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Jewish World Review Nov. 3, 2000 / 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Consumer Reports

Clinton photo, appropriately, hits below the belt -- THE DECEMBER issue of Esquire features an extensive "exit interview" with Bill Clinton, in which the president asks Republicans to apologize for impeaching him. Putting that aside for a moment, let's talk about the cover, which has Esquire, the White House and the Gore campaign either scrambling, fuming or back-peddling.

As you may have heard, the cover photo of Clinton is special. The camera angle is shot from the, er, belt buckle level. The leader of the Free World sits with his legs akimbo and has his hands on his knees; his wedding ring appearing prominently. The president's bright blue tie, as many have pointed out, seems to point like an arrow to an anatomical area that has been the subject of considerable conversation - and subpoenas - in recent years.

The most disquieting thing, though, is the president's smile. It's not quite a smile, actually. It's a smirk. Showing no teeth, it is simultaneously smugly satisfied and vaguely sexual, like he's thinking of the punch line to a dirty joke he won't share.

The vice president and president aren't happy with Esquire, a magazine not widely read by members of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. Why? Well, I'm no political genius, but conventional wisdom suggests that a picture of the president's crotch, a coprophagous smile and the suggestion that Bill Clinton is owed an apology for his impeachment is not the finely crafted message the Gore campaign was looking for a week from election day. The president swears he thought the interview and photo would not appear until after the election. And, I believe him.

Nevertheless, Esquire is in damage-control mode. Editor-in-Chief David Granger put out a statement saying, "Any interpretation of our cover that is deliberately belittling or luridly suggestive is wrong and wrong-headed, unexpected by us and unfair to the president."

But my favorite defense of the photo came from Michael Paterniti, Clinton's interviewer. Recently, I appeared with Mr. Paterniti on CNN's "Talk Back Live." He is shocked that anyone, let alone everyone, could think the picture is inappropriate. "If you go to the Lincoln Memorial," he said, "it is the same exact view you are going to get of Lincoln."

Paterniti claims that people who don't think the photo is Lincolnesque simply have sex on the brain. "I think Clinton has become a Rorschach test, and there are people on the far right who see sex every time they see Clinton."

This, of course, is nothing but old spin. For years, the president's apologists said that the president is a deeply sexual man and his problems lie in the fact that others can't cope with his mojo (as Austin Powers might say).

Famed Clinton spinners like Gene Lyons and Sidney Blumenthal suggested - with Bill Clinton's blessing - that Monica Lewinsky was little more than a deranged stalker enthralled by the president's sexual gravitas. They reluctantly dropped this theory when the president was forced to admit the truth - thanks to DNA testing, not his conscience.

Speaking of spinning, Paterniti admits, "I'm not a full-time political writer." This isn't surprising. Few full-time political writers in America would take Clinton at his word the way Paterniti does. In interviews, Paterniti simply asserts that Clinton "feels" this way or that; that the president is "committed" to working on X or Y. One does not get the sense that it ever occurred to him that the most famously seductive politician in modern American politics seduced him.

Regardless, the president insists he deserves an apology. He's apologized plenty of times, but Republicans "never apologized to the country for impeachment."

This is an apple and oranges argument. The president has never apologized or admitted that he did any of the things he was impeached for. He has only apologized for his "personal mistakes." But lying under oath (something everyone concedes he did), isn't a personal mistake. Minting bogus legal privileges and improperly invoking existing ones to drag out the scandal for more than a year wasn't a personal mistake.

Clinton insists that he did nothing wrong that wasn't purely private, but he wants Republicans to apologize for what they did publicly. If Paterniti were a "full-time" political reporter, he might have asked about this disconnect rather than buy it whole hog. But, alas, the joke is on Paterniti. And maybe that explains the smirk he considers so Lincolnesque.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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