Three weeks from today, Americans finally will have a chance to vote for president of the United States — hundreds of other offices on ballots across the country. As a presidential historian who has written histories of presidential campaigning, of various presidents, of First Ladies, including Hillary Clinton when she was in that symbolic role, and, most recently, of the Clintons and the 1990s in The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, every day until Election Day I will post an article putting this election in historical context, trying to explain this wild and wacky race using history as our guide. So here it goes, with hashtag #2016incontext
As we prepare for the third and final debate, the storm over Donald Trump’s boorish behavior continues. Without excusing it, the hypocrisy of Democrats in condemning it and Trump Republicans in excusing it, is hard to take, considering that in the 1990s, Democrats dismissed similar behavior by Bill Clinton, and Republicans condemned it – as the following essay argues.
How Bill Clinton’s Presidency Spawned Donald Trump’s Candidacy
Although American presidential elections have long been nasty and brutish, this election is reaching new depths of vulgarity, thanks to Donald Trump, and heights of hypocrisy, thanks to both Hillary and Bill Clinton. If Trump had the discipline to defend himself subtly, cleverly, when confronted with the vulgar videotapes, he should have said: “It’s time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life” – then noted he was quoting Bill Clinton. Melania Trump should have requested a “zone of privacy,” saying of her husband, “I’m proud of his leadership, I’m proud of his commitment” – acknowledging that this time that she was stealing a First Lady’s lines: Hillary Clinton’s words during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998.
Ironically, of all Democrats, Donald Trump’s opponent is Hillary Clinton. Amid the partisanship, Democrats should face an inconvenient truth. Supporting Bill Clinton’s “Reality Show Presidency” in the 1990s anticipated Donald Trump’s “Reality Show Candidacy” today.
Although, unlike Trump, Bill Clinton was an experienced politician and a thoughtful policy wonk, Clinton’s eight-year assault on the marbleized ideal of a George-Washington-like demigod virtuously leading the people changed Americans’ conception of the presidency. In a bit on the Donald Trump-hosted Saturday Night Live, a “porn star” anticipating a Trump White House purred: “I haven’t been there since the ‘90s.”
Of course, Clinton’s bad behavior was not unprecedented. He was more honest than Richard Nixon or Warren Harding and less promiscuous than John Kennedy or Warren Harding. But Clinton’s brazenness, especially when caught lying about his affairs, along with his reframing of the president’s job description, made his peccadilloes more influential than his predecessors’.
In hiding their indiscretions, Kennedy, Nixon, and other presidential sinners deviated from a script whose legitimacy they accepted. The George Washington template reflected Revolutionary America’s republican belief that a leader’s virtue guaranteed the nation’s virtue. Gradually, Americans accepted the more democratic model of a prime-ministerial president rather than a king, but the yearning for a virtuous role model persisted.
Bill Clinton was a revolutionary. He survived, retiring with record popularity and impressive accomplishments. This unexpected triumph challenged Americans to replace their traditional yearnings for a virtuous man embodying America’s purity with postmodern expectations of a complicated person who gets the job done.
Clinton never aspired to the mythic perfectionism candidates pretended to realize. In 1992, he said “character is a journey, not a destination,” admitting he lived with a Christian struggle against sin rather than this American pretense to saintliness. But he promised—and proved— that he nevertheless would work 24/7 for Americans— “till the last dog dies,” he said in New Hampshire.
Clinton’s Baby Boomer peers endorsed this new view of the presidency. The 1960s subversive cynicism, confirmed by the Watergate scandal and the rise of investigative journalism, knocked presidents off their historical pedestals, opening the floodgates of presidential revelation. By Clinton’s inauguration, the models of presidential character were no longer the august Mount Rushmore quartet of George Washington Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt but the adulterers’ row of FDR, JFK, and LBJ—with Jefferson now remembered for his racist affair with his slave. Many Boomer Democrats contrasted the marital rectitude of political incompetents like Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon with these more fluid, successful, tomcatting presidents, to reinforce support for Clinton.
Clinton’s post-character presidency suited Nineties America. America’s gender bender, with teens partying, women working, and gays marrying, changed assumptions about sex, sexuality and sexual morality. And the great American Hook Up, the digital revolution connecting computers to the Internet, celebrated pluralism, customized niches, and individualistic life plans, rather than the one size fits all way of life that the Washingtonian presidency embodied. The contingency carnival, with Oprah Winfrey as the county’s high priestess validating lifetimes filled with multiple choices, marked the rigidity of the traditional Cold War script for family life. Psychologists now called adultery “reprehensible” yet “irresistible.” The rainbowing of America had African-Americans and Hispanics supporting Clinton, rejecting what many called an outdated male leadership model of supposed perfection reeking of racism and white privilege. Capturing this new Zeitgeist, the novelist Philip Roth wanted the artist Christo, who wrapped Germany’s Reichstag in plastic in 1995, to wrap the White House in a “mammoth banner” proclaiming: “A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.”
Feeding off these changes, Bill Clinton, the great shapeshifter, the political improviser, the maestro of modern politics, insisted no American family, including the First Family, was perfect. Clinton created a liquid presidency more suited to our emerging Republic of Nothing and of Everything, anchorless but pluralistic, than to America’s traditional, solid, Republic of Something.
Having laid this groundwork for six years, Clinton could survive the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal – with great assists from his Bad Boy charm and the economy’s Baby Boomer Boom. The great moral panic that nevertheless flared reflected the ongoing civil war not just between the overstated “Red” versus “Blue” American divide but within many American souls.
Despite this week’s backlash, Donald Trump, a 70-year-old Baby Boomer born two months before Bill Clinton in 1946 has nevertheless built on Clinton’s legacy. The president who told MTV viewers he preferred briefs to boxers, whose girlfriend tracked how far they “went” on an Excel sheet, and who dazzled and disgusted millions during eight years of his soap opera presidency, helped blur the line between celebrity and leadership. Trump’s brutal candor, perpetual self-indulgence, Bad Boy persona, and live-on-videotape sexual preening, takes “Saturday Night Bill’s” Elvis acting out to new levels.
Donald Trump literally used a reality show as a presidential launch pad—rather than simply using the idea of a reality show with all its exhibitionism as a metaphor to explain Clinton’s presidency. Still, Trump’s campaign would not have survived the primaries without Clinton’s shameless trailblazing, making Bill Clinton the godfather of Donald Trump’s tawdry campaign.