Clinton hasn't changed -- except he looks stupid

August 25, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

'TWAS EVER thus: Six years ago, Bill Clinton marched though West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood bundled by a cheery crowd that included Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and a woman Clinton spotted who happened to be my wife.

The afternoon was billed as the city's chance to show off its charms to a presidential candidate. Also, not to be minimized, it was a chance for Clinton to show off his own newly famous charms. When the crowd thinned out after a while, Clinton walked over to my wife. She was alone except for the apparently invisible man who accompanied her: Me.

"That's a lovely pin you're wearing," Clinton said, staring at the center of my wife's blouse and taking no apparent notice of my own resplendent attire.

"Thank you," my wife said.

"Where did you get it?" Clinton asked.

My wife muttered an answer, which matters little. What may matter is what she wanted to respond, in her puckish way.

"When he asked where I got the pin," my wife whispered to me, as Clinton moved out of earshot, "I wanted to tell him, 'Don't you remember, Bill? You gave it to me in the hotel room last night.' "

Now, understand what I'm saying here: There was nothing inappropriate in Clinton's approach to my wife -- and, obviously, no previous meeting in a hotel room. But, such was already the collective perception of Clinton and indiscriminating sex, based on equal parts truth and titillation, based on Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, based on names that would soon enough enter the common vocabulary, that we were already making cynical jokes about a man we were going to put into the White House.

Six years ago.

And so, when you get past the humiliation he's caused his wife and daughter, and the muck through which he's dragged both his presidency and his country, and the lies told publicly on his behalf by trusting friends whose own considerable reputations have now been diminished (as well as their wallets, thanks to legal expenses incurred on his behalf), we're left with perhaps the most astonishing fact of all: Bill Clinton's stupidity.

The man reputed to be the brainiest president in a generation turns out merely to be the smartest guy produced by the public schools of Arkansas -- and another unfortunate self-consciousness for that state to absorb. (Clinton didn't think oral sex counted as real sex? Well, what do you expect from a state where the next of kin is called Aunt Mom?)

For at least six years, he's known that everyone in America, friends and well-financed foes, loyal supporters as well as those predisposed to hate him, has been watching his every move through a microscope.

And he still couldn't stop himself -- even with a young woman for whom his instincts should have been nothing more than fatherly protection.

So we now have this strange dichotomy, which none of the deep moral thinkers can figure out: If Clinton's such a scuzzo, how come he's such a popular president? Why do all the polls say we approve of his job performance, that we want to move onto serious business, and that we find Ken Starr and Linda Tripp even more loathsome than the disgraced president?

Simple: Because, unlike our National Yenta Tripp, Clinton really is just like us. In the years since he was the innocent lad shaking John Kennedy's hand on the White House lawn, the job description's been downsized. We've all come to understand: These are flawed, driven mortals running the country, with the mortal instinct to protect themselves.

You want to talk sex? The martyred Kennedy makes Clinton look like a pathetic schoolboy wannabe who must be lying awake nights thinking, "Who changed the rules on me? Why was it all right for Jack Kennedy to score chicks, and I can't?"

You want to talk presidential lies? How about Lyndon Johnson and Dick Nixon sending the boys off to Vietnam against an orchestration of lies and distortions? Was even the worst lie about Monica Lewinsky as high a crime as one kid's wasted life?

We've long since learned something from all that organized lying: These were ordinary, flawed men, not gods, who simply happened to hold the top job in government. We knew Clinton's libidinations before he got the job, and we voted him in, anyway. Chastity wasn't considered part of the job description.

Listen, the guy's a sleaze. But we knew that when we hired him. After that day in West Baltimore, my wife and I laughingly told everybody we knew about him cozying up to her and complimenting her pin, whenever the subject of Clinton and women came up.

And then, months into his presidency, I read a newspaper profile of Clinton that noted, "He tends to approach women and offer conversational ice breakers such as, "That's a lovely pin you're wearing."

When my wife saw this, she cried, "I feel so used."

She was laughing when she said it. The thing is, we all feel used now. And, six years later, if we're still laughing, then the joke's truly on us.

Pub Date: 8/25/98

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