All technique and no trousers. Bill Clinton is celebrated for his almost "carnal" relationship with voters. Despite Monicagate and the string of scandals, women continue to forgive and adore him. suzanne moore refuses to be seduced
Bill Clinton: an American journey
Nigel Hamilton Century, 784pp, £25
When Bill Clinton arrived at last year's Labour Party conference, perfectly sensible women and men went into a weird politico-sexual rapture, as if he were Robbie Williams crossed with Nelson Mandela. "He looked at me . . . He brushed my elbow," they swooned. Then there was the kerfuffle over which little Labour lady could sit next to him during the big dinner. Obviously it had to be someone female, but if she were too decrepit Bill might get bored; too young and whooah - it could all go a bit Lewinsky.
Anyway, this colossus of a man bestrode the conference, wandering around with another star, Kevin Spacey, in his perpetual search for a Big Mac. I'm afraid there really is no accounting for taste, unfortunately even the taste of colleagues who were throwing their knickers at "Mr Aura". I'm talking metaphorically. The Labour Party conference isn't that exciting. No one seemed to care much about what he had done (Monicagate) and no one seemed to care much about what he hadn't done (deliver on policies that would improve the lives of ordinary Americans). Indeed, it seems to me he delivered us into the hands of George W Bush. Still, the only thing that matters about Clinton is his fantastic technique: his ability to promise so much; his speech-making prowess; his immense charm; and, above all, what the US political commentator Joe Klein once memorably described as his almost "carnal" relationship with voters.
Nigel Hamilton's book takes us from Clinton's difficult childhood to the point at which he became president in 1992. Much of this has already been well documented. There is his magnificent mother Virginia with her "mega make-up", her inclination to fall for the wrong guy and her desire to be financially independent in order to protect her children. There is the goody two-shoes boy Bill, phenomenally intelligent, who loosens up at Oxford and Yale, evades the draft and meets the one woman who can whip his ambition into shape - Hillary. Together they plot out a life plan that takes him from graduate school to the presidency in 20 years.
What Hamilton does rather cleverly is to refract this material through the prism of sexual politics. This works well because Clinton's whole world has always depended on his relationships with women, be they his mother, wife, mistresses, party workers or adoring female voters. Part of the reason for our fascination with the Clinton marriage is what it reveals about the gap between feminist theory and practice. The union of Slick Willie, a man with a constant need for female affirmation, and the fiercely bright Hillary, who came from the "look like shit school of feminism" (as one ungracious onlooker put it), is intriguing. We may have been over all this at the time of the Lewinsky scandal, but what is deeply shocking is that anyone ever believed his denials. It is also insulting of Hillary to write in her memoirs about her trauma at finding that her husband had lied to her. This is a man who had lied to her all his life, who has evaded a lot more than the draft. This, after all, is a man who denied a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers.
Were we such suckers to think that, yes, Clinton may have been unfaithful in the past but he had changed his ways? Did we, like Hillary, expect him to get over the rodeo queens, the junk women and the junk food? "You will outgrow this - they are not the ones who can help you achieve your goals," Hillary once wrote to him. Bill, for his part, has been loyal to her in every way but sexually. When he wanted a divorce in 1990, she retaliated by saying that she would run for the governorship of Arkansas. Knowing from polls that she would be humiliated, Bill agreed to stay and have Methodist counselling to help him quell, in the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart's stupendous phrase, "the groin demon".
It's this sort of dirt that we like, even though Hamilton dresses it up with talk of postmodernism and the culture of narcissism. I don't know if it's true that Bill and Gennifer with her "major-league breasts" called each other's private parts Willard and Precious, or that he liked to wear make-up, any more than I know whether Hillary has no erotic imagination. All I do know is that Clinton was both a harbinger and a victim of a culture in which the boundaries between public and private life became increasingly blurred. In this story, there really are no private parts. Monicagate, after all, was the result of a mutant hybrid of right-wing prurience, workaday feminism and press intrusion.
Certainly, though, Clinton was already skilled at playing the new confessional culture at its own game. The amazing televised admission that he had caused pain in his marriage was lifted straight out of the confessions of the charismatic southern tele-evangelists. His aides had realised they could turn Hillary from feminist pariah into an asset. In the furore surrounding the Gennifer Flowers revelations, James Carville called Hillary "Our ace in the hole" and callously admitted that Gennifer would be smashed to pieces in the process. Never mind the allegations of sexual harassment from Paula Jones, or rape from Juanita Broaddrick, or the breakdowns and suicides of many connected with the Clintons over the years; never mind the dismissal of Betsey Wright, to whom Bill had confessed much of his sexual multi-tasking and who had covered up his "bimbo eruptions"; never mind that he had lied and made others lie for him as he would do time and time again: here was Hillary, the tough little cookie standing by her man.
The whole business is as vomit-inducing as being at a prayer breakfast with a hangover, and I haven't even got to his politics yet. I was dumbfounded when, during the Monica scandal, countless feminists came out and defended him. What kind of feminism is this? How can it be fine to abuse certain kinds of women - young, poor, uneducated - while others are placed on pedestals and admired for their steeliness? What kind of feminist is Hillary, who sanctions Bill's behaviour because it feeds her own ambition? They play the Mulder and Scully of politics: he always placating, charming, intuitive - feminine to Hillary's cold, masculine logic. This may be why his legacy is so weak and her time has yet to come. After more than 700 pages I still have no idea of what he really stood for apart from "the politics of inclusion". Do we simply accept that ambition always overwhelms decency and that Clinton had to compromise to achieve his own agenda? Yet what, beyond establishing his own importance, was his agenda?
In lauding his fabulous campaigning skills, it seems we fall into the trap of confusing the winning of hearts and votes with politics itself, as though what happens once in power is irrelevant. If seduction is all that matters, seduction itself becomes power. Charisma has such an amnesiac effect that there are those who are willing to forget the trail of broken dreams and promises that the man from Hope has left in his wake. It's even more vital, then, that some of us at least play hard to get.
Suzanne Moore is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday
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