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TIME On Politics
TIME magazine

The Reckless and the Stupid

The character of a President eventually determines his destiny

By Lance Morrow

(TIME, February 2) -- Americans trying to get their bearings thought of Richard Nixon and traced his descent from the charge of obstructing justice to the threat of impeachment, and then to the morning of his maudlin-defiant resignation. Or, imagining a precedent for the origins of the current mess, they went back to Bill Clinton's Rose Garden hero of long ago, John Kennedy, the martyred Ur-boomer who may have been Clinton's role model in obdurately reckless sex.

But maybe the third protagonist of the '60s should be conjured up. Until the middle of last week, I had been working on the conceit that Bill Clinton is Lyndon Johnson Without Tears -- both Clinton and Johnson being big-hearted, triple-slick Southern boys, and mama's boys, with a genius for politics, and a bardic gift for storytelling, and huge egos and insecurities interbraided, and minds aggressively intelligent, instinctive, fiercely absorptive, and with a love of people, and a general incapacity to tell the truth. Or anyway (let's be nice) a way of thinking of the truth as only one of life's creative possibilities.

Lyndon Without Tears. Up to the great train wreck, Clinton's presidential career had been astonishingly lucky and frictionless. Now, presumably, there are tears enough, and much gnashing of teeth up in the family quarters. Americans try to imagine what Hillary Clinton is saying to her husband; some envision the air full of flying lamps. Or maybe she comforts him?

After Lyndon Johnson's death in 1973, a biographer hesitantly asked Lady Bird Johnson how she reacted to Lyndon's many extramarital love affairs. With that heroically relentless smile of hers, Lady Bird replied that Lyndon loved people and half the people on earth are women, so it seemed natural that he would love them!

Should we explain Bill Clinton that way? Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson were different in this: L.B.J. was unmistakably, with all his faults, a grownup man; his downfall -- brought on when his Great Society got lost in the war he would not or could not escape -- had a tragic size and weight. Clinton remains a very bright End of History boy-man. There is something trivial and unnecessary in his travails, and even if they lead to his downfall, they will seem sordidly silly.

Is character destiny? The President's character, at least in this compartment of his life, seems a hybrid of the Arkansas horndog and the Runaway Bunny. The horndog part is self- explanatory. The Runaway Bunny, you will remember, tests the limits of his independence by toddling off, as two-year-olds will; his mommy always comes after him and scoops him up in her snuggles. He is testing her. Who is the mommy being tested in this latest envelope-pushing behavior by Virginia Kelley's Boys Nation golden boy? Poor Hillary Clinton? The United States of America? Will America forgive Billy Blythe again and embrace him with those big 60% hugs of approval? The psychiatrist in us suspects that the President of the United States may have a little trouble being a grownup. W.H. Auden wrote: "In front maturity as he ascended/ Retired like a horizon from the child."

Of course, some thought that the affair with the intern might be a setup or hallucination. Those who credited the story separated into two camps: 1) those who don't think it matters much (a man's sex life is his business; a President's conduct of the office is the only legitimate concern, and anyway, maybe it is good macho sociobiology for a leader to chase girls); and 2) those enraged by the irresponsibility and arrogance implicit in such behavior--if it happened.

What astonishes Americans and drives them into Camp Two is the thought that after the electorate made a kind of deal with Clinton in 1992 (we'll let the Gennifer Flowers thing slide, that was Arkansas, and you're a big boy now: just don't do it again), he may have so unrepentantly and blithely and cynically -- and maybe pathologically -- persisted. Some Clinton haters indulged in mere prurient dudgeon. But plenty of parents were incensed in a nonpartisan way by the thought that the young woman might have been thus debauched in the house of Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Could the President truly have divided his time between worrying about his place in history and corrupting an intern? Now he may have a convergence, with the second activity defining the first.

Those of us in a third camp were appalled not so much by the immorality as by the recklessness and stupidity of it all. Even if the charges are true, Clinton may of course survive. (I thought that by now O.J. Simpson would be doing life without parole.) We live in an age when almost nothing is too squalid to be transcended. What Clinton needs now is a producer like the one played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Wag the Dog, a man who, when confronted with a hideously impossible public relations problem like the one facing Clinton, announces bouncily, "This is NOTHING!"

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 2, 1998

Sparking The Scandal
Lucianne Goldberg: In Pursuit Of Clinton
Hot Off The Wiretap
Is The Prosecutor Running A Starr Chamber?
The Burden Of Proof
It's the Sex, Stupid
Truth or...Consequences
Oh, Behave!
In Defense of Matt Drudge
When Sex Is Not Really Having Sex
Enablers And Enforcers: The Two White House Cultures
The Reckless and the Stupid
The Notebook
The Master Fixer in a Fix