What makes Clinton a survivor?
He's a narcissist who thrives in a crisis and can't stand to lose
By Richard Lacayo
Strange to say about a man who manages to become President of the United States, but Bill Clinton has been an offhand custodian of his fate. Again and again, he drifts into crisis, blames others, wakes up at last and then scrambles to his own defense, a defense in which, sure enough, he's sinuous, subtle and dazzling. This is what happened in 1980, when he lost his first bid for re-election as Arkansas Governor, then struggled his way back to office two years later. It happened again in the presidential election of 1992, when his past kept getting in the way of his future, and again after the '94 Republican sweep, when he brooded, refashioned himself and then outsmarted a superior force.
All of which was prologue last week when he appeared at a White House prayer breakfast before a mostly friendly audience of more than 100 clergy and other guests. Acknowledging that his Aug. 17 address to the nation was "not contrite enough," he dug a little deeper into himself and came up with this: "I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned," he said, explaining that he had reached "the rock-bottom truth of where I am."
If Clinton's presidency survives the coming weeks and months, it's likely to contain more moments like that one--"remorse ops," you might call them--at which regrets will be offered to his family and friends, to his Cabinet and staff, to Monica Lewinsky and her family (whom he mentioned for the first time at the prayer breakfast) and to the American people. Before this is over he'll be apologizing to our pets. But to anyone familiar with the boom-and-bust cycles of the Clinton psyche--and by now who isn't?--his dark morning of the soul was also important because so often in the past he has come to a moment like that one before setting back out to fight.
Perhaps the only real public apology Clinton ever issued before this episode was when he was attempting a political comeback after losing the Arkansas governorship. On the advice of his political adviser Dick Morris, Clinton made a TV spot asking voters to forgive him for the missteps of his first Administration, like raising taxes and appearing aloof. But that public self-abasement was just a first step in the aggressive campaign that returned him to office in 1982. And nestled among his remorseful words at the prayer breakfast last week was the passing observation that, all the same, "I will instruct my lawyers to mount a vigorous defense" against Kenneth Starr's allegations.
"He has endured so many personal and political crises in his life and recovered from every one of them," says David Maraniss, author of the Clinton biography First in His Class. "It's just a habitual recovery process for him now. He starts out being angry, confused and depressed and then slowly tries to find his way." So whether Clinton's acts of public contrition are calculated performances or genuine bulletins from a man in pain--or both, which is always possible--it would be a mistake to see them as signs of a weakening will to fight back.
Of course, he has never faced a moment as dangerous as this one. Democrats are holding themselves aloof from him or worse, some newspapers are already calling for his resignation, and the rough beast of public opinion is slouching toward Washington, however slowly. For all those reasons, no one can rule out the possibility that he might just decide to throw up his hands and go. But everything in his past insists otherwise. In much of his political life, whether it involved welfare reform, tax cutting or health care, Clinton has been famously open to compromise and tactical retreat. Where he gets single-minded, however, is in matters involving his survival.
If Clinton fights it out this time to the bitter end, even if that means enduring an impeachment trial in the Senate, one reason will simply be his beliefs that impeachment is a punishment out of all proportion to the underlying offenses and that a majority of Americans will agree. But matters of principle aside, it's still Clinton's personal psychology that makes surrender a truly unlikely option. To begin with, crisis mobilizes him, as his bounce back after the '94 elections shows. And even in small matters he cannot bear to be bested. As Governor of Arkansas he had a pinball machine placed in the game room of the Governor's mansion. When the seven-year-old son of one of his aides managed a score of 800,000, which beat the Governor's record, Clinton pounded the machine until 2 that morning to reclaim the title.
It also matters that the President is simply furious at Starr, whose investigation seems to Clinton like the culmination of efforts by all the opponents who have been so relentless in their pursuit of him throughout his presidency and before. Last Thursday, when he summoned his Cabinet to an emotional meeting at the White House residence, according to the Washington Post, the President said he had been angry for 41/2 years, which would be about when Robert Fiske, the first Whitewater independent counsel, was appointed. Though some comparisons between this crisis and Watergate are far-fetched, in this Clinton does resemble Richard Nixon, who saw his final days in the White House as an endgame plotted by enemies who had dogged him for two decades and more.
And at moments like this one, even Clinton's narcissism can come to his rescue. A man who tends to view situations through the prism of his own needs, he is already framing his survival as crucial to the Democratic Party agenda, or what's left of it, though issues like Social Security and health-care reform might be better advanced now if he just stepped aside and let Al Gore take them up. At the prayer breakfast he also managed to describe his potential resurrection as an opportunity for "the children of this country" to learn moral lessons about selfishness and regeneration.
Deep in Clinton's past there are other motives for him to carry on. Fighting to the death is an impulse engraved in his DNA. Before he could walk away from the presidency, he would have to walk away from the example set by his mother Virginia Kelley, and not just in the way she battled to raise him after the death of his father and her remarriage to an alcoholic who made life difficult for them. Twice during her career as a nurse-anesthetist, Kelley was involved in struggles to save her job over episodes in which she felt unjustly accused. Both involved the death of patients under her care.
The first, in 1978, ended in a lawsuit that was settled out of court. In the second, three years later, the hospital where she practiced decided to stop using her services. In her memoir, Leading with My Heart, she described her feeling that the first incident provided an opening for enemies who had been after her for a while. "I had done all I, or anybody, could have done for [the patient]. Nevertheless, you could almost hear the drumbeats starting. All over town, my enemies had caught the scent of blood."
After the second episode, which came soon after her son had lost his first bid for re-election, Kelley had to give up working in her field altogether. She blamed anesthesiologists who wanted to force out nurse-anesthetists like her and who took advantage of her personal crisis. "I wouldn't go quietly," she says in the book. "I called everybody I knew, everybody I could think of who might help me buy time--might, in the final analysis, come to my defense." There was an echo of Virginia Kelley in something Clinton said years later to the political scientist James MacGregor Burns. According to Stanley Renshon, author of High Hopes: The Clinton Presidency and the Politics of Ambition, when Burns asked Clinton what he would do if Congress constantly thwarted him, Clinton shot back, "Just keep going at 'em till they tire."
The best sign that the President is marshaling himself for a real fight may have been the expression on his face at that prayer breakfast. Clinton had found his groove again. Gone was the stunned and dejected man of one week earlier in Moscow, the one who had gone through the motions of a press conference with Boris Yeltsin. At the breakfast Clinton sometimes spoke with the faint but unmistakable trace of a smile. You could see him warming to his subject, even when the subject was his own abjection. Throughout Clinton's political career he has been happiest and most energized during a campaign, when he was asking for love and approval, and never more so than when he was asking for it against the odds. After his re-election in 1996, his friends wondered how he would face the prospect of never again knowing that thrill. They needn't have worried. Bill Clinton has found a way to get back into campaign mode af- ter all.
--With reporting by Eric Pooley and Elizabeth Rudulph/New York
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Cover Date: September 21, 1998
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