Bimbo Alert, the Postscript
Among the chattering classes, tongues are still wagging over a lengthy mid-week, front-page piece in the Times on the Clintons' curious marriage. Slate media critic Jack Shafer expertly deconstructs it in his trademark high-octane, knowing manner, tittering over the article's "time-motion studies" of the extent to which the couple's schedules overlap. He asks a central question: Is the author trying to say that Bill is cheating? In the end, he acidly concludes that "this is the sort of news story that when read leaves you knowing less about the subject than when you were merely ignorant," carefully noting the author's likely lack of culpability, since he was presumably heavily edited by lots of nervous editors.
One way of thinking about all this is to put it into the context of a post-presidential "bimbo alert." That's the yeasty phrase his long-suffering Arkansas staff used as shorthand for their constant Defcon One vigilance over the regular outbreaks of worrisome females hovering near the then-governor. My read: the paper of record, chief vessel for the liberal establishment, may be at least unconsciously trying to signal the Clintons that Americans aren't likely to elect a president whose spouse is living the fast life of an aging trust-fund lounge lizard. But I agree with Shafer that the paper could have been a tad clearer about what they think the story's really about.
In any event, just as this was unfolding, I came across this illuminating passage in Washington Post staff writer John F. Harris's book, The Survivor--Bill Clinton in the White House. I think it's easily the best, deepest (and fairest) portrait yet written of the Clinton presidency. But listen to this energetic riff and ask yourself if the same combination of a reckless Slick Willy and a knowing press isn't playing out yet again:
The nervous gossip that swirled around the West Wing in 1996 about the president and Lewinsky was not an anamoly. An abundance of other rumors echoed. there was a dazzling West Wing receptionist who had been a flight attendant on the 1992 campaign plane. Several aides and Secret Service officers reported witnessing scenes between her and the president that strongly suggested an affair. Some agents said she had boasted to them of her presidential relationship.
Most White House aides had no direct knowledge and could only guess about the truth of various purported presidential relationships. But the fear of sexual gossip and scandal was a pervasive reality with which senior presidential advisers constantly had to reckon. Leon Panetta once got word about a scheduled presidential meeting with entertainer Barbra Streisand, who had been the subject of speculation before. He struck it from the schedule. One day in San Diego, Clinton's plane was met by Shelia Lawrence, an attractive woman whom West Wing aides called "the widow Lawrence." Before his death, her rich, elderly husband had been appointed ambassador to Switzerland. In view of the press, she embraced Clinton warmly on the tarmac and hopped into his limousine. A few moments later, White House aide Bruce Lindsey raced out of the backup car in which he had taken his seat and hopped into the president's limousine. Back in Washington, Panetta was alerted to the close call.
One of Steve Goodin's assignments was to avoid similar embarrassments. When Clinton gravitated toward an attractive woman in a crowd, or vice versa, Goodin would try to angle his way close to make sure that he was in the line of sight of any cameras. While aides fretted constantly, it often seemed to them that Clinton was intenionally, even delightedly, oblivious to appearances. The day after the incident with Lawrence, Clinton was in Santa Monica, where both Streisand and Eleanor Mondale, the former vice president's statuesque daugher, were in his hotel suite until well after midnight. The next morning Mondale, who had been the subject of rumors, went jogging on the beach with the president at 7 a.m. White House press secretary Michael McCurry scolded reporters to keep their prurient speculation out of print.
For the most part, they did. There were exceptions along the way. Early in his term, a tabloid reported that socialite Patricia Duff, who had socialized with Clinton, was boasting to friends that he was a "full-service president." Clinton was smoldering, his eyes squinting with anger, when Dee Dee Myers told him about the story. "That's a lie," he hissed.
Later, her successor, McCurry, had to delicately explain to Clinton why reporters were suspicious that he did not release his full medical records instead of just a summary. "Sir, they think you have the clap." The president smiled and shook his head, as if to say, what won't those guys think of. It was all a bit surreal--characteristically, McCurry took refuge in humor. Later, during a well-lubricated evening with reporters, McCurry rode in an open convertible through Beverly Hills shouting, "Attention, everyone! My boss does not have the clap!"