GQ Goo II: Bill Clinton Compared to Michael Jordan, Mandela, Sinatra
Let’s now return to the goo at GQ, part 2. In his glory-to-Bill prayer of a story, George Saunders lamented how the media isn’t half-kind enough to the man they hope is President Clinton the First: "To observe Clinton up close is to get a mini seminar in the deficiencies of the media in conveying the real scale of our public figures." Clinton is enormous. Saunders pushes comparisons to Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, as well as Frank Sinatra, Willie Mays, and Michael Jordan. Clinton's heart is immense, his talents prodigious. He is so brilliant he makes the writer feel like an idiot: "Because when Bill Clinton’s at your table, you don’t really want anyone else talking, and that includes you. When you do talk, you feel stupid. I mean, you are stupid."
Saunders does more mooning over Bill as the man stands in the bright sun listening to boring speeches by local African dignitaries:
And I find myself wondering why he does it – what counterweights the heat, the hours of protocol-fulfilling chats and smiling for photos, the plodding from dusty building site to dusty building site?
I’ve heard the usual explanations (he’s attention-hungry; he’s eradicating memories of the impeachment; he’s winning the presidency for his wife), but watching him endure this highly technical, minutia-engorged, science-fair-like day, these explanations seem grossly insufficient. Abstractions can’t power a person through a day as grueling as this.
There is, of course, an element of ego in what he’s doing. (What gets you up in the morning, or me?) There is an element of what we might call lineage pleasure in it, the pleasure he gets from seeing himself as just part of a long line of workers-against-injustice (Gandhi, King, Mandela, etc). There is an element of simple self-expression, a sort of joy-in-closing-the-deal: A person with Clinton’s abilities and proclivities coming up against the kind of problems that exist in Africa is like a strongman coming around a corner to find a heavy object, or a Lab racing into a vast field full of ducks – a chance to exercise one’s God-given inclinations. There is, of course, also an element of empathy: He sees he can help, and wants to help, and takes pleasure in having helped.
A Clinton staffer tells me his theory. Think about Frank Sinatra, he says; born to sing. Think about Willie Mays: born to play ball. These guys got their power from living lives perfectly suited to their natures. Same with Clinton: His life is perfectly suited to his nature.
Saunders is immensely self-disciplined in all this talk about Clinton’s proclivities without wondering whether the reader is thinking about how much extramarital action the former president gets now that he's half a world away from Mrs. Clinton. Like any party-line Clinton propagandist, Saunders isn't about to explore those private things that only mar the legend they're all trying to build (or maintain).
Perhaps "self-disciplined" is the wrong word. Because he shows absolutely no self-discipline in throwing every verbal confection into a big sundae bowl to describe the awesome Mount Rushmore bearing of his hero. He is so awed that he dares not speak around the legend, for fear of exposing the yawning gap in their brain power:
Because when Bill Clinton’s at your table, you don’t really want anyone else talking, and that includes you. When you do talk, you feel stupid. I mean, you are stupid. You are suddenly short of facts and full of intuition. You lack the conversational zing that comes with having once been leader of the free world. Have your previous dinner partners included Gorbachev, Mandela, Bono, Liz Hurley, Stephen Jay Gould? [Liz Hurley?] Were you instrumental in bringing peace to Ireland? Were your personal foibles broadcast at a cringe-inducing level of detail into every home in America? Did you sign into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, already used by some 3 millon Americans to be with a dying parent or at home after the birth of a child? Do people routinely accuse you and your wife of Macbethian levels of intrigue and ambition, levels than no actual person is diaboloical or efficient enough to attain? Have you ever made a speech to 50,000 people? Do people look at you and think: Should have done more in Rwanda? Have you started a foundation that has saved, by even the most conservative estimates, hundreds of thousands of lives and set the stage, through a series of price cuts and the stabilization of markets, for millions more to be saved?
Well, right, me neither.
I was going to but then suddenly I was old and had failed to consolidate sufficient power.
That's very Steve Martinesque. But Saunders is blowing up an enormous hot-air balloon of praise to super-size Clinton, and he's not done inflating yet:
His supersized fondness for life, humans, activity, accomplishment, makes you aware of your own negative mind. His seemingly boundless energy makes you aware of how prematurely you habitually pronounce yourself tired. A hopeful, almost naive quality he has ("On this continent, under the most adverse circumstances, you find the highest percentage of the people that go through every day with a song in their heart") feels somehow generational: vestigial evidence of the Summer of Love. His drive, his fame, the public nature of everything he does, makes you giddily grateful for the humble scale of your own life.
At this point you begin to wonder where Hillary is in all this sugary goo? She's an afterthought. But when Saunders finally turns to the messy Clinton marriage, he very lamely attempts to say it's just like any man's marriage -- you know, minus the massive adulteries:
When asked about his wife, he talks of her in a way that is fond respectful, even reverent. His way of speaking about her reminded me of – well, it reminded me of the way I speak about my wife, the way any man married for a long time to a woman who is beloved to him speaks about her: as if they have been on a long trip together, a sometimes complicated trip, for which he’s grateful.
Saunders is really scratching deep in the barrel of servility to describe Clinton's attitude toward the wife he's cheated on in a supersized way as "reverent," and as "beloved to him." Saunders reeks of the man describing the finery of the naked emperor's new clothes. He's still not done, since the Michael Jordan comparison hasn't been unloaded yet:
To observe Clinton up close is to get a mini seminar in the deficiencies of the media in conveying the real scale of our public figures. Comparing the man in person with the media-accreted version you have in your head, you feel the way you might if, having watched Michael Jordan on TV all those years, and having thus reduced him to great quickness + fall-away jumper + excellent clutch-shooter, you suddenly found yourself defending him one-on-one.
My guess is that, if you rated a million people on the basis of aptitude and verbal skills and powers of persuasion and retention and simple physical energy, Clinton would come out near the top in all categories.
And now, in this later stage of his public life, he’s decided to put those abilities to use in Africa.
The reasonable response to this decision, it seems to me, given the intractability and cruelty of Africa’s problems, regardless of how you feel about Bill Clinton, is gratitude: If our boat appeared leaking and an additional bailer appeared, we’d be glad, and gladder still if his powers of bailing were prodigious.
To be fair after this avalanche of accolades, Saunders spread the praise around to Clinton's hired guns (paid and unpaid). Let's conclude with a few of those unctuous paragraphs:
The Clinton Foundation is 800 people, working in 35 countries around the world, on issues ranging from HIV to poverty eradication to global warming. It is best understood as a kind of misunderstood Mission Impossible-style team that drops into a country at the invitation of its government and addresses, per that government’s desires, a specific problem, providing a kind of rocket booster of improved efficiency....
The foundation has Draconian hiring standards, and this exclusivity seems to have produced a kind of high-functioning all-star team that would, I suspect, be as effective at selling records or managing the redesign of a wastewater plant as they are at fighting global poverty and disease....
Clinton is fond of quoting Mario Cuomo’s famous line, "We campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose." This in essence, what the foundation does: It governs in precise, efficient prose.
The only bright side of this ring-kissing chronicle is that it's published in a glossy fashion magazine that people buy for the advertisements, and not the "efficient prose" of a prostrate Clinton-worshipper. It starts on page 366, and the type size is tiny, about six points, classified-ad size, as if to say: you didn't really buy this magazine for the articles, did you?
(Part 1 is here.)