Everything in its place?

Everybody does it, but no one, it seems, does it as persistently as our president, the commander in chief of compartmentalizing.

January 03, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

From inauguration to his impeachment, there's been a word for President Bill Clinton's ability to soar politically while taking personal nose-dives: compartmentalization.

Compartmentalize is a 50-cent verb meaning to separate into

detached compartments (picture a McDonald's, where sumptuous meat products are partitioned by name). In a more advanced context, compartmentalize means the ability to jig when you can't jag. Clinton, it's been observed, can deftly separate his personal life from his professional one. How else could he survive his resume of personal embarrassments and, say, keep his eye on the ball in Baghdad?

``On one hand, gee, isn't it great the guy can handle a set of responsibilities while undergoing a lot of stress? At the same time, you can't ignore the part of his life that's not being managed very well,'' says Roger Porter, a presidential scholar at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Porter has been ``impressed'' by Clinton's compartmentalizing, a term, by the way, he uses frequently.

``Yet,'' Porter says, ``the people whom we admire the most are the people who are whole - who do not compartmentalize to succeed.''

The boxy word says a mouthful. Call it focus, determination, mental slickness. Or call it denial, rationalization, mental sickness. Either way, the catchword has become Clinton's signature characteristic. A Clinton news story or analysis isn't whole without it:

* ``Never has Clinton's fabled ability to compartmentalize his life been more starkly demonstrated than in the last two weeks.'' - The Sun, Aug. 22, 1998.

* ``As President Clinton faces the stark reality that his presidency is in peril, his famed ability to 'compartmentalize' is being put to the test as never before.'' - The Sun, Oct. 7, 1998.

* ``Bill Clinton's gift for compartmentalizing will be put to the ultimate test next year.'' - The Sun, Dec. 27, 1998.

Since Jan. 21, when the Washington Post first reported charges of Clinton's affair with an intern, ``compartmentalize'' began to appear more frequently in the written record of this national scandal. Throughout 1998, scores of newspapers used the concept to attempt to make human sense of the rise and fall and rise and fall of William Jefferson Clinton. (Note, too, the recent use in print of Clinton's full name for extra effect.)

The word, in short, has legs.

``I see 'compartmentalizing' as a central word in the Clinton lexicon,'' says William Safire, venerable author of the New York Times magazine's ``On Language'' column. ``I would lump it together with 'Saddam in a box' - which is a locution favored by Madeleine Albright. And we also had 'Newt [Gingrich] thinking outside the box.' ``

In all its psycho-syllables, compartmentalization became a clean, clinical explanation for Clinton's choices regarding White House intern Monica Lewinsky. And his prowess in this regard has been duly noted:

*``Americans have discovered in Bill Clinton an awesome capacity to compartmentalize and carry on.'' - Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, January 1998.

* ``The president's ability to 'compartmentalise' his life could be called legendary were it not so real.'' - Manchester Guardian Weekly (England), Oct. 18, 1998.

But this ability to separate and ``box'' life's responsibilities was just as quickly used to criticize - even scold - the president:

* ``The Southern boy charm with a Bible in hand will not work. ... Clinton cannot compartmentalize his life as he has done in the past.'' - Herald-Sun (N.C.), March 17, 1998.

* ``The problem with compartmentalizing in real life is that we are really the same person, and we take ourselves with us from compartment to compartment.'' - CBS' Charles Osgood, Dec. 17, 1998.

A Baltimore psychotherapist, Daniel Buccino, went as far as to write an opinion piece for The Sun Dec. 22. The president clearly has been on Buccino's mind. While calling for Clinton's resignation, Buccino also addressed - or rather undressed - the c-word.

``A person with a guilty conscience can 'compartmentalize' his life - as we keep hearing about Mr. Clinton - without recognizing that one's character informs all aspects of one's life,'' Buccino wrote.

Even in the closest of families, one man's compartmentalizing may be another woman's focus. In a new Time magazine profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton, reporters Karen Tumulty and Nancy Gibbs note Clinton's ability to 'compartmentalize' the Lewinsky scandal while distinguishing how the First Lady conducts her own mental business.

``Hillary's allies bristle when the same term ['compartmentalization'] is applied to her. Says one: 'I call it focus. ... Her natural reaction is to remain clear-headed and not let the emotional part guide her thinking.' '''

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