If Bill Clinton’s August 17, 1998, grand jury testimony was the nadir of his presidency, January 21, 1999, must certainly be one of its peaks. During the day, the President’s counsel began the scorched earth decimation of the case presented by the House managers. In the evening, Clinton delivered a stellar State of the Union address. Both Bill Clinton the flawed man and Bill Clinton the crafty communicator shone so brightly that the shadows of hate and envy from which the Republicans have mounted their campaign disappeared, exposing them once again, and hopefully for the last time, as anachronistic, hypocritical scolds.
Particularly intriguing was the Republican response team given the thankless job of following up Clinton’s showstopper. Jennifer Dunne, looking country-club prim, tried to extend an olive branch of reconciliation to the Democrats while broadcasting her implausible "ordinariness" as a single mother. Then came Steve Largent, ex-quarterback and Christian Coalition boy wonder, extolling on God and country, Reaganite policy chestnuts and the wonders of Vince Gill’s gospel Christmas ditties.
Dunne and Largent are supposedly the fresh faces of the GOP, but frankly they looked like the same waxy stiffs we see shambling about the House and Senate, albeit with less sag and girth. They are, in short, as hopelessly square as they are plastic. Give me Slick Willie, the down and dirty Hot Springs punter any day. At least his inauthenticity is authentic.
And whither J.C. Watts? Black America gave the Republicans a five-star back scuttle in the November elections. It was no accident that Watts was elected to a high-profile position in the House majority mere days after the poll results delivered the sobering news that the Contract on America was null and void. Hopefully, they won’t leave him stuck in a holding pattern, to be skeptically appraised by blacks as either an Uncle Tom or the "house nigga," as it were. If the Republicans had the courage or sincerity of their newfound convictions of diversity, they would have put Watts on camera rather than Largent.
No swing voter who is right in the head wants to hear from another homespun Bible-thumper from the sticks about military spending and partial-birth abortions. Watts is a moderate and, from all reports, a bright guy. If he was my thoroughbred, I’d have him out strutting around the paddock as often as possible. Alas, the game of visuals is not so easy. Jim Crow still flies over the terminally banal Southern suburbs and shotgun shacks that are home to the Paleolithic wing of the Republican Party. Putting a white woman and a black man, dressed up for a night on the town, together on camera to mouth party bromides from the Ronald Reagan libretto? No way.
The Clinton White House, perhaps the most pro-black presidency in history, showed no mercy the next day. They sent out feisty deputy counsel Cheryl Mills, who delivered a marvelous rebuttal of the second article of impeachment, as well as a subtextual jibe at the tired and pasty birds sitting in front of her. Blackness in America is coded Democratic and, even though it was Honest Abe who put an end to slavery, Bill Clinton walks with the ghosts of MLK and LBJ. By the time Mills was finished, so was the whole impeachment debacle.
This was clear even to Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, who in a brief moment of lucidity, announced on air that "Clinton won. As far as I’m concerned, it’s over. Let’s move on." Commentators on a number of the major networks could barely control their glee as they baited guest Republicans with Robertson’s quote.
And as the third day of the President’s defense began, a new vibe was in play. Democrats no longer had to fear witnesses, not even Monica Lewinsky and her special intimate details. Clinton was sipping the bubbly of public adoration and the longer the trial went on, the longer the House managers would get to play emperors with no clothes, the highlight reel no doubt destined for countless Democratic ads in campaign 2000.
What exactly has Clinton won? Essentially the same thing he won back in ’92 and ever since: the war of spin. A cynical witch-hunt deserved a cynical response. James Carville and George Stephanopolous, as evidenced in The War Room (1993), recognized the Republican strategy was to tar and feather into perpetuity every Democratic presidential nominee as an evil liberal, ready, willing and able to sell out traditional American values. They recognized that the influence of the ’60s, despite all its bad press, had reached the heartland. Tolerance, not character, mattered. Nobody really cared who Clinton touched where, as long as he could fix the recession. He did and now he’s going to serve the presidency on a silver platter to Al Gore, while Steve Largent and friends will be crying into their Bibles when both the House and Senate go Democrat.
Moderate Republicans will be able to take heart nonetheless. Hopefully their party won’t waste George W. Bush on a lost cause, as they did Bob Dole. Let the zealots who usually vote in primaries send out a lamb for slaughter. Only then can the Christian Coalition be sent packing and the GOP make a move back to the center that Slick Willie stole, fair and square.
It won’t be pretty in person, but a hell of a thing to watch from the comfort of an easy chair far from Washington, where a tempest in a tosspot is the best kind of entertainment.