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Jewish World Review Aug. 10, 1999 /28 Av, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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Bill Btfsplk, or: that magic Clinton touch -- WHY, SURE. Linda Tripp, having collected evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors against a sitting president, and having been promised immunity for her testimony, has been indicted by a Democratic prosecutor in Maryland.

Is anybody surprised? When this president is prosecuted, it's the witnesses for the prosecution who are in trouble.

And it's not just Bill Clinton's enemies who have come a cropper in Washington, but his friends. Look what's happened to the circle of FOBs who followed their First Friend from Little Rock to Big Rock, D.C. The circle remains broken -- by disgrace, downfall, dishonor, even death.

As one of the people on the periphery of these multiple personal disasters put it, it's as if a lot of people suddenly took it into their heads to go to Washington in 1993 and throw away everything they had with both hands.

There's something about this president that seems to inspire self-destruction, as if this were not an administration, but a sacrificial cult. These days, even Hillary Clinton is acting as if she's out to sabotage her own campaign for the Senate in New York, talking psychobabble and then claiming she was misinterpreted. (How can one misinterpret gibberish?) Why did she have to bring all that up again? Whatever happened to, blessed word, closure?

Nor is this president's magic touch limited to his friends. All the leading characters in the Age of Clinton had best be prepared to make sudden exits, left and right. A speaker of the House who was going to usher in a new age throws in the towel when his party retains control of Congress, but just barely. Whereupon his designated successor, embarrassed by revelations about his personal life, resigns, too.

There is something surreal about the sheer amplitude of the scandals this Age of Clinton has set out for our delectation and detestation: scandals big and small, whole and semi-, comic and serious, imagined and heretofore unimaginable, all lined up as far as the eye can see and the stomach manage. Is this the Nineties or a replay of the Twenties? Naah. The Twenties were fun.

The show began with a mad search for an attorney general who never hired a nanny, which finally became the sole qualification for that high office. Which explains Janet Reno. It was great entertainment, but in this administration, the ludicrous has a way of leading to the macabre. And soon the country was confronted with all that burned-over territory outside Waco. ...

It's as if somewhere in the great beyond S.J. Perelman, that comic genius, was collaborating with his brother-in-law, the agonized Nathanael West of "Miss Lonelyhearts,'' in writing the political history of our time. The Clinton Era may be called many things in the future, but it's hard to imagine anybody ever calling it Camelot.

In his terribly conscious search for presidential models, William J. Clinton talked about the two Roosevelts, but kept gravitating toward Warren G. Harding. For some reason, I keep thinking of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's pithy summation of that president: "Harding wasn't a bad man; he was just a slob.''

Despite all the clintonphobia that's going around, and turning whatever remains of the rational Right into a mere anti-Clinton party, I've never been able to think of Bill Clinton as wicked; he's more of a slob, a good ol' boy who never means to hurt anybody but just does. He's a lot more bubba than bolshevik.

Our president doesn't have enough character to be some kind of sinister threat to the Republic. He's more like Al Capp's Joe Btfsplk, bringing along that little black cloud wherever he goes. Only it's other folks who get rained on. They tell a joke in Washington about Bill Clinton and Al Gore going through a carwash in an open convertible, and only Al Gore gets soaked. It's not a very funny joke.

Much like the Harding administration, this one can be amusing -- but only if you don't have to be anywhere near it. Just ask Archie Schaffer of Tyson. Or David Watkins of Travelgate. Or .... well, space does not permit. Now we know where Tom and Daisy Buchanan went after they were finished with "The Great Gatsby'' in that quintessential tragedy of the Twenties: On to the White House to cut an ever wider swath in the Nineties.

Whether it touches high or low, private or public, civil or military, the Clinton jinx has proved nigh universal. Just last week Linda Tripp was indicted, General Wesley Clark was told he's being retired early by a grateful nation, Hillary Clinton started talking like an analyst out of "Psycho,'' and the presidential campaign of poor Al Gore continued its tailspin with no apparent controlling authority. He's started to look like a Warren Christopher without the charisma. Strange: I don't remember Al Gore looking quite so hopeless before he was lucky enough to team up with Bill Clinton. Who'll go next?

I would hazard a guess about who won't be going next. While heads roll all about him, the one figure who has been at the center of this swirling maelstrom remains as untouched as if he were swinging an ax in a perfect 360-degree circle. Bill Clinton is still making his ceremonial appearances, putting a little personal spin on the otherwise dull and unappealing facts, and generally serving out his term under nothing but blue skies shining above. Maybe it's divine justice. Because it surpasseth all understanding.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate