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Criticism: The Media, Clinton and Reagan

Critic John Powers reflects upon recent media attention on former presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

04:52

Other segments from the episode on June 24, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 24, 2004: Interview with Bill Clinton; Commentary on the magnetism of former presidents.

Transcript

DATE June 24, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
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Review: President Clinton's memoir, "My Life"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Bill Clinton's book launch and all the media attention it's getting come
shortly after the weeklong coverage of the death of Ronald Reagan. Our critic
at large, John Powers, wonders why Americans found these two presidents so
captivating.

JOHN POWERS (Critic At Large):

Back when Bill Clinton was president, writer Kurt Andersen dubbed him our
`entertainer in chief.' Clinton has briefly reassumed that office with the
release of his new doorstop of a memoir. Newscasts show footage of people
lining up to buy it, pundits praise or lambast both him and his work. As for
Clinton himself, he's seemingly everywhere, on "60 Minutes," on "Oprah," on
FRESH AIR, as garrulous as ever, but thinner.

What's been driving Clinton mania is not liberal bias anymore than
conservative ideology lay behind the weeklong wall-to-wall coverage of Ronald
Reagan's death a few weeks ago, rather, we're caught up in this
self-reinforcing logic of media culture, which is constantly searching for the
one big story that will dominate popular conversation. Everybody wants to be
talking about what everybody's talking about. Heck, that's what I'm doing.

Love him or not, nobody makes a better topic of conversation than Bill
Clinton, who doesn't just enjoy attention, he takes it like vitamins. And
millions are happy to watch him do it. Like Reagan before him, Clinton pulled
off the rare feat in modern America. He not only served two full terms, but
he left office popular. Not all presidents resonate but Clinton undeniably
did. He became part of the national psyche as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter or
the first President Bush did not.

The great allure of Ronald Reagan was always the power of his iconic exterior.
We associate him with tag lines, `There you go again,' `Make my day,' `Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down this wall.' You knew that what you saw was largely what
you got. Nobody, friend or foe, ever thought there was something tricky going
on behind Reagan's public persona. His inner life was wholly irrelevant.

The pull of Bill Clinton is almost precisely the opposite. Sure, he's a
gifted performer who knows how to sell his ideas. He learned a lot from
Reagan about moving public opinion. Here what makes Clinton compelling is his
mysterious conflicted interiority. His uncommon intelligence keeps colliding
with his unruly desires. He wears his libido on his sleeve. In his book he
talks about living two parallel lives, one public, one totally private. And
while this may smack a bit of psychobabble, most Americans know what he's
talking about. They always thought there was far more to the man than meets
the eye.

In promoting the book, Clinton has engaged in the familiar rituals of
celebrities who publish lucrative memoirs. He's revealed embarrassing truths,
he's admitted to sin, he's even cried. Tears come into his eyes when Dan
Rather showed him an old clip of his mother. That's why it seemed fitting
that he should turn up talking to Oprah, who perfected the confessional mode
of modern TV in which a studio audience oohs and applause offer a form of
absolution by media. As president, Clinton was often compared to Oprah. Like
her, he hugged people and felt their pain. And, as a guest, he sat
comfortably on her couch. She asked rude questions about Monica nobody else
would dare. And knowing how to behave in such a forum, he gave answers rooted
in his unhappy childhood.

Although Clinton had in several ways a very successful presidency, his place
in our national mythology finally has little to do with balancing the budget
or leading the country through economic boom years. The simple fact is he's
compelling to watch. He's sexy, he's charismatic, he's a star, even to those
who hate him. So was Reagan, of course. But in a very different way. He
came from old Hollywood and, in keeping with that tradition, he remained
distant, above it all, crafting a presidency that was mythic. While Clinton
himself is also larger than life, with a blend of gifts and failings that's
positively Shakespearean, his brand of stardom mirrors the new Hollywood,
chased by paparazzi and surrounded by prying reporters, eager to spill the
details of anyone's private life. He's the first president of the tabloid
age.

Some reviewers have complained that Clinton's memoir spends too much time on
personal things and not enough on the principles and practices of his
presidency. Maybe so. Then, again, this is not wholly surprising in a book
called "My Life," especially a book written by an ex-president who knows that
people are more curious about him than about public policy in the 1990s. Even
if his critics don't get it, Clinton has always had an uncanny eye for what
the public is thinking about. And in the summer of 2004, it's his
personality, stupid.

GROSS: John Powers is deputy editor and media columnist for LA Weekly. His
new book, "Sore Winners," will be published in late July.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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