Relativism as Teflon

How Clinton kept us from getting his goat

Strange to have had a President who cites as one of his signal achievements his acquittal. But maybe Bill Clinton was sent from heaven to preserve us from those who would present themselves as unimpeachable.

He hath lied to the American people! Remember that? Well, I guess they didn't actually say hath. But that's what they meant. Every time I heard this pronouncement, I tried to picture this American people. A soiled dove, righteous in her vengeance? A toddler staring open-mouthed at one of its parents as the other rages, "You do not love Baby!"?

The American people like being lied to. Hence Ronald Reagan. But even for a President who is not a professional actor, misrepresentation is part of the job. Commentators who do not bear this in mind are like critics in the audience shouting "Tell us what you really think" at an actor who is trying to bring off a drama.

Commentators—part of whose job, to be sure, is to point out lies—ought for the sake of intellectual honesty to bear in mind that it is easier to be right than to be President.

I'm right—although not everyone will agree, and not many people (I needn't go so far as to concede that I care how many) will care. I am trying to be right, secure in the knowledge that if I am, or if I'm not, people will little note nor long remember. When a President says something, it is a form of high-stakes marketing. The President is betting that a majority, or at least a plurality (or, for the moment, certain target groups), will agree, and he wants everyone (though he hopes certain nontarget groups aren't paying close attention) to care. Not only is a President's life not his own, but neither is his integrity. That is to say, he is less like the straw men of punditry than like people in business or other areas of real life: richly imbued with conscious and unconscious ulteriority. To wax indignant about a President's telling lies makes no more sense than to do so about a wrestler's faking falls. Well, that analogy may be too pejorative. (It is undoubtedly irrelevant to note that many years ago, when wrestling was in earnest, there was a great wrestler named Gotch, perhaps the patron saint of gotcha journalism.) Let's say that it makes no more sense than to wax indignant about "trick photography" in the movies. Well, that analogy may not be pejorative enough. At any rate, the media tend to judge politicians, favorably or unfavorably, by a platonic ideal that is easier to apply than to justify. If we thought of a President less as a role model than as a character in fiction, we would see him more clearly. Bill Clinton may not have had a great character, but he has been one.

Voters—part of whose job, to be sure, is to hold certain truths self-evident—ought to bear in mind, for the sake of civic responsibility, that politics is relative. As Henny Youngman would say when asked "How's your wife?": "Compared to what?"

Presented with two ruthless, pandering men who believe expressly in God and necessarily in Mammon, each of whom must be overcompensating drastically for something in his childhood, we ought to vote for whichever one strikes us as marginally more likely, by dint of personal verve or party affiliation, to slow down or speed up the nation's drift toward wherever we fear or hope it is heading. We should of course harbor the expectation that he will surprise us (by us here is meant the decent minority within his plurality) by doing something courageous—that is to say, something decent but unpopular, it being his problem that most of us (by us here is meant the body politic as a whole) are more likely to vote against him next time because he did it. We must resist the temptation to dismiss all candidates for President as beneath us. Otherwise we'll never forgive ourselves for voting for any of them. We must compare them not with ourselves but with each other. One of them is always less deeply beneath us. If there is a third-party candidate for whom we would rather vote, we should vote for our second choice. Third-party candidates have the luxury of being relatively unpopular. If you are going to vote for one of them because he or she is right, you might as well vote for yourself.

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.