A LOOK AT . . . Presidential Presence

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

May 7, 2000

We don’t have political leaders anymore. We just have people who play them on television.

That was my second or third thought at last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ dinner, when President Clinton gave the performance so dazzling to the media that his comedy clips were broadcast as often as ads for Budweiser. My first thought was the same as everyone else’s in the banquet room at the Washington Hilton: Clinton was hilarious and Jay Leno—who was supposed to be the entertainer for the evening—must have been sweating.

Then I thought more about the now-famous video, the one in which the president obviously invested many hours in a successful attempt to mock allegations of his own lame-duck aimlessness. As I recalled the image of the president bicycling through the deserted hallways of the Old Executive Office Building, it occurred to me the city which once gave us the “I Have a Dream” speech has become the city of DreamWorks. They’ll do anything for the show. Maybe the president really meant it when he said—in the video, of course—that being a “real actor” was his lifelong ambition.

First, let’s make some distinctions and give the president his due. He owned the place that night. The audience, including many who have savaged him, couldn’t stop laughing. There was so much applause that some journalists, fearing they had committed a terrible breach of objectivity, said afterward that they hadn’t been applauding Clinton, but “the presidency.” Let’s be honest: We gave him a standing ovation because he—and his video—were very funny.

According to my Federal News Service transcript, Clinton’s spoken remarks were interrupted 41 times by laughter, 12 times by applause and once by applause and cheers—when he said that he had no fears about getting into Bloomberg News’s exclusive post-dinner party because Attorney General Janet Reno would be accompanying him.

The president’s live monologue was in a long tradition of presidential humor. Clinton is not the first president to have speechwriters labor over a text for several weeks to make sure he didn’t bomb on an occasion when his job was to entertain. He took some nice shots at himself (“The critics just hated my travel office episode”) and threw a few well-placed grenades at his political opponents (“Over the last few months, I’ve lost 10 pounds. Where did they go? Why haven’t I produced them to the independent counsel?”).

Good material. So was the video. In this terribly self-conscious and ironic age, who couldn’t appreciate Clinton mocking himself by mocking that commercial starring the self-xeroxing guy who can’t keep in his shirttail in? In this case, the gofer becomes Clinton’s guide to the e-world, giving the techno-clueless president a high-five for completing his first e-journey. And then there was the hapless Clinton in the laundry room, his head bobbing round-and-round, watching the clothes spin. His aides said later the president had improvised the head move. Maybe he deserves the Oscar he covets in his video.

In an earlier video that night, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart gave an excellent deadpan portrayal of himself in a special sendup of “The West Wing,” the weekly TV drama that for many Americans is the White House. That turned out only to be a preview: The line between Hollywood reality and mere reality was obliterated later in the week when the “West Wing” cast descended on the White House—the real one—to film its final episode of the season.

Now, Lockhart isn’t the president, and has no particular obligation to remind us that the White House is more than a back lot for a TV show. But in trying to figure out what bothered me about the president’s little video, my research turned up one expert’s brilliant analysis of the disappearing line between truth and assertion, between fact and fiction:

“I think it’s hard to run a newspaper today in an environment in which you’re competing with television news, Internet news sources, radio news and entertainment which abuts on the news, and all the lines are being blurred—both the technological lines and the categorical lines.”

This view was offered by none other than President Clinton in his remarks last month to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Clinton doesn’t run a newspaper, but who has suffered more than he from the blurring of these lines, and who has more of an interest in maintaining them? One of the central reasons the president survived impeachment was that a majority of Americans draw a sharp distinction between private and public life. That majority worried about what happens to democracy when politics turns into soap opera.

In the video, Clinton is shown in the White House situation room, locked in combat with Gen. Henry Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “B9,” the president says. “You sunk my battleship!” Shelton says. Was I alone in being bothered by the two of them playing a board game? The president is the one who orders the military to drop bombs on people, and that is never funny.

Could it be that some of us take Clinton and his presidency more seriously than he does? Truth is, he is a good communicator on—I know this is so boring—real issues. He does this well not because he’s an actor or a magician, but because he knows what he’s talking about and—I know this is so naive—because he really cares about a lot of these problems. Yet here is the president feeding the very case that his enemies make against him every day: that he succeeds only because he’s a great showman. If that is so, let’s just get it over with and make Jay Leno president.

You write something like this and you feel churlish, or at least I do. You can fairly ask of me: Isn’t it unsportsmanlike to laugh at the jokes and then criticize the comedian?

Sure, I want our presidents to have a sense of humor and a capacity to make fun of themselves. And yes, it was fun to watch Clinton’s enemies have to chuckle along with everyone else. Doris Kearns Goodwin is right in saying—in the excerpts on this page—that “each president must find the means of communication that fits his own skills and the technology of the time.” Clinton’s done that.

But remember all those folks who attacked Edmund Morris for his Ronald Reagan biography that mixed historical fact with fiction, invention with the real thing, and made it hard for readers to tell the difference? Maybe the critics were wrong. Maybe Morris was just ahead of his time.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.