The Consumer Republic: Star Power




I wonder if Bill Clinton had a good time in the Hamptons this past weekend.
Did the sight of supporters willing to pay $250 to party across the street from where he was partying take his mind off his looming day in court? Did anyone repeat those dirty Lewinsky/Kaczynski limericks floating around the Internet? Did he notice that the Steven Spielberg compound, with its security gates and surveillance cameras, resembled a minimum-security prison?
To give the Hamptonites credit, they didn’t let a little grand jury testimony stand in the way of showing Bill a good time. This isn’t the kind of crowd to hold a trifling sexcapade against the commander-in-chief. They were there to support Clinton as he went about the real business of the presidency: political fundraising.
Yet I suspect there came a moment, perhaps as the president stared out at Spielberg’s zillion-dollar view across Georgica Cove, when he mused bitterly on fate and pondered the forces that brought him to the brink of admitting publicly what everyone already knows, and, like the Hamptons’ A-list, has politely tried to ignore: He lied.
Let’s connect the dots: Ground zero is the study off the Oval Office, where Bill and Monica once played hide-and-seek with the Secret Service. Add the Paula Jones case, which gave legal ramifications to the instinctive desire of a philandering husband to avoid getting caught. Then connect Jones to those whose money made it possible for her to have her day in court. The last step would be to unravel how this private suit became entangled in a public investigation, which, after several years, has failed to uncover the crime for which it was initiated. What a tangled web the deceiver weaves.
If the vision of Clinton fiddling on the beach in Easthampton while his presidency burns is a little surreal, so is the climax of the Whitewater investigation. It has unfolded without the public once being roused into indignation (titillation is another story). To the contrary, evidence shows a majority of the public feels sorry for the guy. Before arriving in the Hamptons, Clinton dropped in on Aspen, where the well-heeled locals coughed up a cool mil for the Democratic war chest. When a reporter yelled a question about Starr’s subpoena at the president outside the fundraiser, the crowd protested. “Give him a break,” one man cried.
Pundits debate whether the public’s willingness to give Clinton a pass proves they possess common sense or they’ve lost their moral compass. My guess is that it’s a little of both.
But how do we explain the motives of those who cry for Clinton’s head? One knows why enemies would want to annihilate FDR or Nixon, both of whom stood firmly on their side of the ideological divide. But how do we account for the blood lust inspired by Clinton’s presidency?
Since the healthcare fiasco, Clinton has settled into office as a moderate Republican with a baby boomer’s liberal cultural proclivities–another way of saying he represents the dead center of American politics. He’s invested his political capital in small efforts–the V-chip, protecting teens from smoking, family leave, college tuition tax credits–the kind of initiatives which touch citizen-consumers where they live. The economy hums. If nothing else, Clinton has fulfilled the Hippocratic dictum: Do no harm. According to the reigning ideology, that’s the highest service government can render the nation. So what’s the problem?
Clinton is accused of shrinking the presidential leadership to a series of tiny, consumer-friendly gestures, stripping the office of its political grandeur. But the anti-Clinton forces have also done their bit, by draining political meaning from opposition to the president. Hillary was wrong when she blamed the Lewinsky debacle on a “right-wing conspiracy.” The forces that turned Monica into the dragon slayer shouldn’t be dignified with an ideological label. It’s more like a tribal blood grudge. And if it has succeeded, despite the public’s persistent indifference, it’s because politics is so debased that the presidency doesn’t matter much any more.
Except, of course, in the Hamptons. Against its hedgerows, you can discern the true nature of the power of the presidency: celebrity power. And what better locale to demonstrate it than in this celebrity-infested landscape, a place which exists to separate the included from the excluded, the rich and powerful from the really rich and powerful. A visit from the president is like a semiotic lightening bolt, illuminating everyone’s place in the Hamptons’ firmament of signs.
Of course, Clinton’s hosts return the favor, defying the verdict of the courts that the president is just like every other citizen. And it’s a lucky thing they do. How else, but through celebrity power, could the president legally raise the huge sums of money needed to win increasingly meaningless political offices?