Bubba is The Forgiven One and no tawdry tale will change that
Last week brought more explosive revelations about Bill Clinton's childhood and sex life. But the former president seems impervious to scandal
Published 27/07/2014 | 02:30
The late, great film critic Roger Ebert once complained that the dramatic revelation at the end of so many 1980s and '90s movies was that the central character had been a victim of some kind of child sexual abuse. The "unhappy endings" of films like Nuts with Barbra Streisand were meant to show us that there was what Ebert called "a good reason all along for the central character's messy foibles."
Years after that film came out, Streisand would sing Evergreen at the inauguration of one William Jefferson Clinton, a politician whom America would later damn for his own messy foibles: womanising and then lying about it, mainly. But also the cheesy showboating (can you just picture him biting that bottom lip), the narcissism, the chequered financial history. He was all but hounded from office and the Republican Party took over the reins of America for the better part of the next decade.
But Clinton never really went away. He seemed to remain a part of public life without ever feeling like he had outstayed his welcome (apart from a few nasty moments during the Obama-Hillary primaries).
As his country became entrenched in war and recession, there grew up a certain nostalgia for the Clinton era and a shrugging acceptance that it is, as Fran Liebowitz put it, "better for a president to screw an intern than screw the country".
It's nothing new for a past US president to gain in popularity after leaving office but Clinton's ride to dream poll numbers was almost unprecedented. He has toured the world as a sort of unofficial roaming ambassador - feted everywhere he went (contrast this with Blair and Bush). He has bolstered the case for Hillary as president. And he remains much more popular than either her or the man who defeated her in 2008.
A recent Wall Street Journal poll showed that Clinton is, by some margin, the most admired president of the past 25 years. A new YouGov poll finds that of the last eight elected US presidents, Clinton is thought of as the most intelligent and George W Bush as the least. As Maureen Dowd recently wrote "all that percussive drama (Lewinsky, the impeachment, etc.) has faded to a mellow saxophone riff for many Americans."
So perhaps that might explain the distinct lack of outrage that the various claims about Clinton's sex life last week have provoked. The first came from a forthcoming book in which author Daniel Halper claims that British spies listened in on phone sex between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to use evidence of the calls to pressure Clinton into releasing Jonathan Pollard, an American jailed for spying in the Middle East.
One of the chapters in the book details how, in March, 1997, Clinton brought Lewinsky, who was then 23, into the Oval Office. Clinton was on crutches after injuring his foot.
Halper writes that when she arrived the President hobbled into his study, where she performed oral sex on him. Halper also details Clinton's so-called "hit list" of targets which included actress Elizabeth Hurley, Streisand herself, actress Gina Gershon and Eleanor Mondale, daughter of the former vice-president Walter Mondale.
In another book, parts of which were also made public last week, author Ronald Kessler makes the claim that Bubba's sexual indiscretions are, in fact, ongoing. Kessler says that Clinton has a mistress who visits him so frequently that the secret service agents who tail the former president call her 'The Energiser.' Neither Clinton nor his aides have commented on the claims.
America has greeted these allegations with a barely stifled yawn. Like that of Kennedy, Clinton's colourful sex life will be a bottomless bounty for authors but after the graphic detail of the original Lewinsky story, there isn't much damage that can be done by a few reheated yarns about phone sex. More front-page-worthy has been the assertion by Lucinda Franks, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, that Hillary admitted in a 1999 interview that Bill had been abused by his mother, Virginia Kelley.
In excerpts of the memoir, due out next month, Franks reveals that she published only part of the interview in the original piece she wrote for former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown's Talk magazine and instead focused on the conflict between the President's mother and grandmother rather than direct abuse.
Kelley, who was married to Bill's abusive, alcoholic stepfather, Roger Clinton, during the future President's childhood, hurt her son "in ways you wouldn't believe," the former-First Lady continued. "He was abused. When a mother does what she does, it affects you forever," Hillary said, according to the new book.
Hillary did not go into the nature of the abuse but said it was the source of her husband's infidelities. "I am not going into it, but I'll say that when this happens in children, it scars you," she said, according to Franks' account. "You keep looking in all the wrong places for the parent who abused you."
Thus far, nobody in the Clinton camp has denied the allegations and perhaps the hope is that this story too will fizzle out.
In 1999, there might have been a good political reason to give America such a psychologically plausible excuse for Bubba's misbehaviour. But in the meantime a lot has changed. Clinton's womanising seems like small change beside the warmongering and deficit recklessness of his successors. And Bill doesn't need what Ebert called "abuse survivor absolution" to gain America's forgiveness. He already has it.