BENEATH THE WARM copper vault of Radio City Music Hall, where my grandmother took me once to see the Rockettes and where the president of the United States celebrated his birthday with Jon Bon Jovi, Aretha Franklin, Kenny Rogers and several thousand paying guests, it was pleasant to sit back and wonder for a moment about the relative importance of history and pop in American life.
While presidents come and go, dance crazes live on forever, along with Charlie Chaplin twirling his cane, John Wayne riding horseback and Marilyn Monroe singing a breathless "Happy Birthday" to JFK in Madison Square Garden. Where history tells us stories about beginnings and ends, pop offers a fairy-tale universe where Cary Grant and Madonna exist forever outside of the time. Lyndon Johnson is remembered as part of history. JFK is pop.
The mission of producer Jeff Margolick and his scriptwriters was to identify Bill Clinton with postwar America, not as it might appear in the histories of the left or the right -- wars in Korea and Vietnam, civil rights and other revolutions at home -- but as it exists in the comforting and timeless world of popular nostalgia.
As a giant movie screen descends, the disembodied deep bass of James Earl Jones fills the hall, introducing the year 1946, when a "loaf of bread is just a dime," Bill Clinton is born, and "President Truman extends a helping hand" to Europe.
A 'C' in conduct
Soon after, the we hear an introduction of the '50s, when "Nat King Cole tops the charts," "television becomes a part of the American way of life," and "Bill Clinton, then in the third grade in Hot Springs, Arkansas, receives a 'C' in conduct for raising his hand too often" in class.
What follows is a lavish preview of what New Year's Eve might look like for baby-boomers in the year 2020 at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Jon Bon Jovi does his best impersonation of a '50s rock star with slicked back hair and a sharp tan suit.
Next up are the '60s, "a tumultuous decade when students begin protesting" and "the movie 'Psycho' keeps us out of the showers." Bill Clinton's "first set of wheels is a 1960 Buick, and he cruises the streets of Hot Springs imitating Elvis Presley."
By this point in the evening, the problem the scriptwriters face has become obvious: If the history they put on screen is generically bland enough to make the producers of Time-Life documentaries cringe, the uneasy relation of Bill Clinton to his actual -- and more interesting -- past leaves them little choice.
Martin Luther King in Birmingham would remind conservatives of the president's support for affirmative action and liberals of his recent welfare-bill signing.
The Vietnam War would bring up the question of why Bill Clinton was studying in England instead of fighting in Vietnam. Women's rights would trigger associations to Hillary, and, as for flower power and Be-Ins and hippies cavorting on acid at Woodstock, well, it's easy to see why Elvis and "Psycho" captured the scriptwriters' attention.
The '70s are easier to handle. Carly Simon sings "Let the River Run," and Rosie O'Donnell recites television commercials. The '80s feature Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson and Kenny Rogers leading the audience in a sing-along of "Lean on Me."
The highlight of the '90s is a medley of film clips of President Clinton's greatest accomplishments in office: the peace treaty between the PLO and Israel, the rise in housing starts, the Family Leave Act, the Brady Bill and the restoration of democracy to Haiti. Pictures flash by of the president signing bills.
Yet to see him praised as the man responsible for housing starts or Middle East peace is like watching Tom Cruise saluted at the Academy Awards for a drop in the price of popcorn. In part, this is because the things for which Mr. Clinton takes credit now are so different from the things he promised four years ago.
As the president appears on stage to thank his guests and to remember Ron Brown and Yitzhak Rabin, 20 men and women rise from the $500 seats up front and begin to protest. The protesters seemed to have stepped out of a leftover film clip from the '60s section of the evening, as they blow whistles and shout "Shame! Shame! Shame!" at the welfare-bill signing. "You're killing us!" a young woman in a short black dress shouts, as she is dragged up the aisle and out of the hall.
"Treat them gently," Mr. Clinton says. "In four years," he adds, "they'll come back to me and say, 'You did the right thing on that bill."'
Now the other, more beneficial side of the celebrity politics Bill Clinton has mastered becomes apparent: The president is gracious and poised; strong but compassionate. He will hear the other side but remain determined to do what needs to be done.
That his presidency has not been like this at all is beside the point. In a country divided by history and hostile to politicians, Mr. Clinton has moved beyond history and politics to a place where appearance triumphs over action. Perhaps one day a young, idealistic leader will stop the corporate-sponsored, Hollywood image-making that has turned our democratic system into telegenic mush. Until that day comes, however . . .
All hail the president of pop!
David Samuels is a contributing editor at Harper's. This article first appeared in The New Republic.
Pub Date: 8/23/96