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Jewish World Review July 21, 2000 /18 Tamuz, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

The man is an artist: He's not just 'Slick Willie' anymore -- WHAT A GUY. Bill Clinton took a few minutes off from settling the affairs of the Middle East this week to intervene in a real hot spot, the New York Senate race. It seems somebody had put out a story quoting Miss Hillary as doing the unthinkable in a New York Senate race -- making an anti-semitic reference a good quarter of a century ago. The somebody is a former reporter for the National Enquirer, which may tell you all you need to know about this little contretemps.

But the president reacted like it was a nuclear alert. Well, no, he acted faster. As soon as this tell-all-and-more book surfaced about the Clintons' madcap adventures in their youth, namely Bill's congressional race up in the Arkansas hills back in 1974, the president called his card-playing buddy at the New York Daily News, publisher Mort Zuckerman, to set him right. Or should that be left?

Mr. Zuckerman in turn referred the president to Michael Kramer, husband of Kimba Wood, whom Bill Clinton was once going to appoint attorney general. (And they say Arkansas is a small, wonderful state where everybody has some connection with everybody else. Heck, it's a small, wonderfully inter-connected country.)

Anyway, what the Prez told Mr. Kramer is such a classic example of Bill Clinton at his most believable, his most effective and his most clintonesque that it deserves quoting -- unlike the name that a 26-year-old Hillary Clinton is supposed to have called Bill's campaign manager in the heat of defeat. (My own rule is that no candidate's spouse should be held responsible for anything she says or is supposed to have said within 24 hours after an election has been lost.)

Miss Hillary is supposed to have called Bill's campaign manager that year, Paul Fray, a "(blankety-blank) Jew bastard.'' I'd believe the blankety-blank part and a lot more of it from Miss Hillary -- she strikes me as one of those innumerable people whose prose is so dull that they are reduced to using equally prosaic cusswords. But not the racial/ethnic/religious/tribal/whatever-we-Jews-are slur. (I think old Walker Percy had us categorized right: We're witnesses to Something -- and we don't even seem to know it.) Anyway, whatever little I know about the ever malleable Hillary Clinton tells me this is a bum rap. Miss Hillary was politically correct before there was a term for it.

"I was there and she never said it,'' Bill Clinton told Michael Kramer. It's a wonder the things Bill Clinton can remember from 1974 when, month after month, he could scarcely remember anything about ol' what's-her-name, you know, the girl who just delivered the occasional pizza around the White House or, as he referred to her in one particularly solemn, finger-pointing, on-camera and, alas, unforgettable moment, That Woman. That was surely the unkindest cut of all, and the creepiest. And of course the president could never remember whether he'd been drafted as a young man, which really requires a monumental forgettery on the part of an American male of his age.

So, no, the president's I-was-there testimony wasn't the artistic part of his performance. This was:

"In 29 years,'' he told the Daily News' Michael Kramer, "my wife has never, ever uttered an ethnic or racial slur against anybody, ever. She's so straight on this, she squeaks.''

Perfect. I believe him. (Of course I've believed him before, or at least before about 1991, which was about the time he finally tore it with me.) What makes him so believable on this occasion is not his memory, which is about as trustworthy as Alger Hiss' was, especially under oath, but that final, pithy, masterful summation, direct and ringing as a wad of tobacco into a spittoon:

She's so straight on this, she squeaks.

Why is that such a perfect close to this sale? In part, it's the country-western metaphor, the good-ol-boy sound of it, the brevity and informality that is the stamp of sincerity. But that's only part of it. The clincher is that tiny little, two-word soupcon of a clinton clause. Did you notice it? In other contexts, noticing the clinton clause in the president's statements might raise doubts. In this sentence, it lends absolute assurance: "She's so straight on this she squeaks.''

Without those two words, this president's testimony would be, well, just this president's testimony. ("She's so straight, she squeaks.'') Who'd believe that after Travelgate and the billing records and cattle futures and all the rest? Not to mention the distaff Clinton's difficulty deciding just who she is from year to year and campaign to campaign: Hillary Rodham, Hillary Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and now just (not-so) plain Hillary!

Anybody who can't quite decide who she is, make-over after make-over, might be acclaimed for many qualities -- flexibility, ambition, persistence, acting ability -- but not for being square, for being on the level, for being "so straight, she squeaks.''

But add those two little words -- on this -- and the qualifier, rather than weakening the president's point, makes it. By silently, even unconsciously, acknowledging that his spouse may not have been straight on other matters that we know she hasn't been straight about, Bill Clinton's credibility on this point is established. He becomes one of us, occupying the same real rather than political world. We know just what he means; we understand one another. The man is a natural at this kind of just-between-you-and-me rhetoric. It not only wins elections but, more relevant in this context, convinces.

On such occasions, Bill Clinton surpasses even himself; he's no longer Slick Willie, but Slick William. For the truly great fake must have some instinctive feel for the authentic in people in order to connect with it. Bill Clinton has the master's sure touch. His artifice produces an innocence that the truly innocent can seldom match. Here was a great moment in the American theater, which now and for some time has been politics. It was an instant to be savored, to be appreciated, to be applauded and later lovingly dissected by any aficionado of the clintonian arts and sciences. You just don't get this kind of rhetorical high point every day, even from Bill Clinton.

The mere confidence man knows he can't cheat an honest man. But the artist hooks our good faith, our mutual trust, our shared language and values, all in a single metaphor with a twist of lemon: "She's so straight on this, she squeaks.'' Beautiful. Bravissimo!

Back in the real world, I can't remember the words Hillary used to deny this dubious, one-day story, which may tell you all you need to know about the difference between her and her husband's political skills. I'll probably even forget whatever it was she was denying, but not her husband's way of denying it. That will stick in my mind, and admiration.

I not only believe Bill Clinton on this, as he would say, but I believe that if he were eligible to run for a third term as president, he could start writing his inaugural address right now. It would probably be as awful as the first two, being a formal presentation and another gaseous concoction of The Hon. William Jefferson, Esq., and his speechwriters. But by then it would scarcely matter. He would have won the election with concise, informal, personal, immediate, connecting rhetoric -- like this little gem. ("She's so straight on this, she squeaks.'') The man is an artist.

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