Relativism as Teflon

How Clinton kept us from getting his goat

We can't help realizing during campaigns that politicians are relative to each other. After the election, however, we begin to consider the winner as someone who is—or who, we want to make absolutely clear, is not—an extension of our ideal selves. It astonished me to hear men of the world rigidly denounce Bill Clinton for yielding to temptations of the flesh (not that I condone it myself), and women of the world just as rigidly denounce Hillary Clinton for remaining married to him (not that I would have held it against her if she'd dumped the son of a bitch—except wouldn't it have been awfully quixotic of her to divorce a man who didn't even own a house?), until I realized that these were husbands trying to make it clear to their wives (and congressmen to their idealized constituents) that they wouldn't mess around with an intern, and wives trying to make it clear to their husbands that they wouldn't tolerate it.

The only way a President can survive and stay focused long enough to get anything done is to be robustly relativist himself. Relativism is his Teflon. (Those swing voters who preferred George W. Bush over Al Gore did so, I would say, because they made out Bush's back to be more like a duck's.) Reagan and Clinton, each in his different way, managed to keep us from getting their goat. When asked, say, whether he ever wanted to go into outer space, Reagan would answer, "Some people think I've been out there for years." Clinton would emerge from his first meeting with Ken Starr at the White House to tell staffers that he rather liked Starr, and wanted to invite him sometime to see the Lincoln Bedroom. Each man, we might say, managed to pull off a cable presidency in a major-network market; but Reagan's was Pat Robertson's Christian network, Clinton's was HBO. I'll take Clinton's.

Part of a President's job, to be sure, is to amount to more than just Teflon. But did you see the pictures of Clinton in Hanoi, dwarfed physically but by no means psychologically by a monumental bust of Ho Chi Minh? There he stood, who in his youth wiggled out of a military obligation, smiling like the very essence of handsome Americanism and paying honor to the soldiers on both sides of "the conflict we call the Vietnam War and you call the American War." Call it effrontery—but what if Lyndon Johnson had had something approaching that sense of perspective?

At a dinner party back during the campaign of 1992 I was speaking up for Bill Clinton on a faute de mieux basis when someone at the table exclaimed, "Don't you want a President who believes in something?" What I said was "No." If I'd been as quick-witted as we expect a President to be, I'd have said what occurred to me later: "No, I want a President who caters, effectively and constructively, to the right people." I believe that Bill Clinton came relatively close, under the circumstances, to doing that. I also want a President—and here I may approach absolutism—who outslicks the absolutist right. So I tend to agree with Bill Clinton that one of his signal achievements was his acquittal.

Roy Blount Jr. is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is at work on a biography of Robert E. Lee.

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