J.F.K. had Camelot. Bill has the Lion King and the Arch Deluxe
By Bruce Handy
(TIME, November 6, 1996) -- Forget dreary vote counts. The only question now is, How strong a hold does the 42nd President have on the popular imagination? Will Sotheby's teem with spendthrifts three decades from now when Chelsea Clinton auctions off her father's jogging shorts?
Alas, one imagines not. But even if Bill Clinton has not quite cracked John F. Kennedy's gold standard of presidential superstardom, his personality has overshadowed recent politics to a degree far surpassing any of his post-Kennedy predecessors'. With his palpable need to be loved, Clinton is surely the most psychologically compelling President we have had since the dark one-two punch of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Plus, he offers us the warmth and charisma of Ronald Reagan, the vigor, shall we say, of Kennedy and, somewhere in the mix, a dollop of Jimmy Carter's sanctimoniousness. You could even say Bill Clinton is a stylistic summation of the late-20th century presidency in the way his wife's head has been the site for a stylistic summation of late-20th century hairdressing.
And yet while President Clinton's legacy as a complex, fin-de-siecle character seems assured, his status as Kennedyesque trendsetter remains in doubt. His fondness for the mystery novels of Walter Mosley may have briefly nudged the author of Devil in a Blue Dress onto the best-seller lists--but don't bother looking on the current network-TV schedule for any series by famous friend-of-Bill producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason (their most recent show, Woman of the House, was swiftly canceled in 1995). As for setting a sartorial agenda, fashion-industry sources say the President's admission on MTV two years ago that he generally favors briefs over boxers has not led to widespread rejection of the latter. "Boxers have been selling better than briefs," insists Mary Ann O'Rourke, a Sears spokeswoman.
In truth, it's hard to be a trendsetter when your tastes are more or less identical to those of tens of millions of your countrymen. Apres-governing, Bill Clinton enjoys the same kind of lite-FM music (Kenny G, Judy Collins), mainstream Hollywood movies (action pictures) and middle-class recreation (jogging and golf) beloved by suburban baby boomers coast to coast. George Bush--a man who will probably go down in history as the last President to know what yar means--was a comparative hep cat with his idiosyncratic zest for pork rinds and cigarette boats.
Some of the Clintons' cultural normalcy is, of course, pure political theater, but some of it is who they genuinely are. Bill worries about his weight, Hillary frets that Chelsea may go too far away to college, together they work on their imperfect marriage. In this they are not so different from the rest of us. Which is probably why, in the early days of his term, when the Clintons spent a lot of time palling around with the likes of Barbra Streisand and, in the case of the President, being attended by a Beverly Hills stylist, they came across as parvenus rather than Kennedyesque sophisticates--and were attacked far more fiercely for sucking up to Hollywood than the Kennedys and Reagans ever were. None of us wants our own class anxieties magnified by the White House.
If the Kennedys were an idealization of what Americans hoped to be in 1960, the Clintons are hypertrophied versions of who we actually are in 1996--which, in its own way, is compelling drama too. It has been painful to watch the President grope so clumsily and self-consciously toward maturity, but he is merely doing in public what most baby boomers do at home. It's the narrative arc of Clinton's first term, from spoiled prince to mighty conqueror. It also happens to be the story of one of the biggest movie blockbusters of the Clinton years: young Simba (read Clinton) "just can't wait to be king" (read the first 46 years of Clinton's life) but must then cede power to an evil old uncle (read Bob Dole) and a pack of hyenas (read Newt Gingrich et al.) until, with the help of a baboon adviser (read Dick Morris) Simba "remembers who he is" (read New Democrat) and routs his enemies, at long last settling into adulthood with a lusty roar.
In the hands of the right hagiographer, The Lion King could do for the Clintons what Camelot did for the Kennedys. But there may be an even apter symbol for the Clinton presidency in McDonald's recent introduction of the Arch Deluxe hamburger--which is basically a Quarter Pounder tricked up with Dijon mustard and a potato-flour bun in an effort to taste more "grownup." Similarly, much of Clinton's growth in office resulted from his having adopted his own adultish veneer: jogging in long pants, scarfing less junk food in public, not talking about his underwear. In this too he is a quintessential man of his gesture-obsessed generation, which, after all, invented the very concept of life-style, as opposed to mere living. So far, the Arch Deluxe is not selling very well. Perhaps its charms need a more convincing pitchman--if McDonald's can hold out for four more years, one might be available.
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