Why's Ev'rybody Always Pickin' on Bill?

WASHINGTON — Washington.--On November 2 the Israeli Labor Party lost mayor's races in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to the opposition Likud. Labor's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said: "I think what has happened . . . has a negative aspect for us. I neither deny it nor hide it. It's a reality, and it's a very unpleasant one."

The next day, the Democratic party lost governorship races in Virginia and New Jersey and the mayor's race in New York. President Clinton said: "I don't think you can draw too many conclusions from this. . . . What you can say is, the American people want change. But that's not a message that strikes at either Democrats or Republicans."


Why does he do it? What does he gain from denying the obvious: that November 3 was a bad day for the Democrats? It's the great American spin, of course, practiced by politicians of every stripe. But Mr. Clinton seems to have the spin disease worse than most. And he surrounds himself with people to whom spin comes so naturally that you suspect they learned how to spin before they learned how to talk (and will, no doubt, be spinning in their graves).

Spinning is related to lying, but slightly different: Spin is a lie no one really believes, or is even supposed to believe. It's more a ritual incantation -- a superstitious warding off of demons -- than an actual expression of fact. Especially ludicrous spin like President Clinton's after election day is not merely disingenuous. It is undignified. Far from communicating strength and confidence, it communicates weakness and desperation. The image is of a cartoon character who thinks that as long as he keeps churning his legs and doesn't look down, it won't matter that he's run off the edge of a cliff. And it's connected to Mr. Clinton's larger difficulties.


The president's biggest image problem, I think, is that he lacks weight or gravitas (or what the British call "bottom.") Even those who like him or agree with him on issues don't hold him in much awe. And something about him brings out the bully in critics and the press. Mr. Clinton's relative youth is one unavoidable factor. And awe ultimately, I suppose, has to be earned with substantive accomplishments.

But spin sickness doesn't help. Nor does the general sense he and his administration convey of frenzied eagerness to succeed. President Clinton needs to be reminded: he's already succeeded.

Bill Clinton is a lucky man. The worst thing that can happen to him for the rest of his life, career-wise, is that he won't win re-election in 1996. He'd still be a former president of the United States (a fate that awaits him by the year 2000 in any event). He'd still be lionized and cosseted. His opinions would still be sought, and he could, like George Bush, take cheap pot-shots at his successor. He could get rich, do good, sleep late, play golf, or a little of each. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford have both, in different ways, had a wonderful time as former presidents.

("Say, is my kingdom lost? Why, 'twas my care,/And what loss is it to be rid of care? --Richard II.)

Mr. Clinton is obviously a competitive fellow, passionately motivated by a desire to succeed. But in the yuppie rat race Bill Clinton has already won and, in a way, retired the crown. He was the first to make it all the way to the top. The best thing Mr. Clinton could do for his presidency, as it enters yet another rough patch, is to communicate -- possibly even to say outright -- that it doesn't matter all that much to him whether he is re-elected three years from now. Or at least that he has more important things on his mind.

At the shallowest level of political strategy, expressing indifference to re-election would appeal to the current anti-politician spirit in the land: the widespread and somewhat fatuous notion that anybody who actually wants political office is thereby morally disqualified from holding it. It would place Mr. Clinton "above politics" (and thereby, of course, improve his political chances).

Convincing the world he doesn't live or die for re-election would also increase his bargaining leverage with Congress, Republicans, and other pests. Mr. Clinton has very little leverage these days because he isn't feared. Ronald Reagan, at his peak, was feared for his political strength. President Clinton lacks that advantage. But a man with no fears of his own becomes invulnerable in a different way and can be feared for that reason. In the game of chicken, the winner is the one who fears death least.

Above all, a publicly communicated unconcern for re-election -- a sense from the president that his personal ambitions, at least, have been fulfilled -- would help to address the gravitas problem. Mr. Clinton often comes off as a grade-grubber, an apple-polisher, someone who is about to hit us up for a Rhodes Scholarship recommendation. It's not appealing. And it helps to explain, I think, why the president gets not just so little respect but so little human sympathy. He deserves more.


TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.