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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

What the Guys Think: Clinton's a Screw-Up

By Walter Kirn

TIME magazine

What disgusted the guys at the Montana construction site as they huddled around a radio news analysis of the Starr report wasn't so much the adultery and lying--no angels themselves, they didn't really care--but the fact that the President and Commander in Chief was such a lousy adulterer and liar. For these men, to get caught red-handed in a fling easily manageable by any Joe capable of running a screw gun raised questions of Clinton's basic masculine competence. Indeed, if the Starr report could be believed, America's alpha male was something worse than a sinner or a lawbreaker. He was a fool, and a crybaby to boot.

"You know what he's turning this country into?" said one of the workers, a tattooed Vietnam vet, about the President's public self-flagellations. "An open meeting of sexaholics anonymous. He isn't even a man anymore. The guy's been ruined by chicks."

Call it the macho critique of Clinton: the feeling among certain red-blooded types that any world leader who'd schedule his quickies through his secretary, cuddle his cutie in front of TV cameras and allegedly try to buy her loyalty with assorted knickknacks and a hatpin instead of, say, a new Camaro convertible, isn't, to judge by his street smarts, much worth following. Kinky trysts in the White House are one thing. Placing a phone call as your mistress pleasures you is something else entirely.

It's possible that the Neanderthals are on to something. Despite all the talk of role models and ethics that has dominated the airwaves recently, male leadership isn't just rooted in morality; it has a murky, mythic basis too. Ask Machiavelli: Power is aura. Power is potency. The guys with the power tools illustrated a truth: even in nominal Judeo-Christians there's a lurking Nietzschean whose first commandment is, Thou Shalt Not Screw Up. His second is, If You Do, Don't Whine About It.

If you're living like there's no God, says the bumper sticker, you'd better be right. Current events suggest a corollary: If you're living like there's no media, you'd better be clever--especially if you run a country that cut its colonial teeth burning witches and branding naughty women with big red A's. But Clinton wasn't clever, according to Starr. He wasn't even awake, it seems. To keep his love toy under wraps, it's charged, he enrolled every friend, acquaintance and staff member other than the senior White House tour guide. He babbled away on answering machines. He expected other adults to buy his line about oral sex not really being sex, and then to pity him in his pain and anguish over having or not having it.

"Does he think we're idiots?" asked one worker. "All he has to do is ask my wife."

Even Clinton's special status as a relentlessly scrutinized public figure doesn't excuse, in the minds of the tough guys, his blundering and blubbering. Though most men don't have special prosecutors analyzing the DNA of every lipstick stain they stumble home with, and though most men's houses don't contain a press room, most men do have far more stringent monitors: their wives and girlfriends. What's more, most men's wives are considerably more intuitive than Hillary Clinton, whom presidential spinners portray as perhaps the last voting-age American to realize that Bill's late nights in the office weren't all spent fine-tuning the defense budget.

Having a con man at the helm is bad, but for some men having a doofus is even worse. What the guys around the radio wanted to know wasn't whether Bill Clinton had learned his lesson or put things right with God, but what his excuse was for his gross stupidity. Embattled on the legal and political fronts, the White House hasn't addressed this issue yet, which may be a mistake. If part of Clinton's charisma and appeal has stemmed from his James Bondish savoir faire--the impression he leaves of a double life well executed--what some people might find hardest to forgive aren't his falsehoods and inappropriate gropings, but his lollapalooza lapses of animal cunning.

"This man is supposed to outwit terrorists," one of the workers says despairingly.

The possible explanations for Clinton's obtuseness, including the notion that he's some sort of addict, don't go over well at the construction site. A former Coast Guard sailor wonders if the President isn't a narcissist, prone to delusions of invulnerability. Someone else thinks he wanted to get caught--the revenge of his guilty Baptist conscience, perhaps. Maybe all the talk at church of a final heavenly judgment compelled him to want to speed up the process.

Still, a nagging, primal suspicion lingers: What if the man is simply weak? A bumbler? Incapable of running a tight ship? It's a fear that Clinton's Swaggart act doesn't alleviate--in fact, for some guys, it makes it worse. "He's wimping out," the sailor sighs after hearing about yet another Clinton apology. "I can't stand to watch it. A President wimping out."

Walter Kirn is a TIME contributor who lives near Livingston, Mont. He is currently at work on Thumbsucker, a new novel


Cover Date: September 21, 1998

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