POLITICS JANUARY 29, 2008
NEW YORK--All the talk here is about the presidential election, along with the recession.
And within that election, clearly the only duel that matters, for the moment, is the one between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
I observe Clinton in her television appearances.
I see how hard she works at trying to prove that she is more experienced, more prepared than her opponent.
I can see where the spin doctors have been fine-tuning her speeches on Iraq and on domestic policy.
But the truth of the matter is that the voters are only interested in one thing: still, 10 years later, the famous Monica Lewinsky affair.
Did she know about it?
Did she tolerate it?
What was the extent of her complicity, and what is the nature of the pact that joined, and still joins, her and her husband?
And especially, in this context, what are the real wellsprings of her ambition--what is on this woman's mind when (because that is what this is really about) she imagines going every morning and every evening of her life to the very spot where she was humiliated?
Oh, the public good, sure.
For the sake of America, without a doubt.
But no matter what they say, the equation is so strange, and the tidal wave of 10 years ago left such an indelible mark, that one cannot help but wonder how such lofty matters will mix with other, less political, more epic events.
Is she running to get revenge--or to avenge him?
So that she can take the battlefield, declare her victory, show him and the world what an unstained Clinton presidency can be? Or, on the contrary, is she doing it to scrub out the dirt, allowing the page to finally be turned--will she be like a film noir heroine whose husband has committed a crime and who then, after she's hidden the body, goes back to the scene to get rid of all the evidence.
The truth is that there are no political questions more essential than these: first, what the senator is thinking as she imagines taking the office associated with the escapades of Clinton I; and second, what the voters are thinking as they watch the revival of the craziest vaudeville in contemporary history.
I watch as female Democratic voters reveal that they feel they have already been avenged by this admirable, dignified woman, so decent and honest, who withstood all the insults. I see the martyrs of political correctness lining up behind this saint who married a jerk, who has died a thousand deaths because of him, and yet is still willing to wash the family honor clean.
I listen to militant Republicans shouting, "No! Not true! There is no morality, no respect! Do the Clintons not have any principles at all? Does this woman really have so little class, so little pride? If my husband had stepped out on me, I would have demanded he move out! The place where 'it' took place should be cursed forever. The White House, just imagine!"
I hear the chorus shouting that this would be an outrage to reason and morality: Would you want a president who, instead of thinking about policy, was obsessed for days at a time by what happened here, no, here, under this desk, on this bit of carpet--a vertigo of signs and memory of objects, the terrible venom of jealousy? Is that how you run a state?
I try to imagine the public reaction to the unprecedented prospect of one President Clinton succeeding another President Clinton in the Oval Office, which is no mere office. If only America was like France! There is no Oval Office in France. The office, the room, is not symbolic. Presidents change, and they may, if they like, change offices. Not in America, no, neither royalty nor whimsy rules since America is a real democracy, it is the office that once and for all is more important than the person working in it! How then can anything come to mind except the unimaginable, crazy and at the same time fascinating image of the virtuous Hillary returning to the very theater of her husband's vice?
America being what it is--a country where Guy Debord (the French writer, filmmaker and co-founder of the Situationist movement) definitively wins out over Hegel, where, therefore, "all that is real is rational, all that is rational is real," has given way to "all that is real must be a spectacle, and all that is spectacle must become real," the mantra of reality show producers. The United States is a country where one cannot resist--as in Hollywood--a great and well-focused image, unlike in France where wordplay and the one-liner are prized.
I am betting that for this reason--because of the pleasure afforded us by watching scenes of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Televised Almighty, as recorded by the cameramen of our new Universal History -- she has already triumphed over Barack Obama.
French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Levy is the author, most recently, of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville and Ce Grand Cadavre a la Renverse. Translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.