The Infernal Presidency

[Classic: May 22, 1997] — Americans are traditionally taught that any boy can grow up to be president, and nobody has taken that idea to heart like William Jefferson Clinton. Dreaming of greatness, he didn’t foresee that his presidency would be consumed by such questions as Just how bad is this president? Will he be impeached? Will his wife go to jail?

The first O. J. Simpson trial may be the fitting emblem for the Clinton years. Bill Clinton is his own Dream Team, artfully suppressing evidence, changing the subject, and getting himself off one hook after another, even when he’s obviously guilty

The historian Paul Johnson writes in Esquire that “there can be no doubt that Clinton has already seriously damaged the office [of the presidency].” He goes on: “Clinton’s general moral standards are low or nonexistent. He seems to lie easily and fluently when cornered, and he seems to have had no scruples about using his office to enrich himself and his friends…. He is not so much consciously wicked as merely amoral, a man unaware of sharp distinctions between right and wrong.” Hustler: The Clinton L... Joseph Sobran Best Price: $1.98 Buy New $95.65 (as of 08:10 UTC - Details)

What saves this president from ruin, Mr. Johnson observes, is partly the confusing multiplicity of his scandals; the public can barely focus on one before another distracts attention from it.

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With O. J. Simpson there were two corpses, but the proceedings still got tangled up in side issues. With Bill Clinton, there never seems to be a central issue – just a kaleidoscopic serial scandal, which the public regards with weary cynicism. Just when you get up to speed on Vince Foster, Susan McDougal, Paula Jones, and Craig Livingstone, out pop John Huang and his friends

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal is conducting a running discussion on its editorial and correspondence pages as to whether Mr. Clinton is a “sociopath.” A pair of psychiatrists from Arizona write: “Sociopaths are wonderful blamers. They are always ready to identify fault elsewhere.” They can also be facile charmers, highly persuasive and seemingly compassionate to others while caring only for themselves.

Maybe, maybe. But is it just Bill Clinton? Doesn’t the concept of a “sociopath” sound uncomfortably like a recipe for a successful career in modern mass politics?

Who but a ruthlessly ambitious though outwardly charming man is likely to rise to the top in a fluid system of unlimited opportunity, even if we call it “democracy”? The old idea of self-government was that communities would tend to choose their best men as their rulers and representatives. That may be possible in a small community, where people know each other and can judge each other’s character.

But how can it happen in a mass society, where we may never hear of a candidate until he already has a powerful organization behind him? And in those circumstances what we hear of him is likely to be the result of a professionally engineered “image” rather than anyone’s considered personal judgment.

This century’s most disastrous rulers have been upstarts, almost unknown until they took power. Looking back over the fraud and carnage, you have to wonder if there isn’t something to be said for pedigrees, blue blood, and snobbery and even hereditary rule.

Samuel Johnson, a monarchist, opposed popular elections on grounds that the choice of a “rabble” was no more reliable than blind chance. You can go further. The choice of a rabble (that is to say, We the People) is likely to be an ambitious man who has positioned himself to be elected before the rabble knows he exists.

At least we know that a hereditary monarch didn’t seek the job and didn’t need a sociopath’s skills to get it. If power must be given to someone, maybe it’s wisest to impose it on someone who has no choice about it. The perks of monarchy are pretty good and should console him for the burdens. Besides, if he really hates the job, he can always abdicate.

Bill Clinton isn’t our worst president, just the most degraded – the first occupant of the Oval Office to inspire zipper jokes and speculation about possible sociopathic tendencies. Somewhere, George III is having a good laugh.

An interesting detail is that many of those unpedigreed men of the people – Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Tito – took power under assumed names, rather than the ones they were born with. Bill Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe.


This column, which was included in a collection of Sobran essays titled Hustler: The Clinton Legacy (Griffin Communications, 285 pages, 2000), was published originally by Universal Press Syndicate on May 22, 1997.

Reprinted with permission from Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.