As I write this, it is doubtful whether “Clinton week” will turn into Clinton month, and it is clear that it won’t turn into the much vaunted “Clinton summer” Washington was buzzing about. Democrats dreaded this possibility because they believed Clinton’s charisma would outshine John Kerry’s — a standard that should cause them to fear 12-watt lightbulbs and most species of firefly. Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, dreaded Clinton summer because a) we don’t like Clinton very much, and b) we have not always been well-served by demonstrating our dislike in public.
Now, it’s no secret that I’m no fan of Bill Clinton, and I’d say we’ve learned nothing since the release of the finely sliced block of wood he calls a “book” to change my opinion of the man.
Interestingly, though, Clinton himself seems to have changed his mind about his most celebrated personality trait. You may not remember, since so many of us have tried to forget so much, but there was a time when Bill Clinton bragged about his uncanny gift for “compartmentalization.” To the cheers of the mainstream press, Clinton and his spinners insisted that he could keep his “worlds” separate, that his “personal” problems had no effect on his ability to govern.
“The president is the best individual I know to compartmentalize his problems,” Leon Panetta, Clinton’s former chief of staff, assured the public. “He is somebody who takes these kinds of issue, puts them aside, stays focused, does his business during the day. There’s no question that he does a good job trying to keep the business of the country in focus.”
The press bought it. “How does he do that?” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Clinton’s aides. “The compartmentalization, the famous Bill Clinton compartmentalization: You’ve seen it, moments of anguish, deep despair, sadness, probably depression when the word of the Monica Lewinsky story broke, and then dealing with national security issues of the utmost gravity.”
Some reporters believed not only that Clinton was a master of compartmentalization, but that his gift was infectious. For example, Jacob Weisberg, the current editor of Slate, described Clinton as “a president with a rare ability to compartmentalize his psyche,” who “has ratified a new attitude toward the private lives of public figures.”
All of this always struck many of us as nonsense. The notion that we can treat different parts of our own lives as if they exist in parallel dimensions with no contact or impact with any other is simply an unsustainable fiction. Sure, you can do it for a while, but eventually something’s got to give, especially in a media environment which doesn’t respect such arbitrary divides in a president’s life.
Conservatives ridiculed “compartmentalization.” We said, “Character matters.” Many liberals agreed with the conservative analysis, but drew different conclusions. For example, in 2001 Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote a column suggesting that the conservatives who “hounded” Clinton were at least partially to blame for Clinton’s failure to nab Bin Laden or achieve Middle East peace. The man was just too distracted by the Lewinsky business to do his job.
Here’s the funny part. It turns out that Bill was too distracted by his job not to do Lewinsky.
We now know that not only does Bill Clinton agree that compartmentalization is a fiction, but that we all had the story backwards. Bill Clinton’s “private” mistakes didn’t get in the way of his presidency, his presidency got in the way of his private life.
According to Clinton, it was the stress of the government shutdown that made him stray. Here’s how Clinton explained things on — where else? — “Oprah”: “I have found in this whole parallel lives theme that I started in the book that whenever I was angry or exhausted or under great stress, I was more likely to make a mistake, to run back into the dark alley of my parallel lives.”
He goes on: “In November 1995, I was involved in a titanic struggle with the new Republican Congress. … They were trying to force me to take a budget that would have had massive tax cuts, thrown us back into deficits and had huge cuts in education and health care and the environment. … I didn’t want to be president if that’s where my country was going, and so I was determined to stop it.”
And, the ex-president explained, because the White House was of necessity staffed with “young volunteers” during the government shutdown, he launched a one-way sexual relationship with an intern — “because I could.”
“Compartmentalization,” “parallel lives” — whatever psychobabble concept may trip Bill’s trigger at any given moment, this much has always been true: The man never had the character for the job.
Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.