The mysteries of Bill Clinton

... , , , ?. , Cambio. - Salon. (1 1999 .). SALON, Feb. 1, 1999. Translated by Alastair Reid.

The first thing you notice about William Jefferson Clinton is how tall he is. The second is the seductive power he has of making you feel, from the first moment of meeting, that he is someone you know well. The third is his sharp intelligence, which allows you to speak to him about anything at all, even the prickliest topics, provided you know when to bring it up.

Even so, someone not enamored of him forewarned me: The dangerous thing about these gifts is that Clinton uses them to make you feel that nothing could interest him more than what you are saying to him.

I met him first at a dinner given by William Styron in his summer house on Martha's Vineyard in August 1995. During his first campaign, Clinton had mentioned that his favorite book was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I said at the time and I was quoted in print that I thought he had said it simply to pull in the Latin vote. He had not forgotten after greeting me on Martha's Vineyard, he at once assured me that what he said had been quite sincere.

Carlos Fuentes and I have good reason for considering that evening as a whole chapter in our memoirs. From the beginning, we were disarmed by the interest, respect and humor with which he listened to us, treating our words as if they were gold dust.

His mood corresponded with his appearance. His hair was short, like a scrubbing brush, his skin tanned he had the healthy and almost insolent look of a sailor ashore, and he was wearing a college sweat shirt with some logo on the chest. At 49, he looked like an exuberant survivor of the generation of '68, who had smoked marijuana, knew the Beatles by heart and had demonstrated against the Vietnam War.

Dinner began at 8, with some 14 guests around the table, and lasted until midnight. Bit by bit, the conversation came down to a kind of literary round table involving the president and the three writers. The first topic to come up was the forthcoming Summit of the Americas. Clinton had wanted it held in Miami, where it did take place. Carlos Fuentes considered that New Orleans or Los Angeles had stronger historical claims, and he and I argued strongly for them until it became clear that the president had no intention of changing his plans because he was counting on reelection support from Miami.

Forget the votes, Mr. President, Carlos said to him. Lose Florida and make history.

That phrase set the tone. When we spoke of the problems of narco-traffic, the president heard me out generously. Thirty million drug addicts in the U.S. go to show that the North American mafia are more powerful than those in Colombia, and the authorities much more corrupt. When I spoke to him about relations with Cuba, he seemed even more receptive. If Fidel and you could sit and talk face to face, all problems would completely disappear.

When we talked about Latin America in general, we realized that he was much more interested than we had supposed, although he lacked some essential background. When the conversation seemed to stiffen a bit, we asked him what his favorite movie was, and he answered High Noon, by Fred Zinneman, whom he had recently honored in London. When we asked him what he was reading, he sighed and mentioned a book on the economic wars of the future, author and title unknown to me.

Better to read 'Don Quixote, I said to him. Everything's in there. Now, the 'Quixote' is a book that is not read nearly as much as is claimed, although very few will admit to not having read it. With two or three quotes, Clinton showed that he knew it very well indeed. Responding, he asked us what our favorite books were. Styron said his was Huckleberry Finn.

I would have said Oedipus Rex, which has been my bed table book for the last 20 years, but I named The Count of Monte Cristo, mainly for reasons of technique, which I had some trouble explaining.

Clinton said his was the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Carlos Fuentes stuck loyally to Absalom, Absalom, Faulkner's stellar novel, no question, although others would choose Light in August for purely personal reasons. Clinton, in homage to Faulkner, got to his feet and, pacing around the table, recited from memory Benji's monologue, the most thrilling passage, and perhaps the most hermetic, from The Sound and the Fury.

Faulkner got us to talking about the affinities between Caribbean writers and the cluster of great Southern novelists in the United States. It made much more sense to us to think of the Caribbean not as a geographical region surrounded by its sea but as a much wider historical and cultural belt stretching from the north of Brazil to the Mississippi Basin.

Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and so many others would then be just as Caribbean as Jorge Amado and Derek Walcott. Clinton, born and raised in Arkansas, a Southern state, applauded the notion and professed himself happy to be a Caribbean.

It was close to midnight, and he had to break off the conversation to take an urgent call from Gerry Adams, to whom at that moment he gave the authority to campaign and raise funds in the United States for peace in Northern Ireland. That should have been the ending to an unforgettable evening, but Carlos Fuentes took it further by asking the president who he thought of as his enemies.

His reply was immediate and abrupt: My only enemy is right-wing religious fundamentalism. That pronouncement ended the evening. The other times I saw him, in public or in private, I had the same impression as I had that first time. Bill Clinton was the complete opposite of the idea Latin Americans have of presidents of the United States.

Given all that, does it seem right that this exceptional human being should be prevented from fulfilling his historical destiny simply because he was unable to find a private place to make love? That is just what happened. The most powerful man in the world was kept from consummating his secret passions by the invisible presence of a Secret Service that served as much to restrain as to protect.

There are no curtains on the Oval Office windows, no bolt on the door of the president's private bathroom. The vase of flowers that appears behind the president in photographs of him at his desk has been claimed by the press to be a hiding-place for microphones to consecrate the mysteries of presidential audiences.

Even sadder, however, is the fact that the president only wanted to do what the run of men have done in private with their women from the beginning of the world, and a Puritan stolidity not only impeded him, but even denied him the right to deny it.

Jonas invented the literature of fiction when he convinced his wife that his homecoming was three days late because a whale had swallowed him. Sheltering behind that ancient argument, Clinton denied having any sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, and denied it with his head held high, like any self-respecting unfaithful husband. In the end, his personal drama is a purely domestic matter, between himself and Hillary, and she has stood by him in the eyes of the world with Homeric dignity.

It is one thing to lie in order to deceive; but it is quite another to conceal truths in order to protect that mythical dimension of human existence that is private life. Quite rightly, no one is obliged to give evidence against himself. For having persisted in his first denials, Clinton would have been prosecuted in any case that's what it was about but it is much more dignified to perjure oneself defending the privacy of the heart than to be absolved at the expense of love.

Disastrously, with the same insistence with which he had denied blame, he later admitted it and went on admitting it over all the media, written, visual and spoken, to the point of humiliation a fatal error in an uncertain lover, whose secret life will go into the history books not for having made love badly but for having made it a lot less glorious than it should be.

Ludicrously, he submitted to oral sex while he talked on the telephone with a senator. He supplanted himself with a frigid cigar. He naturally used all kinds of tricks of avoidance, but the more he tried the more his inquisitors came up with evidence against him, for Puritanism is insatiable and feeds on its own excrement.

It has been a vast and sinister conspiracy of fanatics aimed at the personal destruction of a political adversary whose stature they could not abide. The method was the criminal use of justice by a fundamentalist prosecutor called Kenneth Starr, whose fierce and salacious questioning seemed to excite these fanatics to the point of orgasm.

The Bill Clinton we met some four months ago, at a gala dinner in the White House for Andres Pastrana, president of Colombia, seemed quite different no longer the open-minded academic of Martha's Vineyard, but someone under sentence, thinner and uncertain, who could not conceal with a professional smile an organic weariness like the metal fatigue that destroys planes.

Some days before, at a press dinner with Katharine Graham, the golden woman of the Washington Post, someone had remarked that, judging by the trials of Clinton, the United States still seemed to be the country of Nathaniel Hawthorne. That night in the White House, I realized just what that meant.

The reference was to the great American novelist of last century, who denounced in his work the horrors of New England fundamentalism, where the witches of Salem were burned alive. His main novel, The Scarlet Letter, is the drama of Hester Prynne, a young married woman who bore a child in secret by another man. A Kenneth Starr of the day condemned her to wear a penitent's shirt bearing the letter A of the Puritan code, the color and smell of blood.

An agent of the order followed her everywhere beating a drum so that pedestrians could keep out of her way. The ending must surely keep prosecutor Starr awake, for the secret father of Hester's child turned out to be a minister of the cult that made a martyr of her.

The method and the morality of the procedures were essentially the same. When Clinton's enemies failed to find what they needed to bring him down, they hounded him with mined interrogations until they trapped him here and there in minor inconsistencies. Then they forced him to accuse himself in public, and to apologize for things he had not even done, live, using the technology of universal information that is nothing more than a trimillennial version of the drums that persecuted Hester Prynne.

From the prosecutor's questions, cunning and concupiscent, even small children became aware of the lies their parents told to keep from them how they came into being. Suffering from metal fatigue, Clinton committed the unpardonable folly of violently punishing an invented enemy 5,397 nautical miles from the White House, to distract attention from his personal plight.

Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature and a great writer of this agonizing century, summed it up in one inspired phrase: They treated him like a black president.

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