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10 November 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Reporting the child within

Synopsis: In its strongest sections, The Clinton Enigma shows where the discourse about Clinton should be headed.

The Clinton Enigma
David Maraniss, Simon & Schuster, 1998


One thing we love about The Clinton Enigma is the fact that it’s so short. We’ve always said that the problem with books is it takes so long to read them! But The Clinton Enigma, written quickly, sweeps that obstacle out of the way. In fact, Maraniss manages to present his whole text in just 110 compact pages.

Well, we say the text is 110 pages, but the publishers were slick on that score. The book, for some reason, begins on page nine, and here’s the total text of pages 24 and 25:

Part Two
Listening to Clinton

That’s it! Two more pages done! And the publisher provides great blotches of space where the little short chapters begin and end; page 103 has five lines of text, and page 106 has only six. (Maraniss even reprints Clinton’s speech two full times. Man! That’s one even we never thought of!)

In fact, as we breezed our way through the book, our thoughts drifted back to college days, when we’d bulk up our texts in deft ways. We were surprised that Enigma’s margins didn’t get wider and wider as the publisher strained for his page count. But mainly, we marveled that Maraniss could “reveal this president’s entire life” in so compact a presentation! Who knew you could reveal an entire life in this short space? And not your own life, but somebody else’s?

But however short this book may be, in its best sections, it does valuable work. It’s rare that we at THE HOWLER dish out praise, but we’re lavish when praise is due. Maraniss raises the question about Clinton’s behavior that reasonable people must be asking: Why in the world would he risk his career for a relationship with Monica Lewinsky?

MARANISS: All of which leads to one question, asked in various ways. Why? Why would some had achieved his lifelong dream needlessly jeopardize it?

And Maraniss not only raises the question, he even starts trying to answer it. He discusses Clinton as a child of an alcoholic, and begins to explore his reckless adult behavior in light of the literature on the subject:

MARANISS: 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 as caretaker and protector of the family or as its redeemer in the outside world...Many of the traits [Clinton] took into his adult life and political career, for better and worse, make more sense when seen from this perspective.

Maraniss derives a critique of Clinton’s adult traits from his account of the literature on children of alcoholics. He achieves what few in the Clinton Critique even attempt--he places Clinton’s puzzling behavior in a human context, and shows us Vile Clinton anew, as a person:

MARANISS: Many clues to the way [Clinton] has responded to the Lewinsky scandal can be found in his religious history...He began attending church when he was nine years old, toting a leather-bound Bible in his left hand as he walked alone down the streets of Hot Springs...to Park Place Baptist Church. The pastor, the Reverend Dexter Blevins, said that young Clinton was at the church not just Sunday mornings but “every time the door opened,” and seemed starved for a refuge from the turmoil of his family life.

In showing the lonely child looking for help, Maraniss begins to do what has rarely been done--he begins to place a human face on the self-defeating adult conduct of Clinton.

But there is an obvious danger with psychiatrizing, which Maraniss does not always avoid. (And we stress here that we are not in any way qualified to judge his reading of the psychiatric literature.) In a celebrity press corps in love with accusers, there has been a constant return to one pleasing theme: There Go Those Crazy Clintons Again. Those Clintons Are Inveterate Liars. Every reaction by Clinton is spun to show What A Nut That Crazy Bill Is. If he’d-just-told-the-truth-in-January, we’re told, this-would-all-be-over-by-now-for-certain. The claim, of course, is arrant nonsense, but it serves the purpose of the celebrity press corps, which refuses to acknowledge that crackpot accusers have long pursued Clinton in crackpot ways, or that his reaction to real and ginned-up scandal has ever been anything except pathological.

Even Maraniss, who describes the career-long dishonesty and venom of Clinton’s attackers, often falls into this trap. Here’s his reaction to the part of the speech where Clinton claims his deposition was “legally accurate:”

MARANISS: His claim of “legal accuracy” evoked perhaps the most unforgettable, if inconsequential, evasive answer of his political life--his attempt in 1992 to avoid the simple admission that he, like millions of people of his generation, had smoked marijuana. [Our emphasis]

Maraniss’ suggestion that this would have been a “simple admission” evokes the claim that Clinton is (Maraniss’ term) “a dissembler,” who avoids the truth where there isn’t a need. But to admit to marijuana in Arkansas in the 1970s would hardly have been a “simple admission,” and it was far from clear, even in 1992, how the admission would affect Clinton’s candidacy. And the current scene is full of Baby Boom politicians who have spun and doctored the truth about drugs. Only with Clinton do we pretend there would have been no danger in simply blabbing out the truth, and that the desire to avoid losing a career over a couple of tokes is an indication of a puzzling pathology. (Maraniss also suggests that Clinton was behaving in “reflexive” and “habitual” ways in failing to trumpet the facts about his draft history and his extramarital conduct, and in failing to say he had lied in his Jones deposition. All three suggestions, if intended, are extremely hard to credit. It is absurd to puzzle over why Bill Clinton didn’t just tell Kenneth Starr he had lied.)

In this way, the writer who crafts the striking image of Child Clinton Alone descends to the level of his less worthy peers. And we’re taken right to the part of his book where Maraniss begs a Big Question.

Tomorrow: In his speech, Clinton claims he’s the victim of a political lawsuit. But, just like his peers who those accusers, Maraniss ignores the complaint.