POLITICS NOVEMBER 18, 1996
Last night my father took a poll in the locker room of the place where he plays tennis and not one of the men there had any idea that either Bill Clinton or Bob Dole was coming to New Orleans today, which they are. The front page of the local newspaper reflects the general apathy. Beneath a huge story about who will be the next coach of the New Orleans Saints is a tiny map showing how traffic will be affected by the candidates. After a brief discussion of the various roads being closed to make way for Clinton's motorcade the story says, simply, “No roads will be closed for Dole.”
As it happens one of my old classmates, Bill Kearney, runs the Dole campaign in Louisiana, and another, Jay Batt, is among Dole's most ardent supporters in New Orleans. The three of us agree to have lunch at a restaurant on Canal Street called the Palace Cafe, which is owned and run by another former classmate, named Ti Martin. Ti and her family are serious Democrats. When Clinton came to town a few months back he descended on the restaurant with only forty-five minutes notice. “Men with large guns wanted to know how to get to the roof,” Ti recalls. “The president's dietitian wanted only one person to cook for him and only one person to serve him. By the time I went outside, Canal Street was blocked off in both directions and red velvet ropes were holding back hundreds of onlookers. When the Secret Service wanted to see the reservation book, I explained that much of our lunch business was walk-in, so he passed. Later we noticed one of the names on the reservation book was Oswald.”
In the same way that you don't realize how essentially wrong a newspaper is until you read a story on a subject with which you are intimately familiar, you don't know what is wrong in a political campaign until you see it come to your hometown. The purpose of this lunch was to talk politics; but no one really wants to. I could sit here until Election Day asking questions designed to force them to lock horns and they won't do it. Ti wants Jay to keep coming to her restaurant; Jay wants Ti to keep buying clothes from his store downtown; and in any case they like each other.
I think the main reason most political journalism seems so remote from life as we know it in America is that in life politics is far down on the list of concerns whereas political journalism operates on the assumption that politics is the most important thing in the world. Ordinary people understand they are meant to exhibit a certain tedious seriousness when they talk to a journalist about presidential candidates, and so they do. I don't mean this as an insult to ordinary people. Apathy is a perfectly intelligent response to our current politics.
Before I leave Ti hands me a list of what Clinton ate the last time he came to the Palace Cafe:
MARINATED CRAB CLAWS, CRAWFISH GAZPACHO, PAN SEARED YELLOWFIN TUNA WITH CREOLE TOMATO CREAM AND LOUISIANA CRAWFISH TAILS, CATFISH, PECAN COUNTRY APPLE PIE WITH HOUSEMADE CINNAMON ICE CREAM AND CARAMEL SAUCE, WHITE CHOCOLATE BREAD PUDDING (A FEW BITES) HOUSEMADE RASPBERRY YOGURT (A FEW BITES)
This isn't an accurate reflection of his intake, Ti says, because the president kept reaching across the table and spearing food off the plates of people he barely knew. But even the official list of Clinton's consumption prompted a local columnist to write that, “anybody who can eat like that and then address the legislature is an inspiration.”
I had planned to spend a week in Little Rock and Hot Springs looking into the many Clinton-related scandals and outrages. I had even gone so far as to book the Governor's Suite at the Excelsior Hotel for the occasion. But then the letters started to arrive from my last attempt to dip my toe into these subjects—pamphlets purporting to prove that Clinton had Ron Brown killed; disquisitions on Clinton's cocaine habit; further evidence that Vince Foster could not possibly have committed suicide. “Mike,” one writer wrote in an attempt to discover where I stood on these issues, generally, “Do you believe or tend to believe that Lee Oswald acted alone on Nov. 22, 1963 in murdering JFK? Are you comfortable about accepting that both the Croatian airport mechanic's and air traffic control officer's death shortly before the April crash [of Brown's plane] were suicides?”
Then Murray started calling again. You may recall that I quoted the narrator of the famous video expose The Clinton Chronicles, Larry Nichols, saying that a journalist named Murray Waas, who was looking into the drug trafficking in Arkansas, had called him to say that he shouldn't help me investigate the Clinton conspiracies, that I was planning to write a hatchet job on Nichols. After that piece appeared Murray bombarded me with phone calls and messages, ranging from threats to apologies for saying he planned to have me killed. Soon I took to letting other people answer my phone. But even that didn't do much good. “It's Mike Samuels for you,” said my house guest, as she handed me the receiver. It was Murray, of course, using one of his pseudonyms. “I can't believe all you said to me about Hillary Clinton,” he said ominously. In the end I unplugged the phones. As I did, it crossed my mind that people who apologize for making death threats are possibly more dangerous than people who don't.
Perhaps the signal quality of both Clinton conspiracists and their chroniclers is their determination. They never give up. Murray has now taken to calling my employers to inform them he tape-recorded our phone conversations and plans to release the transcripts to The Washington Post and The New York Times. Apparently I said some pretty damning things about Hillary Clinton. I also fabricated his quotes, he says. How he arrived at this last conclusion a month after the fact, I do not know. One of Murray's last calls came to Sydney, a new TNR intern, who is polite and pleasant almost to a fault. Murray took Sydney's formality as a sign that Sydney was trying to keep him at arm's length. “You don't have to be so formal with me,” Murray yelled on the phone. But Sydney is formal with everyone. After he had addressed me as “Sir,” for the fourth time, I said, “Sydney, you're going to have to stop calling me that.” “I'm afraid that is going to be difficult, sir.”
On balance, I have decided, it is better to let Clinton get away with everything than to become further involved in his conspiracies. Instead of going to Little Rock I head out on the road to witness what the Clinton campaign is calling “a summing up of his argument for re-election.”
When I arrive in St. Louis the Clinton campaign plane is waiting empty on a tarmac. Clinton is speaking downtown; the only other people onboard are the four stewards, who are watching re-runs of Barbra Streisand's tribute to the Clintons. I pass the time reading Unlimited Access, the book about the Clinton White House by a former FBI man named Gary Aldrich, who was moved to write, he says, to prevent a security disaster in the White House. One of the reasons it is sitting at the top of the best-seller lists is that it can be finished in two hours. Another is that it pushes the genre into new territory. According to Aldrich, the women in the Clinton White House are not really women and the men not really men:
[Mack] McClarty's physical appearance was also unusual. There was a uni-sex quality to the Clinton staff that set it far apart from the Bush administration. It was the shape of their bodies. In the Clinton administration, the broadshouldered, pants-wearing women and the pear-shaped, bowling pin men blurred distinctions between the sexes. I was used to athletic types, physically fit persons who took pride in body image and good health. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the Clinton friends `girlie men' during the campaign in 1992. I now knew what he was getting at.
The people who are consumed by their hatred of the Clintons—only some of whom believe that they sit at the center of many conspiracies—can be broken down into three schools. There is the Bad Investment School, which consists of people who have lost a great deal of money on an investment sold to them by someone who reminds them of Clinton. There is the Sublimated Sexual Jealousy School, which is comprised mainly of men aged 30-55 who are vaguely aware that Clinton is getting women to vote for and to sleep with him in the most unmanly ways, by feigning a kind of female sensibility—feeling their pain and all that—and thus transgressing the basic rules of the game. The hostility this breeds in some is akin to the hostility of the striking union member toward the scab.
Aldrich is a good example of the third group—the Law & Order School. The Law & Order School is defined in part by its scrupulousness. Aldrich notes all sorts of seemingly irrelevant details—the precise time of the day, the names of Vince Foster's children—which of course lends credence to his account. But at the same time he is counting carpet fibers he is repeating every wild rumor he has ever heard: that two male staffers were caught having sex by a White House security guard; that the president sneaks off to sexual trysts at the Marriott, hiding under a blanket in the back seat of a car; that the First Lady has busted another lamp in the West Wing. Aldrich's main charge, which he makes repeatedly, is that the Clintons and their employees are counterculture types with counterculture morals, which is to say few morals at all. Once onto this line of inquiry all sorts of seemingly innocent behavior can be revealed for what it is:
It appears that Al and Tipper Gore decided to reward their “incredibly hardworking staff” after the inauguration by inviting them to a Grateful Dead concert. The Gores were described by a Gore spokesperson as dedicated “Deadheads.” As an FBI agent, I knew the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts were notorious open air drug markets.
Unlimited Access seems to be inspired by a very modern form of resentment, the kind of resentment that a man who has spent his life climbing the ranks of a large bureaucracy feels toward a man who leapfrogs up the career ladder through a special and obnoxious blend of deferments and degrees. Duty, loyalty and discretion are the qualities most highly valued in Aldrich's world; glibness, shrewdness and nerve are the qualities required to jump from Hot Springs to Oxford, then back to the governor's office and on to the White House. The Law & Order mindset is easy to make fun of but you do so at your peril, as Clinton has learned the hard way, struggling with both his salute and his generals. A status structure is a powerful thing. It can lead a man whose job is to protect the president to sound as if he'd rather kill him.
By the time I finish the Aldrich book, Clinton has given speeches in Chicago and Minneapolis. It is well past midnight. We're flying to Columbus, Ohio. A reporter in the seat in front of me is staring into his computer screen and tomorrow's first sentence. “In an abrupt departure from his remarks here four years ago President....”
I wake up in Columbus, Ohio, after five fitful hours in a second-string Hyatt and stumble onto the press bus heading for Ohio State University and another Clinton rally. Within moments the press filing center is hosting a press conference and Mike McCurry is making press-conference noises. “By now you know fully well the president's positions on pardons... I have to check further...pure speculation ... on prior occasions.” He then introduces Bruce Reed, who explains how every third-grader should be required to pass a reading test. Bruce Reed was in my class in college. It's good to see him doing so well. At length the reporters are briefed on how much more money the Clinton campaign has to spend in the final week in Ohio than the Dole campaign. This no doubt will lead to even more stories about how Dole can't win, making it even more likely that he won't.
Today's reading is The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, David Brock's new book, which ostensibly is addressed to the sane reader. But the more hysterical the anti-Clinton propaganda becomes the harder it is to pay attention to any of it, except as a joke. You can't say that Clinton had Vince Foster murdered and then expect people to feel the same outrage when you say that Bill Clinton took 4 million bucks from a shady Indonesian. Gresham's Law applies to political insults as well as it does to anything else; the bad drives out the good.
Brock, the past master of the genre, understands this; indeed in some ways The Seduction was shaped by Unlimited Access. A few months ago he went so far as to disclose that Gary Aldrich had got his information about Clinton's visits to the Marriott from him, and that it was a fourth-hand rumor that should never have seen print. Now the man who brought us Troopergate and magazine covers depicting Hillary Clinton as a witch has written a sympathetic biography about the First Lady. Hillary may be a commie and a pinko, Brock says, but she is nevertheless principled. It is thus a shame that her career was derailed by Bill, who, we learn again, through repetition of the usual charges, is scum.
But in a gymnasium in Ohio, as Clinton winds up his speech, it's hard even to remember those charges. He's speaking off the top of his head:
I was in Detroit the other day and I was told that in Wayne County there are people from 141 different racial and ethnic groups... 141 in one county in America. There are only 192 different national groups represented at the Olympics. Amazing. But you look at the rest of the world. Pick up the paper on any day. And you read about the Middle East, or Bosnia, or Northern Ireland. Or Rwanda. Or Burundi. All over the world people literally torn apart by their differences. Why? Because there's something in human nature that makes people have to believe that they can only be important if they're looking down on someone else. Well, whatever is wrong with me, at least I'm not them. Now, we're trying to beat that rap. And that's why we cannot tolerate hatred or intolerance in this country.
After his speech Clinton reaches into the crowd with both hands; he's no longer shaking hands so much as grabbing at people as if he were kneading dough. Today it pays off again. Working the rope line he stumbles on a Dole supporter, a former employee of the Coast Guard. After a few minutes of discussing his idea to use the Coast Guard to support the INS, the man changes his vote. “I was a Dole supporter,” he tells Clinton. “But I've changed my mind.” The president turns to one his aides and like an excited little boy says, “Did you hear that guy? He said, `When I came here I was voting for Dole, but I changed my mind.' Did you hear him say that?”
I accept a ride on Air Force One back to Washington, which is to say that I begged so hard they couldn't refuse. I'm not even forced to sit in the press section—which resembles ordinary first class—but am allowed into the forward section—which is more like a fancy living room. A white phone beside each chair is answered by an operator who places your calls, and you can order up just about any bad movie you want. Mike McCurry glides back and forth a couple of times, but I am so far from the man in the front of the plane I might as well be back in New Orleans. I pass the trip time finishing The Seduction of Hillary Rodham. Think of it! The leader of the free world sits in his office playing hearts a mere few yards in front of me while a reporter sits reading a nasty book about his wife, the chief purpose of which is to strip him of whatever moral authority he retains. Such are the pleasures of living in a free society, where the losers become lobbyists rather than corpses.
I am nearly seduced. But then suddenly I'm not. It's like this every time with Clinton. Just as I am being drawn to him my instincts of self-preservation take over and I pull back. It's not the character issue. Like Clinton I don't have much interest in facing the character issue head on except to say that it is more complicated than its politics. On the one hand he's cheated on his wife; on the other he's still married and seems to have been a pretty good father. On the one hand, he's adopted a set of socially conservative beliefs purely out of political expediency; on the other, he's taken some big political risks—gays in the military, health care—and paid the price.
No, the problem with embracing Clinton is that you know that you'll come to regret it. Maybe the weirdest aspect of his presidency is that his friends—and their ideas—have suffered while his enemies--and their ideas--have prospered. Not since Nixon composed his list of enemies has there been such a frightening and shadowy idea as Clinton's list of friends: Lani Guinier, Webster Hubbell, Vince Foster, Marian Wright Edelman, Mack McLarty. Only a fool would take a bullet for our president. But maybe this is okay for now. The challenge for the sane person who wishes to keep politics in its proper place is to define some new space in which to live with our president—somewhere between outrage and adoration. You can't beat him. You can't join him either. So let's use him! It's the ultimate revenge on someone who is so adept at manipulating others.
October 30: (Very Late)
The “Nightline” producer calls and as politely as possible tells me that my future in television may be limited. The first “Nightline” segment aired late, after Monday Night Football. Mercifully, no one I know watched it, so far as I can tell. The contrast between the power of the force field emanating from the Steadycam and the pale vibes of the final product is astonishing. It is nearly one thirty in the morning and I'm alone in bed. There is no denying that I was excited by working alongside Ted Koppel, driven less by a Fallovian desire to inform the public than a lust to become rich and famous. It is not to be.
The whole point of taking along the Steadycam, I now remember, was not to become famous but to increase the chance that I would get in to see Ross Perot. There was no way Ross was going to give an interview to a print person, or so I was led to believe by his people. But television was another matter. With only $29 million to blow on infomercials Ross needed as much free TV as he could get. So I called and put in a request I thought he couldn't refuse: Would Ross give me a tour of his private art museum? One thing about rich people is that they like to show people what they own, I figured. But no.
And so here I lay in the worst of both worlds—a “Nightline” washout watching Perot's infomercials, which turn out to be less info and more mercial than their predecessors four years ago. At least some of Perot's original appeal was the sense that the White House would be a sacrifice for him, a step down from his palace in Dallas. Now he seems to want to be president just as badly as the next guy. With perhaps one exception.
This article originally ran in the November 18, 1996, issue of the magazine.