Politics & Prose June 2004

Bush’s Monica Moment

Clinton's affair with Monica called his character into question; Bush's true colors emerged on 9/11

This weekend Bill Clinton gave the world a look into his character. In his autobiography, My Life, previewed on 60 Minutes, Clinton calls his affair with Monica Lewinsky a "terrible moral error" that sprang from the "darkest part" of his "inner life." Lying about it under oath got him impeached by a Republican House led by Newt Gingrich, who was having an affair with a younger aide at the time, just as the voluble Clinton scourge, William Bennett, rested from his indignations with the Las Vegas chapter of the Moral Majority. The reckless impeachment perpetrated by these pecksniffs crippled the Clinton presidency at a fateful time—when Osama Bin Laden was about to target the "homeland." Historians will doubtless explore the question of how far Bill Clinton's "moral error" and the Republican near-putsch contributed to September 11.

Next weekend, when Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 opens, we will see George W. Bush's Monica Lewinsky moment. Philip Shenon, who covered the hearings of the 9/11 commission, described that scene in an article on the film in Sunday's Times.

For the White House, the most devastating segment of Farenheit 9/11 may be the video of a befuddled-looking President Bush staying put for nearly seven minutes at a Florida elementary school on the morning of September 11, continuing to read a copy of My Pet Goat to schoolchildren even after an aide has told him that a second plane has struck the twin towers.

Moore stipples his film with damning (and in some cases doubtful) statistics—for example, that Mr. Bush spent 42 percent of the first eight months of his presidency on vacation—and vituperation. But, Shenon concludes, while "Mr. Bush's slow, hesitant reaction to the disastrous news has never been a secret,…seeing the actual footage, with the minutes ticking by, may prove more damaging to the White House than all the statistics in the world."

That moment exposes Bush's character. It reveals what his press conferences proclaim: his incapacity. If he were George W. Smith, what job would he be qualified for? Bush's presidency can be seen as one long cover-up of the most obvious thing about him. A life of upward failure, of being his father's son, left him without "sand," my nineteenth century-born father's word for the residue of strength acquired by "standing on your own two feet" and "taking your medicine." Bush never stood on his own feet, never took his medicine—and he has never been his own man. He's the only president to be related to the Queen of England, and his biography is that of a "royal." Prince Charles would make a sorry prime minister. Like Bush, though, he'd give good strut.

Leaders show what they are made of in a crisis. Bush hid in plain sight with those kids. Later, hiding twice over, he used them as an excuse, saying he did not want to frighten them by ending the reading before finishing the book. Later still, and repeatedly, he said he saw the first plane strike the tower that morning (in fact, no one saw that live; the film was not available until the evening) and that he remarked, "That's some bad pilot"—pure strut. As the Wall Street Journal reported, he also magnified his role in managing the crisis, claiming he gave orders others gave. Conflicting accounts of Bush's communications documented by the 9/11 Commission now raise doubts whether, as he and Cheney told the commissioners, he ordered Cheney to shoot down any hijacked planes still in the air, or whether Cheney, in the White House bunker, acted on his own. Maybe Cheney persuaded Bush to stay away from Washington that day less for Bush's safety than for the country's.

Bill Clinton betrayed our expectations of how a president should act, then lied to cover up. His critics claim Monica was no discrete "moral error" but part of a pattern of character that showed his unfitness for the presidency. Yet, whatever his personal weaknesses, Clinton performed competently, even prudently. His controversial decisions—raising taxes to balance the budget, NAFTA, the China trade deal, less so welfare reform—were largely policy-driven, outraging various elements of the democratic base. Competence, prudence, policy over politics: these are not the words to describe George W. Bush's conduct of government. If we doubted Clinton's character, we were reassured by his intelligence and command of the scene. Bush lacks these compensations. His vaunted "moral clarity" is as much strut as conviction. He achieves certainty by arresting thought. The "befuddled-looking president" caught in that video is an emblem of his presidency.

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In