'Clinton's Country': Will real life win over soft soap?

ALICE STEINBACH

January 24, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

With just a few months left before television's long-running "Knots Landing" goes off the air, fans of the soap opera should be cheered by the following news: Although "Knots Landing" is going out, "Clinton's Country" is coming in.

And what a cast of characters you'll find in "Clinton's Country":

The brainy Bubba president with an Elvis accent who loves to jog to the nearest McDonald's for junk food.

The blond and beautiful legal-eagle first lady with a mind and an agenda of her own.

The shy, slightly awkward first daughter whose entry into adolescence is imminent.

The first cat, Socks, destined soon for commercial greatness as a stuffed toy and lead character in many, many books.

Also appearing in cameo roles in "Clinton's Country": The president's "quirky" mom. His "troubled" brother. And, no doubt, some surprise characters who will be introduced into the story line later.

It happens whenever a new president takes office: He and his family are suddenly turned into something resembling an ongoing television series. Their every move -- no matter how private or irrelevant to the public discourse -- becomes grist for the celebrity mill.

But now, not even fame -- which has always accompanied the job of president -- seems to be enough. Presidents and their families are fast approaching rock star status.

We see it already in the way President Clinton and his family are viewed by both the public and the press.

"Hillary Clinton is now like Madonna or the Princess of Wales," wrote one reporter upon seeing the screaming reception given by thousands who waited recently in the cold to catch sight of the president's wife.

And, just as fans at rock concerts do, admirers of Bill Clinton's can buy souvenirs: a Clinton T-shirt, a Clinton coffee mug, a Clinton saxophone pin. All courtesy of the Democratic hypesters whose job it is to package and market the president so he fits more neatly into the celebrity system that increasingly dominates our culture.

More and more, we Americans seem to be drawn to the cult of celebrity. In fact, we seem to require it in those whom we choose to identify with and follow.

The press understands this very well. Which may account, in part, for the hundreds of reporters who sometimes seem to be more stalking the president than covering him.

Of course, Bill Clinton and his image-makers -- along with every other politician -- understand the impact of celebrity power on the voter. Which is why we were shown over and over again during the campaign the brief clip of the young Bill Clinton meeting John F. Kennedy. And why the hot venue in the recent presidential campaign became appearances on celebrity shows with the likes of Larry King and Arsenio Hall.

But whether or not the idea of president-as-celebrity evolved from a combination of needs and interests by the public, press and politicians is less important than the questions raised by such a concept: If we have made our presidents into celebrities and ourselves into fans rather than citizens, haven't we trivialized the presidency?

And in dressing our presidents in the garments of personality and celebrity, haven't we made it more difficult for them to go about the business of governing?

The answer may be "Yes" to both questions if, as social historian Christopher Lasch suggests, a politician is unable to separate his actions from his celebrity image. Such a person, writes Lasch, "confuses successful completion of the task at hand with the impression he makes or hopes to make on others." In the end he will always choose "impressions" over "achievements."

Of recent presidents, however, Bill Clinton seems to be the most connected to his roots. To Arkansas, the state he chose to return to, even though many with his elite education would have headed for greener pastures. To friends from his working-class childhood and neighbors who go back 20 years. To the city of Little Rock and Doe's Eat Place.

Recently, on the bus from Monticello to Washington, Bill Clinton spoke wistfully of wanting to maintain some kind of private life in the White House. "I want to have old friends over and watch movies," he said. "And I want to use that White House bowling alley to bowl with Chelsea."

The remark caused Hillary to add something both simple and profound: "It will make Bill a better president," she said, "if he can stay a real person."

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