So the scandals bore you? What is your favorite soap?

On Books

August 30, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Already, shelves creak from their weight. The books about the Cliniton Administreation's controversies continue to roll out. But the best book or books remain to be written. Meanwhile, here are three - readable, purposeful, each with a message, together offering a sweep of the spectrum:

* "Arkansas Mischief: The Birth of a National Scandal" by Jim McDougal and Curtis Wilkie (Henry Holt, 316 pages, $25). This is a surprisingly readable, even endearing book, candid, rather brave and convincing - though with no pretense of even-handedness.

Cleanly, briskly written by a Boston Globe reporter this book is based on hundreds of hours with McDougal, mostly while he was in the slammer for fraud and acutely aware of the probability that he did not have long to live. Its core contention is that both Clintons are scurrilous, cynical and exploitative. It's angry, sad, fiercely biased and much that it says is unconfirmable. Finally, McDougal is forever dead. A "must read" for anyone seriously interested in the Clinton personality or presidency, but one that cries for counterbalance.

* "Anatomy of a Scandal: An Investigation into the Campaign to Undermine the Clinton Presidency" by James D. Retter (General Publishing Group, 320 pages, $22.95). Retter is a "lifelong political activist" who has written and produced a large number of television programs. He is unapologetically a supporter of Clinton and his party.

This book should have counterbalanced McDougal's, but it does not succeed. It is cluttered with simplistically selected tiny excerpts of transcripts, testimony, news articles and lawsuits. It raises questions about the intents and the credibility of the accusers. Frustratingly, its own credibility is crippled by the sweeping generalization, bordering on hysteria, that all criticism of Clinton's behavior has been concocted by a vast, gold-drenched conspiracy of extreme-right-wing "social Darwinians."

* "The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals" by William J. Bennett (Free Press, 154 pages, $20). Bennett, an unabashed conservative, edited "Book of Virtues" after serving as secretary of education under President Reagan. Many people take him to be a quaint anachronism, an absurdly unmodern finger-wagger, a moralist outdated in an age of mature relativism, even (saints preserve us!) a prude.

So be it, but he has written a clearly stated, coherently organized examination of the Clinton mess in ethical, historical and social context, deeply informed by American tradition. He argues that Clinton's example, the soul of his presidency, is a consummate trashing of traditional American moral principles.

He believes that is important: "If we have full employment and greater economic growth - if we have cities of gold and alabaster - but our children have not learned to walk in goodness, justice, and mercy, then the American experiment, no matter how gilded, will have failed."

Bennett clearly believes deeply in those moral qualities, and believes public life not only should, but can, be led as a living example of them.

L So what should one who reads books earnestly make of it all?

Acquaintances tell me they are sick of hearing about this tawdry, private stuff. They ask why the press won't just shut up and leave them alone.

But most of those people also admit the stories of Clinton's misdeeds are tantalizing - soap operas of real life.

Could it be that the real significance of this in terms of the Great American Psyche is not the effectual death of private ethics in this nation? Or the extinction of conventional morality? Or the blooming of the babyboomers, that often-alleged generation of situational opportunists? Or Inside-the-Beltway navel contemplation? Or the bitter fruit of Spock-prescribed child-rearing?

Could it be, rather, the victory of the soap opera as the fundamental, defining American art form, the apotheosis of the modern American personhood?

No! I think something else is going on here.

Precisely - or even broadly - I cannot say what. But some time, some day, the book will apear that explicates the most central truths that underlie what history may call the "Blooming of the Boomer Era" or - perhaps - the "Liar-Liar-Pants-on-Fire Presidency." The significance of this still murky national agony will emerge. Thoughtful colleagues suggest one of the following:

* Historic-encyclopedic: How do Clinton's behavior, habits and peculations - and all the attendant responses, persecutions, prosecutions and hypocrisies - fit among those of previous American presidents? What does it all mean? A conclusionary moral inventory from George to George, from Washington to Bush.

* Earnest: A punctilious, industrious, steel-cold fair, exhaustive work of modern journalism: The record, discovered, checked and double-checked beyond peradventure of doubt or hint of partisanship or piety. The Second Coming of Woodward-Bernstein.

* Intimate: The deeper truth through direct, endured human insight. This might be accomplished only by a book by Hillary Rodham, written with superhuman courage and candor, after the presidency, and probably the marriage, were over and done with.

* Cosmic: A novel, or novel-like account, written with the depth and breadth of classic literature, or - perhaps alone among contemporary writers - by Tom Wolfe. A bonfire of the banalities.

Myself, after a week of reading books on it, and - what is it? - years of the story being my daily soap, I am not sure what it is that I may want to read.

But I will know it when I read it. And so will you.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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