H.L. Mencken said, many times and in many different ways, that nothing beats a democracy for sheer entertainment. By those standards, 2008 is shaping up as the most entertaining election in quite some time.
There are two reasons for this: the first is that it's an actual campaign, and not the kind of overanalyzed, overarranged, overmanipulated affair we've been presented with for decades. (Many thanks to Obama and Huckabee for that.) The pollsters, pundits, consultants, and media figures are all poleaxed, without the vaguest idea of what's going on or where we're headed. For the first time in decades we're seeing a real contest. I, for one, like it that way.
The other reason is... Bill Clinton is back on the loose.
One thing not widely understood about the Clinton years, particularly with regard to the subtopic, "How did he get away with it?", is the fact that they were great entertainment. Not particularly high-class entertainment -- certainly not Shakespeare -- rather melodrama of a low order. But as any novelist will tell you, melodrama works. Hang your protagonist on the edge of a cliff and keep rolling rocks down on him, and the readers will beg for more. And that, with one slight variation, was the story of the Clinton presidency.
Bill Clinton regularly hung himself on the edge of the cliff and poured rocks down on his own head. Every other week, it was something else -- another babe, another crooked financier, another grotesquerie arising out of his past. There he would dangle, with his audience -- the people of the United States -- watching spellbound, until Betsy Wright, or Hillary, or the media, or Trent Lott came to his rescue. And not a month would pass before he'd do it again.
This explains quite a lot about the public response to Clinton. Bob Dole famously asked, "Where's the outrage?" The outrage, along with every other reaction of disgust, frustration, and anger, was buried underneath fascination -- a vast public fixation on "what's going to happen next?" Here was the president of the United States, supposed to be well beyond this kind of thing, acting like a character in a sleazy late-night soap opera. It was a novelty, and like all novelties, it riveted the attention. For the first time since Nixon's downfall (which was Shakespearean) the presidency had became a show.
Well, ladies and gents -- the show is back in town.
This time it doesn't involve interns or thefts of classified documents -- at least not yet. Instead we've got below-the-belt attacks on his wife's opponent, carried out as only a good ol' boy can do it: I reckon he's a right plausible young fella except for... Well, you know, nod-nod, wink-wink. He's just like that there Jesse Jackson, ain't he? I hear he's from up Illinois way, that right? Don't you wish they'd stay in their own dang neighborhoods? Playing the race card? More like dealing the whole deck.
Now, only Bill Clinton would try to pull a thing like this, and only Bill Clinton could get away with it. And he got away with it the way he always does: Hillary stepped in and called a time out, and the media obediently put the lid on. "I can control him," Hillary promised the world at large, and that, for the past two weeks has been the end of it.
But the show is not yet over. Not at all. Because she can't control him. She has never shown any sign of being able to do so, and nothing has changed to suggest that she's attained any such level of mastery. As it stands, the entire Obama scenario matches those of Bill's glory years down to the last detail: Bill has run wild and done bad things, has confessed, has been reprimanded, has spent his time in the corner and is now sitting back waiting for the next truckload of mischief to pull in, the way it always does. Bet on it: we are again going to see William Jefferson Clinton unbound, probably more than once, and it will be well worth the price of admission.
There are any number of reasons to believe this. Hitting only the top four:
* The Myth of Invincibility -- Clinton was defeated in an office run only once, his re-election for Arkansas governor, before he learned the ropes. Since then, he has constructed an elaborate facade as a man who is utterly unbeatable. And now he's going to sit back and let Obama whip him in a proxy contest? No way. The Comeback Kid is going to strap on his Colts and ride back into town for one last gunfight. Many first-rate individuals have been unable to resist this kind of temptation. Bill Clinton will not succeed where they have failed.
* The Spotlight -- Clinton is a narcissist of the first order, the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral. Now, he's supposed to remain in his place in the chorus while Hillary takes her star turn. He's been very good so far. He's only broken ranks once. But it's nine long months until the election. The clock is ticking...
* The 800-lb. Gorilla Syndrome -- There are reasons why ex-presidents are traditionally required to leave the political game. (The sole meaningful exception -- John Quincy Adams -- is just that, an exception.) It has been eight years since Bill Clinton was president. Since then he has settled into his role as beloved bad boy ex-pres who does pretty much what he wants and says what he pleases without criticism or contradiction. And he's supposed to put this aside for the balance of ‘08? (Not to mention Madame Hillary's terms.)
* Resentment -- There are dangers to diagnosing anyone else's marriage. (Crassness being the greatest of them.) But the Clintons, having exposed so much of their private lives in their quest for power, are a partial exception. Of this much we can be certain: there is a considerable amount of resentment on both sides. On Hillary's... well, we all know about that. On Bill's... the motivation behind the Don Juan syndrome, the compulsive pursuit and conquest of women, is deep contempt for the female sex. Don Juanism is a form of abuse, a continuing attempt to degrade women for unknown and perhaps unknowable slights. Like any other personality disorder, it requires serious effort to overcome. Effort of a type that has not been apparent in this case.
We're being asked to believe that the two members of this lifelong waltz of resentment, dysfunction, and dependency are going to endure the most stressful period of their lives without either of them blowing up. What it comes down to is the prosaic observation that marriages of four decades are not going to change their nature overnight, if at all. Not even with the presidency in the balance.
No -- Bill's not going to make it until November. He is not going to behave, and Hillary will not succeed in making him. He claims to have "learned his lesson". But we've heard that before too. So the question is not ‘if' but ‘when'. And, needless to say, how bad?
By the time of the convention, the Clintons are going to be drawn so tight that anything at all is possible, particularly if Obama maintains his delegate strength all the way until August. (And what about the convention, anyway? If I were an Obama delegate, I'd move around only groups and even then very, very fast. I would not be caught walking down Colfax Avenue after dark. We could see things that haven't been done since the Borgias were trying to take over Italy.) Okay, perhaps I exaggerate.
The public really is waiting for that "anything at all". Let the media talk about issues, debates, and delegate and vote counts all they wish. The main attraction is, when does Bill go off the rails, and what does Hillary do about it? During Bill's last term, this country learned to regard the Clintons as political pulp fiction. Media coverage since has clearly demonstrated that neither of them has in any way put that behind them. As to whether the voters will opt for a rerun -- that's something else altogether.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker