June 22, 2004
SEEING BILL CLINTON in the spotlight again is like - forgive the analogy - seeing an old lover after not enough time has passed.
It triggers in me the still-fresh memory of pain and loss and resurrects those worn-out regrets: What happened? How did things go so terribly wrong?
How did this brilliant, attractive, tireless and empathetic president descend into a base sexual scandal that stripped away the G-rated innocence of an entire nation?
How could the first president of my generation betray us all by living down to our reputation as a spoiled, self-indulgent, undisciplined spike in the population?
Bill Clinton broke my heart. And now he is back, and hearing him speak in that familiar Southern, soul-searching way of his makes my heart hurt all over again.
Bill Clinton was the first president not old enough to be my father or grandfather, and he had me believing that the reins of the country had finally been placed in the hands of my generation.
In the end, he showed himself to be just as oily and duplicitous as any politician before him, and I learned the harsh lesson that I could never vote for a man again because of who I believed the man to be.
I would have to vote instead for a party or a platform or an issue. But never a man. If he wasn't a Bill, he might be an Arnold.
Some readers have accused me for years of being a Clinton apologist, but that ignores the fact that I knew from the minute he pointed to the camera and said "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," that he had.
I knew it with the certainty of a betrayed wife who happens on the slimmest bit of evidence. I had no more to go on than the rest of the country, but I knew, absolutely knew, he'd had some kind of a messy relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
And I wrote as much back in January 1998.
"I fell hard for Bill Clinton, and I am ashamed of myself now," I wrote then.
I chose to believe that his cheating had ended with his inauguration. I decided that if Hillary had forgiven him, I would, too.
I believed in Bill Clinton because I believed in the things he believed in: that government could do more to help people; that the economy was not just an engine to make the rich richer.
In August 1998, when he confessed to his wife and to the rest of us that the nasty rumors about him and that naive and vulnerable intern were true, my stomach dropped with a thud of certainty.
I had known it all along.
But if I am bitter about Bill Clinton, I realize, I am nostalgic for him, too.
He was president at a time in world history when a new chapter was being written on a clean page.
The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union was no longer a threat and the United States was beginning to think of itself as a member of a global community instead of a rival for its domination.
Now, the United States is at war with that world, a pariah in parts of it and mistrusted by much of the rest of it.
Terrorism on our own shores awoke us from a dream, and now we live with uncertainty about our planes, shopping malls, football stadiums and drinking water.
We were misled about the connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein and dragged into a messy war in which we find ourselves simultaneously combatant and peacekeeper. I find myself longing for Travelgate and Rose law firm files and shady land deals - what Joe Klein calls "scandalettes" in Time magazine.
We are led by an inarticulate president, and at times I find myself longing for the reassuring eloquence of Bill Clinton, no matter how insincere it might be.
Yes, Bill Clinton is back in the spotlight. At once common as jeans and egocentric as a presidential library; missing his mom and selling his book; confessing his sins and preaching to the world.
He is as optimistic as ever. And it is hard not to miss that about him.
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