Jewish World Review August 9, 2001 / 20 Menachem-Av, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Outsider Bubba comes 'in' again -- IT sounded like a joke when friends of Bill Clinton revealed his plans to relaunch his ex-presidency. What did he have in mind? A retirement or a trip to the moon? Har, har.

Yet, if any ex-presidency needed relaunching, it was his. On the international disgrace scale, Clinton's exit ranked somewhere near the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic. Clinton's last-minute pardons and alleged theft of White House antiques gave instant credibility to other allegations like trashings of White House offices and Air Force One, which turned out to be bogus. Real or phony, the bad stories hurt. Stripped of his spinmeisters, Clinton lost control of his message.

But look at him now. Thousands turned out to welcome him "home" to a place he barely had visited, Harlem. A small band of hecklers who call themselves the New Black Panther Party could not dampen the good feelings.

Plus, his memoirs reportedly have been sold for more than $10 million, the largest advance ever for a nonfiction book. That's more than the $8.5 million paid in 1994 for the previous record-holder, a book by Pope John Paul II, which goes to show that, for big sales, it's hard to beat sex or salvation.

And Clinton still drives news editors nuts. Look at the way CNN, for example, decided to cut away from its live coverage of a speech by President Bush to cover Clinton's Harlem welcome. Some Bush supporters accused CNN of liberal bias for that move, but the same critics hardly made a peep when Rupert Murdoch's Fox New Channel or General Electric's MSNBC stayed on Clinton, too. Bush may be president, but on that day Clinton was a more interesting story, love him or hate him.

Part of what makes Clinton interesting is the intensity with which people love him and hate him, often at the same time.

Too many reporters and others have missed the point of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's oft-quoted line about Clinton being the nation's first black president. The distinguished African-American novelist was being ironic when she said, during his impeachment scandals, that "Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness - single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."

It is unfortunate that irony, always risky for commentators, is downright dangerous when fed through the smashmouth style of commercial news and chat shows.

No, Morrison didn't really mean junk food and single-parenthood will make you black. By calling Clinton "black," she really was describing how his background as a poor Southern white put him in a group almost as isolated from society's social and economic mainstream as poor blacks have been.

Despite the recent progress many of us African-Americans have made in navigating both sides of this nation's racial divide, the feeling of being an outsider persists with most blacks. Clinton knows how it feels to be an outsider, and he has turned that knowledge into a hotline of emotional and intellectual connections with others who feel the same way.

That's why commentators get it wrong when they say Harlem was Clinton's second choice for an office location. The fact that Clinton was hounded by public criticism to drop his more expensive first choice in more prestigious Midtown Manhattan only helped to confirm his persistent outsider status.

Harlem residents can identify with such rejection. So can many other Americans. That empathy with outsiders helps to explain why Clinton's polling numbers remain strong in one area in which Bush's have remained weak - the question, "Does he care about people like me?"

Does Clinton really care? Answering questions like that is part of what intrigues us about Clinton. Whether he really cares or not, he's good at making people think he does - and in politics, perception quickly becomes reality.

As I watched Clinton's triumphant Harlem moment, I was reminded of the late Meg Greenfield's posthumously published book about political life in Washington. Greenfield believed that this powerful city is really high school replayed by grown-up kids in blue and gray suits.

If so, I was beginning to see Clinton as Bad Billy, the naughty big-haired rascal with the hot car - or, in his real-life youth, the pickup truck with Astroturf in the back. He attracts all of the teen women who pass over the nicer, sweeter, debating-team and student-newspaper nerds (like me) as "too nice," which means, too boring.

Sure, the teen women know that Bad Billy is no good for them. He is the boy their parents have warned them against and that only makes him all the more appealing. After all, wasn't he so sweet when he promised he would still respect them the next morning ...?

Besides, they all think they can reform him. Hillary, take note.

OK, I admit it: I still carry grudges from high school. Don't we all? Maybe Meg did, too.

But, naughty or not, populist politicians like Clinton thrive on their ability to excite ordinary people. I expect Bad Bill to sell a lot of books, confound his critics and amaze and annoy us for years to come.

The bigger question is what other Democrats are going to do with him. He's too controversial to embrace. They're certain of that. But he's still too popular to ignore.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
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