous address -- truth? honor? fidelity? humility? self-discipline? justice? the sanctity of oaths? Of what next will our poet-president sing, of arms and the man?
It occurs at such moments that the designers of the presidential library in Little Rock will need to be careful when it comes to the words they engrave on the walls. Even the most shopworn commonplaces can be dangerous when employed about this president. Or by him. "We learned that public service is truly a noble endeavor.'' So is the practice of criminal law, and the two seem to have largely merged in this administration.
At one high-flying moment, the president was lamenting the passing of the good old
days, which had their faults, as he noted, but "at least people used to be embarrassed
about it.'' It was the perfect epitaph, however unconscious, for the whole
03/15/99:Our own Roger Taney