Days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke in January 1998, I had a dream about President Clinton: I had returned to the White House after a year away, and I was sitting in my usual chair just next to the presidents desk in the Oval Office, prepping him for an interview with CBS News. Seems like old times, I thought, its good to be back. But moments before the interview was scheduled to start, we got word of some vague but terrible tragedy. The whole country would soon know about it, and the president would need to respond. I pulled out my notepad and struggled to scratch out appropriate words of consolation and hope. Nothing came, but it didn't matter. Clinton did what he always seemed to do so well at times like this, saying exactly the right thing, in exactly the right way. He's still got it--best politician I've ever seen. Then I walked across the Oval, opened a door, and found myself in a pocket-sized room--windowless and bare, except for nude pinups of Monica pasted on its walls.
I was struggling in my dream with the Clinton I loved and the Clinton I feared, the president I served and the man I didn't want to see. As I write these words, a popular president presiding over an America prosperous and at peace has been impeached. Clinton's lawyers are skillfully defending him in a Senate trial against the charge that he committed perjury and obstructed justice to conceal his sexual affair with a twenty-two-year-old intern. The battle is all but over, and I'm still mystified by the Clinton paradox: How could a president so intelligent, so compassionate, so public-spirited, and so conscious of his place in history act in such a stupid, selfish, and self-destructive manner?
I don't know how to answer that question, and I never thought Id have to try. When I first considered writing about my time with President Clinton, I envisioned a political memoir shaped like a human comedy--a story of good, talented but fallible people acting on Vaclav Havel's hope that politics "can be not only the art of the possible, especially if 'the possible' includes the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals, and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, namely, the art of improving ourselves and the world." I wanted to write a candid story that neither shied away from showing the "art of the possible" nor surrendered to the cynical notion that there is nothing more to know about politics. I hoped to explain how an ambitious and idealistic president of uncertain personal character grew in office--how he outsmarted his enemies, out-hustled his adversaries, and overcame his failings and those of his team to help our country and achieve what no Democrat had done since Roosevelt--two full terms in office and a successful presidency. I believed it would be a story with a happy ending.
But the plot took a turn.
The events of the last year have changed the shape of the story I set out to write. It can no longer have a truly happy ending. I have done my best to recount accurately my thoughts and feelings and the events as I perceived them at the time, but I couldn't avoid the filter of the presidents affair with Monica and its aftermath. Throughout 1998 and early 1999, I lived in two separate Clinton worlds: the past I had experienced from the inside, and the present I was observing from the outside. As the stories unfolded, one on my word processor and the other on the news, I came to see the connections more clearly, and was tempted at times to think of the Clinton story as a tragedy. That doesn't seem quite right either. For all his talent, Clinton lacks the grandeur of a tragic hero. His presidency, however, does have the momentum of classic drama. The roller-coaster ride from Clinton's improbable election in 1992 to his impeachment in 1998 is a narrative stocked with dozens of characters, hundreds of decisions, and a thousand coincidences--all driving toward a conclusion that feels somehow, sadly, inevitable.
© 1999 by George Stephanopoulos. Published by permission of the publisher, Little Brown.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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