Tuesday, December 28, 2004

With apologies to George Orwell.

He was lying on something that felt like a cot, but he was higher off the ground and restrained in some way. The Skipper was standing at his side, looking down on him intently but not unkindly. At his side stood a man in a white coat, holding a hypodermic syringe.

“I am here to help you,” the Skipper was saying. “You know what’s wrong with you. You have known it for years, though you have fought against the knowledge. You suffer from a defective memory. You are unable to remember real events, but are convinced you remember imaginary ones. That is your sickness, but fortunately it is curable. You have never cured yourself of it because you did not choose to. All it would have taken was a small effort of the will, but you were not ready to make it. Soon you will be, but even now you are clinging to your illness under the impression that it is a virtue.”

The Skipper paused, smiled kindly, then continued: “Be assured, we here at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, Library, Museum and Rehabilitation Clinic have dealt with seemingly intractable cases like yours before, and our success rate has been high — given enough time. And cooperation. You’ve come to the right place.”

The Skipper was interrupted by the sound of a large video screen being lowered across the room.

The video screen filled with a picture of a woman in an orange prison jumpsuit. Under it was a caption. “Read it,” the Skipper commanded. “Aloud.”

The patient, his voice shaky now, began saying the words:

Saying she was “not going to give them a lie,” Susan McDougal spent 18 months in jail for refusing to cooperate with independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Charged with obstruction of justice, she was later acquitted.

“But — ” the patient objected. And stopped. There was no shock this time.

The Skipper looked sympathetic. “Go on,” he said. “You were about to say, ‘But that’s not the way it was,’ weren’t you? You think you remember reading a certain newspaper story.”

Here he produced a yellowed press clipping and began reading: “LITTLE ROCK, Ark., May 28, 1996 — Posing a political minefield for President Bill Clinton, the jury in the Whitewater trial today convicted defendants Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and Jim and Susan McDougal, Clinton’s former business partners, of most of the fraud charges against them. After eight days of deliberations, the jury found Jim McDougal guilty of 18 of 19 charges, Susan McDougal guilty of all four charges against her.”

The Skipper showed him the clipping for a second, then tore it up. “It never happened,” he said. “Watch.” He walked to a small slot in the side of the room marked Memory Hole and threw the little scraps of paper inside. “Erase it from your fevered mind,” he said, and then continued:

“You might even have imagined something about Susan McDougal’s having been pardoned by Bill Clinton in his last hours as president — and you’re asking yourself why he would have to pardon her if she was never convicted of anything. Stop thinking such thoughts. Stop fighting us. Believe only what you read here at the presidential center. We’ll tell you what to think. Wipe your mind clean of all else.”

The Skipper sighed deeply, and continued: “Yours is not an easy case. Your false memories go deep. You even imagine that Bill Clinton himself admitted to giving false testimony, that he was suspended from the Arkansas bar for five years, that he was found in civil contempt for offering ‘false, evasive and misleading answers under oath in order to obstruct the judicial process;’ that he was ordered to pay some $90,000 because of his false testimony; and that he decided to settle a sexual harassment suit for $850,000. None of that ever happened. As our museum display points out, it was all a vast, right-wing Republican conspiracy to seize power.”

“But — ”

This time the pain was unbearable. When it ceased, the Skipper was back again, no longer gentle or patient. “You’re incorrigible,” he said in disgust. “We have only one recourse: Room 101. Take him away.”

It took three sessions, each of which seemed to last an eternity, but at last he was declared eligible to leave the rehab program after passing a final test: repeating all the captions on display in the museum without any objection, or even a wry smile. It was not necessary to believe them, or have any reaction at all except passive acceptance. Above all, he was not to think. Thinking might invite a relapse.

Now all he wanted to do was sit in the dark, quietly sipping Bridge to the Next Century bourbon and waiting for the next Clinton Special on the telescreen. There was one every hour on the hour. Soon he could look on those assuring features again and hear the soothing voice he once could not bear.

Oh cruel, needless misunderstanding. How silly he had been, how many years he had wasted in stubborn resistance. When all he had to do was to give up, forget and remember only what he was told. But everything was all right now. He had been cured. Wreathed in cigar smoke, he realized the Skipper was his friend, the good doctor who had cured him and shown him the way to mental health. Two bourbon-scented tears flowed down his cheeks in heartfelt gratitude.

He had won the victory over his mind. He loved Big Bubba.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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