The Corner

re: Recoiling … and Defeating the Gargoyles

The woman got 18 million votes. It’s not an accident, however, that she didn’t take it in the end. The Democrats didn’t want her. They’re just not that into her. On some level she knows that or she’d be taking it to Denver. And that she’s not — that she’ll likely never be president, is a good thing.

As for Peggy Noonan, I’d be declaring a righteous victory today if I were her. (Our readers who contributed to the “Help us stop her” effort can, too.) In her 2000 book, The Case Against Hillary Clinton, she wrote:

…countless observers have puzzled over the Clintons and tried to understand them, to find the piece of string that, once pulled, unravels to reveal their secret. We have watched them, talked to them, and pored over articles, books, and interviews looking for insights.

I offer here a small one, a suggestion of part of an answer.

I was reading a book when it all seemed to come together. It was All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos’s memoir of his years as an aide to Bill Clinton, a book whose semi-candid tone and occasionally candid content nonetheless contains, as such books always do, revealing scenes. As I turned the pages the scenes seemed to come together and form a kind of mosaic. A mosaic is by its nature somewhat crude, and yet it does form a picture.

Here are the scenes:

Hillary Clinton, in a White House office, is disciplining her husband’s staff when suddenly she collapses in a heap, sobbing, “I’m feeling very alone right now. Nobody is fighting for me.” Stephanopoulos returns to his office and breaks down; “F**k her,” he rages. Soon he has audial hallucinations. Vice President Gore takes Stephanopoulos aside, and George understands the message he’s being given: “[I]f it comes down to you or me, I’ll cut your nuts off.” Now Dick Morris is warning that “Ickes has something [on the president].” Now the president is on the phone with Senator Bo Kerrey, screaming, “F**k you!” Soon a conservative wins an off-year election and Clinton is saying, “It’s Nazi time out there—we’ve got to hit back.” Thinking about the man he helped put in the White House, Stephanopoulos judges him to be “mercurial,” “weak,” “prone to temper tantrums.” Now the president is screaming — an “outburst,” a “roar” marked by “purple rage” and “eruption of a resentment.” Now, “worst of all,” the president is doing “the silent scream, in which he silently rages and refuses to say why.” A “pretty, busty, flirty” girl named Monica is roaming the halls asking if you’d like a double-tall latte…

Reading these scenes I suddenly thought: These people are not quite stable. They’re not completely mad, they don’t wear tin foil hats and talk to chairs, but they are extreme in their actions and behaviors.

And as I thought this, I remembered a pained face. It was the face of a tall, calm, and disciplined Secret Service man. I had first seen him in the Reagan era, and bumped into him once visiting the Bush White House. I didn’t even know his name, but I knew his face, and knew how good he was at what he did. I hadn’t seen him in years when I bumped into him at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, which I attended to write about the convention speeches for Time magazine. I saw him in a hotel lobby and said hello, and we chatted, and he seemed genuinely happy to see me, which surprised me because we hadn’t been friends, only acquaintances. I asked him how things were going. And he stood there, and looked me in the eyes, and barely, just perceptibly, shook his head back and forth. As if he didn’t have words; as if the words he had should not be spoken. We said nothing for three or five seconds. And then I said, “It’s bad, isn’t it.”

“You have no idea,” he said softly. “You wouldn’t believe.” And then he said goodbye, and walked by himself through the lobby. And I wondered if seeing me hadn’t simply reminded him of other, older White Houses, the ones he’d known before the current trauma, the ones that had given him his first and lasting sense of what a White House is, and how it operates.

We’ve never had a White House like the Clinton White House. I worked in Ronald Reagan’s White House, had friends in and visited George Bush’s, and visited a third, Jimmy Carter’s because a friend worked for him. Jimmy Carter’s White House was staffed with normal, hardworking people. They had the usual assortment of human failings — pride, discord, resentment — but they were sane, well-meaning, and serious. Ronald Reagan’s White House was high-functioning but riven by divisions, an intense place with the normal assortment of human flaws and foibles, plus a dash of hauteur. But it was run by stable and serious people. The wiggiest thing that happened in the Reagan White House occurred after the president was shot by John Hinckley, when Nancy Reagan began turning to astrologers to tell her what days were safe for the president to travel. George Bush’s White House had the usual genteel jockeying and sycophancy, but again, they were serious, and nothing if not grounded.

But the Clinton White House, with its drama and volatility, with its seeming combination of ferocity and immaturity — there has never been one like it. The gargoyles, as someone once said in another context, have quite taken over the cathedral.

Barack Obama’s going to be a tough one to beat. He’s a radical — an attractive, intoxicating one, the most dangerous kind. But the last few times I was at the White House, and passed by that Hillary Clinton First Lady portrait, I took it as a given she’d be returning with her pantsuits and Bill. Not so. The Clinton gargoyles are where they are supposed to be — just on the wall.

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