When, on January 20, 1992, William Jefferson Clinton entered the White House, having beaten George Bush only thanks to a political fluke, the split of the moderate and Republican vote between the incumbent president and the right wing of Ross Perot, a determined billionaire to spend billions to satisfy his ambition, history seemed to confirm the final victory of the public over the private Clinton. The nation had learned all about his adventures, during the election campaign and the primaries. He had touched his legendary lies (“I smoked marijuana but never inhaled” remains probably the most extraordinary). But the nation too, like the many women in Clinton’s life, had allowed itself to be persuaded and seduced.
For a few months after the election, in 1992 and 1993, it really seemed that the white Clinton had exorcised his black alter ego forever, that the man had finally freed himself from his shadow. The parable of the orphan had had its happy ending, the greatest declaration of love that a people can make, its election as leader. He was just 46 years old, he was the second youngest president in history, after ‘his’ Kennedy. He had a specific political program: to keep the helm of America at the center, but finally launching that national health insurance program that the richest country in the world has never yet given itself. Few new presidents had entered the White House carrying more hope of greatness. To Hillary, who would have wanted a ministerial portfolio but could not have it due to the law on ‘nepotism’ which prohibits giving public offices to relatives and kin, the project was entrusted to study the national health service, albeit without formal offices. “She’s my co-president,” said her husband, half-serious. Clinton reserved for himself the task of dismantling, as his electoral slogan put it, “the welfare state, as we inherited it. “It was a perfect example of Clinton’s highly skilled and rather cynical ‘strategy of triangulation’: a blow to the left, satisfied with national health care, a moderate blow to the center, reassured by abolition of the hated ‘Mother State’, already started by Ronald Reagan.
There was, in the way of the public and winning Clinton, only one obstacle: the United States Congress, the Republican opposition. Every American president, contrary to what the international imagination often believes that sees him as a sort of elective sovereign, must come to terms, every day, with the House and the Senate, to promote laws or initiatives, in a series of grueling, miserable ‘do ut des’, with that Congress that holds tightly the strings of the public purse. The success of a presidency depends on the ability to build occasional majorities, law by law, on the benches of Parliament. But in Clinton’s case, the opposition was not limited to traditional political guerrilla warfare. The Republicans saw that president elected by a minority vote, landed in Washington with a heavy baggage of private scandals by beating the Gulf War winner, George Bush, exactly as the villagers of Hope had seen Virginia’s baby: as a ‘bastard’, a usurper of the throne. And the fight against him quickly became one jihad, a holy war.
The proposed reform of the health care system was crushed, with a campaign of advertising terror financed by small and medium-sized insurance companies who feared losing their customers to the large companies, which would have benefited the most from the mixed public-private system designed. by Hillary Clinton. This, which was to be the cornerstone of the Clinton administration, will never be talked about again. There was a partial demolition of the welfare system, which the Republicans had always demanded and certainly could not refuse. But against the background of the normal political dialectic, in a karst and poisonous river, between complaints to the judiciary, ‘revelations’ piloted in the mass media, books and pamphlets,
And in 1994, in the elections for the complete renewal of the Chamber and partial of the Senate, called ‘medium-term’ because they fall to half of the presidential four-year term, the opposition triumphed. He took control of the two chambers, for the first time since the 1950s, bringing to Washington, in the wake of an extremist and unscrupulous leader, Newt Gingrich, a ‘lever’ of young far-right politicians, determined to get rid once and for all of the usurper Clinton.
In 1995, Clinton’s popularity plummeted. With control of the two Houses in hand, Washington began the hunt for the Clintons, Bill and Hillary, seen by the enemies as a kind of two-headed hydra. The 1996 presidential election was approaching and Republicans were savoring revenge. The national economy, freed from the burden of cold war military budgets and pushed by the first signs of what would later be called the new economy of the Internet, of biotechnologies, of genetics, was beginning to fly but it was the Parliament, not the presidency, that received the merits. And the end of international tension, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, deprived Clinton of the classic reserve of all presidents in difficulty on the domestic political front, the great strategic initiatives on the world stage. The American public had lost the taste and passion for geopolitics, which had never been the strong point of the young former Arkansas governor. People cared little about the Bosnian tragedy, then in its climax, or the political and financial spasms of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia.
In this feverish state, between rampant opposition under the leadership of Gingrich and a vacillating White House, in the late autumn of 1995 the moment that more than any other will characterize the Clinton presidency came: that of the annual definition of the federal spending budget, of the law that in Italy would be called ‘the financial one’. The triumphant Republicans had inserted massive tax cuts into the law to deliver on their promises of tax relief to the middle classes. Clinton objected, refusing to sign it, because those tax cuts, too drastic, would have devastated the already thin ‘welfare state’ and reopened chasms in the federal budget, barring draconian cuts in public spending. It was the epochal, ideological clash that the right was looking for.
The arm wrestling was launched, which the Republicans were certain to win, delivering the coup de grace to Clinton, in view of the presidential elections of the following year. But the president did not give up. He resisted the bluff of the opposition that had become the majority, did not sign the budget law, the opposition did not even promulgate the emergency by-laws necessary to finance the current government activity pending the law and in November 1995 the American federal government had, literally, to close the flying. For a few days, the national administrative machinery, from the mint to the ministries, from the forest guards to the health inspectors of the chicken coops, stopped. Even the president’s closest and most trusted advisors were shaking, recommending a compromise. Opinion polls fluctuated. But Clinton was adamant. His political instincts told him that, at the end of the fight, the nation would be with him. He was right. Those days were the resurrection of the public Clinton.
And those were the days of the return of the private Clinton. In the empty hours of the half-closed White House for lack of funds, in the days of the tension of a gamble that could have crushed him politically, in the President’s private rooms, in the Oval Office, in his living room a young woman, a voluntary secretary and unpaid: Monica Lewinsky. While the public Clinton fought his historic match with the Parliament, the private Clinton toyed with a girl almost the same age as his daughter, in exercises that not even the best-disposed admirer could absolve as a ‘love story’. At the zenith of his own extraordinary public intelligence, Clinton reached the nadir of his astounding private stupidity.
But the public in those days only saw the statesman Clinton. He won, with a much more important majority than four years earlier, the re-election in 1996 against a modest opponent, Senator Bob Dole, whom a Republican Party demoralized after the financial debacle, had lined up against him, almost pro forma. The opposition in Parliament lost votes, seats and aggression. The stock market, the economy, employment grew, while the costs of money and inflation fell. Finally, even the critics said, Bill Clinton, re-elected for the second and last time, could show what he was capable of.
The world, from European allies to former Russian enemies, finally greeted him as the leader expected four years earlier and never materialized. Nothing could stand against the ‘triumphant’ Clinton anymore. Nothing but Clinton himself. It was time for Monica. From the rich past of the private Clinton, the tireless adversaries, who had never given up on the holy war against the usurper, fished out an unfortunate Arkansas lady, destined to become the object of national mockery, Paula Jones. The lady told a sordid story: in 1994 the governor of Arkansas, a former White House candidate, noticed her at a hotel reception, had her escorted to her room, and asked for a sexual performance. Nobody believed Jones at first but her lawyers had evidence,
It was in the course of Ms. Jones’s depositions in the case against Clinton, William Jefferson, profession president, legal address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington (“Do you swear to tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth?” “I swear”) that he popped up. Monica Lewinsky’s name. Investigators, lawyers, reporters poked around, addressed by skilled and well-funded hands by the enemies of the Clintons, and the story of Monica and her meetings with the president emerged. The private Clinton had caught the public Clinton. Before the nation and then before the judge, the president denied ever having had relations with that girl. It was a lie under oath, probably useless, but the consequences were dire.
For two years, through 1998, the promise of the Clinton presidency in his second term was frozen in the winter of a fight to the last gossip, the last deposition, the last vote, to indict and dismiss the president. With the evidence of his perjury before the Paula Jones case, the Republican majority in the House got the formal indictment of the Head of State, that impeachment, which only one other president in American history had suffered, in the 19th century, and which even Nixon, who resigned before official indictment, was spared. At the height of his popularity and success, Clinton had once again offered his enemies the opportunity to destroy him. Only the vote of the Senate, in the constitutional role of jury for the trials of the indicted presidents, saved him from the ignominy of dismissal, by ten votes.
But if it was the senators of the Democratic Party who gathered around him and finally stopped the attack, the vote that really saved him was that of public opinion. In the last and extraordinary paradox of this extraordinary political life, it was therefore the definitive recomposition of the ‘two Clintons’, the private and the public, to seal the alliance between the American people and its president. Just as the two images, the two carefully kept halves, desperately separate throughout his life, overlapped and reassembled into a whole person, the nation discovered the real Clinton and embraced him. Certainly, the sense of peace and widespread, though not universal, prosperity that had enveloped the nation helped him. Certainly, the success of an economy that had begun to grind sensational rates of growth in gross domestic product of 5% a year, which created two million new jobs year after year, which absorbed high school and college graduates with their still fresh degrees, which had pushed the stock market to dizzying heights, halving the statistical impact – and therefore the perception – of major crimes. If the scandal had erupted in a recessionary economic phase, or in an America devastated by the deaths of soldiers on distant fronts, it is reasonable to think that Clinton could have succumbed to the sentence for perjury and ended up being dismissed.
But the ‘ifs’ will always remain ‘ifs’. The facts tell us that, at the height of the scandal, in the moment of the definitive recomposition of the ‘two Clintons’, the thermometer of popular favor measured by the polls reached temperatures never seen in the years of Reagan’s triumphs. The political scientists, who had given Clinton up for dead, were proved wrong. Observers of popular customs and culture, more attentive to current reality, intuited the profound reason for this unexpected popular solidarity around a president who had not been particularly loved at the time of the official votes: the identification between Clinton and his generation. In that drastically humanized man, in that head of state zigzagging between public and private morality, the generation of his peers,born in the postwar period and became the backbone of American society in the 1990s, they recognized themselves.
There is never, in the history of direct democracy that characterizes the American political system, a president who succeeds without identifying himself with his time and without his time identifying with him. As previous generations had found themselves in the Roosevelt of the New Deal, of the social pact with the classes devastated by depression, then in the forty-year-old Kennedy of 1960, or in the Reagan that had brought to the White House the last ‘hurray’ of the Americans who had won. the world war and the cold war, so Clinton was the exact image of America emerging from the sixties. It was the product of the ambiguities about the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution and the ‘experiments’ dear to 1968.
The President was imperfect, ambiguous, a liar, as were millions of men and women in a nation where stereotypes about ‘Puritanism’ had hidden immense changes in morals and strength.
that the ‘private’ had been able to conquer itself, from abortion to gay liberation. In the assault on Clinton, these generations who grew up with respect for privacy saw an assault on their life choices. It was no coincidence that in his public confessional address, in front of the cameras, Clinton used the adjective ‘private’ eighteen times. That was the string that vibrated in the hearts of so many Americans. In the rest of the world, which looks at the image of American presidents projected on the screens of global communication without warning the human substance, Clinton appeared as a head of state unjustly tortured by inquisitors like the special magistrate Kenneth Starr, incomprehensibly humiliated by a people of bigots outraged by a meager history of marital betrayal. The American strategic machine launched its arrows into the world, indifferent to the difficulty of its commander-in-chief. Airplanes continued to strike Iraq periodically, to maintain an embargo less and less accepted by international public opinion. Cruise missiles, i cruise, reached remote valleys of Afghanistan, in the illusion of destroying the hideouts of Osama Bin Laden’s fundamentalist terrorists, and some hit a drug factory in Kartoum, the capital of Sudan, on the unconfirmed pretext that illegal chemical weapons. And within NATO that controversial doctrine of ‘humanitarian military intervention’ was elaborated which, with all its obvious implicit contradictions, would later become the bombing of Serbia to protect Kosovo. But the one true conflict that would forever define the Clinton presidency was fought and ended on the field of the history of American society and its customs. To the delight of some and the desperation of others, in the days of 1998, suspended between the constitutional crisis and absolution, the membrane of hypocrisy that had always separated politicians from their lives collapsed. In those hours, the silence that had surrounded their behavior ended. The effort of living two lives fell, one for public consumption and another for one’s own private life. A nation that had sentenced legions of political leaders to civilian death found betraying their spouses, who had driven a candidate (Eagleton) into disgrace only because he had been briefly treated by a psychiatrist for depression, had finally faced their taboos.. And he was preparing to choose at the end of 2000, between a candidate who would publicly admit that he had been a victim of alcohol for many years (Bush) and another who would not hide the fact that he used marijuana as a young man (Gore).
The innermost secrets, often the most embarrassing ones, had become public and the nation had searched, understood and forgiven. He had discovered that he loved both Clintons, in the completeness of a twisted and difficult personality, therefore absolutely normal. In his memorable eight years, the Arkansas son had raised a mirror before the eyes of America, which, believing it was seeing him, had simply seen itself. And it was, in the end, liked it.