From ........... TIME

May 16, 1994

page 94


by: Lance Morrow

JOHN KENNEDY - RICH AND HANDSOME, A GOLDEN BOY MARRIED to a beautiful and accomplished woman - said that "life is unfair" Well. Even later, one thought that in Kennedy's case, it might have been a good idea, for the sake of clarity, to rinse off any residue of self-pity and change "Life is unfair" to something like "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away"

Bill Clinton possesses some of Kennedy's gifts - youth, energy, the most important job in the world. Clinton's problem may be that he learned a few wrong lessons from J.F.K. One better - left-unlearned text from the lout's side of Camelot might be the idea that a guy can get away with anything.

It may be that life is unfair. The American people try not to be. Fairness is a kind of American fetish (except where race is concerned). On the other hand, as George Bush discovered and Clinton may yet find, Americans give and take away. Americans want to be fair to Bill Clinton. They would, in fact, like to be led by Bill Clinton; having seen what failed presidencies look like, most Americans would like Clinton to succeed. But with Clinton, there are more and more things to be fair about.

Clinton used to be admirable for his downhill racer's reflexes and uncanny balance. After a while, it began seeming apt to remember Winston Churchill's line about Ramsey MacDonald. He is, said Churchill, the world's leading expert at falling down without hurting himself. Now it looks as if Clinton is prone to injury.

The Paula Jones lawsuit against the President raises fairness questions in several directions:

- The tabloid TV crews, rested after their exertions over Joey Buttafuoco, Tonya Harding, Michael Jackson and Mr. and Mrs. Bobbitt, have rushed back into the trailer park of American sleaze. Is it fair that the President should be vulnerable to lurid my-word-against-his-word charges that might be made by any one with an impulse to become famous by sliming the mighty?

- On the other hand, is it fair that American feminists are handling Paula Jones with rubber gloves and tongs at the end of a ten-foot pole, in contrast to their performance when they embraced Anita Hill and demanded justice for her regarding charges against Clarence Thomas that were less serious than the squalid scene retailed by Paula Jones? This time, of course, the target of the accusations is someone politically on their side.

- Who cares about a President's past sexual adventures and private life when there are so many important things to be done in the country? Of course, the Jones episode, if true, might involve a violation of the law.

Some observers - including me - took this grow-up- and get-to-work-on-real - problems line during the Gennifer Flowers episode in early 1992. In retrospect, I think I was wrong. There is an American cultural problem here that sharpens down to a character problem: Bill Clinton's character problem.

For a snapshot of the culture-character fusion, remember the moment not long ago when a girl on MTV asked Clinton whether he wore boxer shorts or briefs . Can anyone imagine Harry Truman answering the question? If asked, Truman would have said, "None of your damn business!" He would have been right. Bill Clinton might have gracefully said on MTV, "Well, I have been accused of not having a sufficiently dignified approach, so maybe I'd better not answer that."

The trouble is that "None of your business" represents a kind of black-and-white retro-reality that won't play anymore.

The nation lives in a pervasive culture of spin and hype, the agitated, drooling and unembarrassable twin children of publicity. Spin and hype, working mostly through the magic of television, create a sort of virtual reality in which no one is quite accountable and consequences can be annulled by changing the channel - or adducing a childhood trauma. That powerful universe of sensational illusion has increasingly come to determine the moral atmosphere of America. The virtual world of trailer-park day time television even has its academic counterpart in structuralism and deconstruction, whose practitioners sever reality from "text" and thereby render everything vulnerable to the most subjective, onanistic reading.

Americans inhabit, so to speak, two parallel realities. There is the virtual reality created by media spinning and cultural circuses and gladiatorial spectacles of exemplary pseudomoral combat (Harding v. Kerrigan, Bobbitt v. Bobbitt) - an intimate cartoonish universe where the member is severed and sewn back on. And then there is the reality of ......... reality. Places like, say, Bosnia and Haiti belong to the reality of reality.

A President who, once elected, confuses the two realities is headed for no good outcome. Virtual reality is a dream. The reality of reality always wins in the end. Franklin Roosevelt, possibly the greatest illusionist and spin master in presidential history (better even than Ronald Reagan), never lost sight of the reality of the reality of the world, which he kept in the foreground of his generous, sane mind.

There is a dangerous accumulation of evidence that Clinton operates by the phony physics of virtual reality (appearances, conjurations, evaporating threats, a governance of attitude and feeling) and has not a cold, hard grasp of plain fact.

Ultimately, in the courtroom of history, life is fair - and often brutal.