Laughter and Forgetting


Americans have a talent for mass amnesia. The scandal that convulsed the nation for more than a year—complete with semen-stained dress, cigar props, and bent-penis allegations—evaporated the moment Bill Clinton left the Oval Office. And the cloud of illegitimacy that cast a pall over George W.’s ascension to the White House—once signified by piquant phrases like “hanging chad” and “voter fraud”—dissipated as soon as an exhausted public opted to embrace its new fratboy in chief.

This culture moves at such speed that there’s some satisfaction in pausing to pick through the entrails of Bush’s campaign, as Frank Bruni does in Ambling Into History, or in burnishing Clinton’s tarnished credentials, as Joe Klein attempts in The Natural. But perspective comes with time, and you have to wonder how much hindsight can accrue with such quick turnaround, which is more likely to generate EZ-Bake instant history than lasting historical analysis. Both authors are savvy enough to understand this, but they charge ahead anyway, eager to add their voices to the babble of commentary and claim a spot in presidential posterity.

Blame it on Campaign Trail Syndrome: Journalists often spend a year or more shadowing their candidate, moldering in hotel rooms and at rallies. Joe Klein prefaces The Natural with an anecdote about dragging his daughter to an event during the 1992 primary. Clinton told her, ” ‘I know that your father hasn’t been home much these past few months. He’s been with me . . . but he talks about you all the time.’ ” The anecdote illustrates the awkwardness of the political journalist’s task—hanging out with a man that you’re paid to critique. It comes through in the way Klein flip-flops between thrashing and idealizing Clinton.

Ever since Hunter S. Thompson took on the 1972 election in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, flacks on this beat have fancied themselves New Journalistic spies, inserting themselves in the story as latter-day Alices adrift in political wonderland. Joe Klein penned one of the more searing contributions to the genre with Primary Colors, a darkly funny account of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. But because he dubbed it fiction and hid under the inventive byline Anonymous, Klein was able to loosen his tongue without repercussions (or so he thought). Readers who pick up The Natural expecting Primary Colors Part 2 will be disappointed, however. Klein’s nonfiction portrait seems stilted and stale compared with its fictionalized predecessor. Far from an exposé, The Natural attempts to rehabilitate Clinton’s reign. Klein proposes that “Bill Clinton conducted a serious, substantive presidency” and struggles to separate Clinton’s “libidinous crudeness” from his political achievements. The book reminds us that there are plenty of reasons to deplore or adore Bill Clinton that don’t involve his dick. (Unfortunately, Klein—an avowed New Democrat centrist—also bludgeons us with his biased political opinions, and is particularly peeved by Clinton’s “liberal” tendencies.)

The Natural tries to nail down slippery Bill, weighing his staggering intelligence and charm against a “needy, high-cholesterol quality” that feeds on a public “enthralled by his vast, messy humanity.” The most affecting image in this book bears witness to candidate Clinton’s compulsive need for affection. One night he invited Klein to bowl with him: “At times, as we stood there, waiting for our balls to turn down the alley, he’d lean up against me—a strange feline sensation; he needed the physical contact.”

Much narrower in scope, Ambling Into History specializes in catching Bush off guard, exposing “the often offbeat character that flickered through the frippery and pomp.” He offers an impossibly evenhanded take on Bush: “part scamp and part bumbler . . . an adult with an inner child that often brimmed to the surface or burst through.” Unhampered by the desire to prove his subject’s seriousness, Bruni draws on his stint as the New York Times reporter on Bush’s campaign and as a White House correspondent to give us a panoramic view of George’s boggling goofiness: lifting his pinkie to the corner of his mouth like Dr. Evil in Austin Powers, clowning and wiggling his eyebrows at reporters during a public memorial service in 1999.

Before 9-11, Bruni writes that Bush was taking it easy and enjoying himself: “Months into the presidency, he was still raving about all the cool extravagances and gadgets, like the made-to-order food from the White House kitchen and the little red button in the private dining room off the Oval Office that he could use to summon the butler.” Commentators have attributed Bush’s popularity to anti-intellectualism. After the silver-tongued Rhodes scholar Clinton so fatally disappointed us, Bush’s inarticulate everyman shtick seemed refreshingly innocent. In one revealing scene, Bruni records Bush gleefully crowing to a group of students that even a slacker can be president.

Clinton, on the other hand, pulled himself up by his brainy bootstraps. Klein mournfully proposes that Bill spent his life “dreaming of a heroic, Rooseveltian presidency, of great acts and grand gestures,” but in an era of peace and a gridlocked Congress had to settle for “a tactical, defensive administration.” The Natural even hints that this was the root of the former president’s self-sabotage: “There was always the sneaking suspicion that Clinton was a bit bored, that he needed the thrill of a crisis—and that if the world didn’t present him with a challenge, he’d create one for himself.” Ironically, 9-11 handed Bush exactly the kind of life-defining challenge Clinton had longed for.

Not surprisingly, both of these books expose as much (or more) about the media than about their presidential prey. Klein laments his colleagues’ role in the Clinton imbroglio: Even though polls showed overwhelming public support for the president, reporters were unable to cope with the subtle, incremental nature of Clinton’s political achievements and rushed to fill the news void with scandal. Meanwhile, much of Ambling Into History reads like a jaundiced road diary in which campaign reporters, bored senseless from eking out news stories from phony photo ops, often find themselves “zooming toward anything sexier than issues.” Bruni seems sheepish about his behavior as he, with the rest of the pack, hunted for “inklings of a changed dynamic” and failed to grasp “the danger of willing such changes into being rather than accurately noting their occurrence.” Both Bruni and Klein inadvertently demonstrate the hazards of writing history as it happens, and then they ignore their own advice.