Jan 25, 1998
His arrogance is breathtaking – Boston Globe

His arrogance is breathtaking


It is Friday night. I am in a hall filled with a thousand other admirers who have driven through snow and sleet to salute a wonderful woman, Eileen Foley, who was born in February 1918 and was mayor of Portsmouth, N.H., longer than anybody else. And, because the room was packed with political people, I kept returning to another evening nearly six years ago, when New Hampshire helped pull Bill Clinton’s candidacy in off the ledge he had walked onto, hand-in-hand with Gennifer Flowers.

Then, as now, the charge was reckless infidelity. Then, as now, Clinton, a skilled semantic contortionist, confronted it with the language of lawyerly loopholes in a tortured effort to put forth some preposterous claim that he was answering the questions and telling the truth “It’s like he’s accused of robbing a bank,” Eileen Foley’s son Jay was saying. “And he gets up there and says, `Absolutely not. Those allegations are untrue. I did not rob a bank.’ Later on, when he gets caught, he tells us, `You don’t understand. I didn’t lie. I never robbed a bank. It was a savings and loan.’ “

Initially, some felt a weary sadness upon hearing that the president may have had sex with a 21-year-old intern. Now, frustrated and angered by his inability to issue a flat-out denial devoid of linguistic tricks, the crowd lives with the uneasy knowledge that they have a terribly flawed man in the White House whom they trust with the economy but not with their own daughters.

But you can hear the inevitable assault coming from Washington, the attack on the former intern. Within a week — either by innuendo or off-the-record “briefings” — she will be described as an emotionally insecure girl, a flirt, a delusional coed with a crush, someone who, clearly, should have been carted off to an asylum, rather than allowed to work in the White House.

This is the predictable pattern with this president, a man of tremendous gifts and abilities: His public life too often involves a forced retreat from the truth. Isolated from reality, surrounded by power, obviously under the impression that he is both invincible and invisible, Clinton always turns himself into the victim. His battlefields are littered with the remains and shattered reputations of former friends and old lovers.

He succeeds because he is smart enough to know he can make today’s culture complicit in his conspiracy. Apart from his wife, the women who swirl around him are of a type: They are young or vulnerable or ill-equipped to deal with the klieg lights of propaganda and publicity. They are interns, state workers, widows, or fortune seekers.

Class dominates our society. The rich, the powerful, the connected and the pretty know how to get the benefit of the doubt. Brass it out by pointing a finger at an accuser who has big hair, nervous eyes, a temp’s credentials or only one story to tell. Surely, you can’t believe them!

With Clinton, you’d need a platoon of psychiatrists to even approach the problem. Raised without a father, he has probably never been told to sit down, keep quiet, admit the truth and accept the consequences. For 50 years, he has — all by himself — been the man of the house; charming, smart, handsome, glibly articulate and ferociously ambitious, his very own role model.

When you think of that late winter six years ago, the arrogance is breathtaking: The draft, the women, the marijuana, all of it explained away with a wink, a nod and an eye toward a trapdoor knowingly built with evasive language.

Six years later, in a room where citizens assembled Friday night to salute a magnificent woman, it was clear that the country is fine and will survive any assault that has its origins in a sad episode of a man’s own self-destruction, assembled with the assistance of a pathetic inability to control himself.

Eileen Foley’s family spoke of their mother with humor and affection. And then, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska stood to tell the crowd he was not in Portsmouth because of February 2000, but because of February 1918, the month and year when Eileen Foley was born, “the year of the Great War when men from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard stood in the frozen snow for the idea of freedom,” Kerrey said. “She is a woman of honor and courage whose life tells us the wonderful story of America.”

We might end up limping through three years of a government headed by a kind of Joey Buttafuoco with Ivy League polish. But on a night when a terrific 80-year-old woman heard the applause of heartfelt gratitude, two things were obvious: It’s Clinton’s legacy, but it’s our country.