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9 November 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: See it now! It’s the press corps enigma!

Synopsis: A little book by David Maraniss that takes an hour to read reveals the press corps’ entire world view!

The Clinton Enigma
David Maraniss, Simon & Schuster, 1998


You can only imagine how the analysts yowled when we told them to dig into this work by David Maraniss, because the gentle giant of Clinton affairs has long been a favorite at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters. We ourselves were won over, long ago, by Maraniss’ balanced approach and mellow charm. You’ll recall our praise when he helped us out with a research matter back in April (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/1/98).

But along the way, Maraniss began hanging out with a tough, rowdy crowd, and we’ve sometimes thought that his habits were slipping. We’ve caught him playing along with Chris Matthews a few times, and we even caught a Keith Olbermann session that made us avert our gaze and just rouge in embarrassment. A certain tendency to play the shrink seemed to infect his award-winning work at the Post; and we thought we caught him falling short on a couple of factual matters. We couldn’t help wondering if our favorite Clinton scholar hadn’t gone the way flesh will so often go--trying, for some reason, to impress the wrong crowd, and inevitably picking up their bad habits.

And so, though we know we can’t blame Maraniss for the promotion of his book, we sensed a certain poetic justice when we cringed at the book’s shameless cover. “A four-and-a-half-minute speech reveals the president’s entire life,” it shouted, and we couldn’t help wondering whether Andrew Sullivan is now writing Maraniss’ promotion. The sheer arrogance (and stupidity) of the publisher’s claim, we felt, would have made the old David Maraniss cringe; but, in truth, it wasn’t that far from the way Maraniss himself had been promoting his savant-like skills all through the media. And indeed, the self-importance of the book’s Part One--in which Maraniss goes on about his own past encounters with Clinton--made us think our boy part of the self-impressed crowd we routinely debunk at THE HOWLER.

Indeed, there’s a good deal of fine work in The Clinton Enigma--we think it shows where the Clinton debate has to go. But we also thought, as we read the book, that we saw an odd coincidence unfolding. Though the book was supposed to reveal Clinton’s whole life, we couldn’t help thinking, as its short chapters flew by, that it actually revealed the entire world view of our old nemesis, the celebrity press corps! The offensive arrogance of the publisher’s blurb would not end up being our only complaint. Plus, we love to turn silly statements around. And that blurb--that foolish, demeaning blurb--well, that blurb just demanded burlesquing.

*          *           *           *           *

Let’s try to ignore Enigma’s disappointing Part One, in which Maraniss: compares Clinton to a criminal because he turned down an interview request (third page); compares Clinton’s misconduct in the Lewinsky matter to that of a murderer (second page); and assures us that when Clinton complimented Maraniss on his tie, he was actually saying “Fuck you.” (Maraniss graciously tells us that it’s really OK that Clinton turned down the interview request, because Maraniss, a man of great, large vision, “was brought up with a deep regard for civil liberties and believe[s] that the right of someone to remain silent is as important as the right for someone to speak freely.” Yo, Dave! The real world’s over here!) The right of the press corps to say anything-it-wants-about-Clinton is now an established rule of the press; no flippant comparison, no matter how rude or demeaning, is beyond the press corps’ aegis. Also established is the press corps’ right to imagine themselves to be on Clinton’s level--to imagine that it is somehow an affront when a sitting president fails to jump when the celebrity press beckons. Why did Clinton decide at some point he didn’t want to be interviewed by Maraniss? We don’t have any way of knowing. But when Maraniss actually tells us, later on, what he would have asked Big Bill in this session, one can only think that, at least in this case, Vile Clinton has shown perfect judgment. Maraniss, writing about speculation that William Blythe was not Clinton’s biological father:

MARANISS: I remain an agnostic on the question of Clinton’s paternity; the evidence is unclear as to his biological father: Blythe; the Louisiana man [to whom Maraniss has earlier referred]; or someone else. Other events, especially Bill’s decision to change his name from Blythe to Clinton at age fifteen, during a period when his mother was divorced from Roger Clinton and Bill was urging her not to reconcile with him, led me to suspect that he shared my curiosity about his biological father. It was one of many questions I wanted to talk to him about if he ever gave me another interview. [Our emphasis]

Here at THE HOWLER, we cheered aloud at this point, pleased that Clinton had not spoken to Maraniss; the notion that a sitting president would want to be interviewed about this struck us as simply batty. The fact that Maraniss would think that Clinton would want to sit and chat about who his mother may have conceived him with--well, it finally made us wonder whether the press corps’ bad habits hadn’t become part of our favorite’s new soul. The man Maraniss has criticized for saying he wears boxers-not-briefs is supposed now to talk about this? Everything that has disgusted the public about this celebrity press corps is found right there in that remarkable passage. Thank God that Maraniss, a civil libertarian, is willing to give Clinton a pass at this point--for evoking his inviolable “right to remain silent” when the great press wants to talk about this.

Tomorrow: In The Clinton Enigma’s strongest passages, Maraniss looks at Clinton’s puzzling sexual conduct in The Monica Mess, and shows us where the Clinton discourse could productively go from here.

Visit our incomparable archives: Recall the fun when a naughty scribe decides to quote David M. out of context. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/1/98.