As his time in office runs out, Clinton runs on, and on...
WASHINGTON — Open any newspaper and, sandwiched in between all the presidential campaign coverage, is likely to be yet another interview with President Clinton.
There he is talking about Elian Gonzalez. There he is again, commenting on Japan's troubled economy. Then there's the TV interview in which Mr. Clinton touches on Saddam Hussein and the darker side of American economic prosperity - nothing too unusual, except that the interviewer was movie critic Roger Ebert and Clinton was talking about the films "Three Kings" and "American Beauty."
One of Clinton's favorite actresses, it turns out, is Meryl Streep, who he ironically praised for her "non-talking" scenes. People often admire in others qualities that aren't characteristic of themselves, and, these days especially, silence is hardly a Clinton trademark.
As his last year in office gets under way, the president is talking to everyone - and anyone - who will listen. It's part political strategy, of course, but it also reveals how well Clinton has mastered the personal touch needed in today's tell-all culture - and how much he enjoys the limelight.
"Obviously, it's very hard for him to move out, and he's hanging on as long as he can," says Wayne Fields, director of American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. "Some of it's kind of a sentimental theme. All of the interviews have a sense of nostalgia."
Since before Christmas, the president has been on a media roll. He's gabbing at length with the national outlets, but also with niche publications such as a state-news online service and, for cultural clout, entertainment icon Mr. Ebert. It seems fitting that in this, his eighth year, Clinton beat his personal best for longest State of the Union speech (89 minutes).
Why so chatty?
"Temporary insanity?" guesses White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. More seriously, Mr. Lockhart says, Clinton had a lot of interview requests for his perspective on the millennium and is now trying to push his own agenda. He adds that this openness is "hopefully more than just a passing phase."
That's likely, because, absent a scandal, Clinton loves to talk. And lately, say observers, he seems to need it as an outlet for introspection on his pending departure.
The president, for instance, often mentions the presidential perks he'll miss (though he always says it's the job he'll miss most). Ebert reports the White House screening room is the president's favorite perk - understandable for a movie fan who's been hooked on films since he was six years old.
Of course, Clinton's chattiness is also a shrewd political strategy, to try to rally the public behind his poll-tested agenda. At his first press conference of the year last week, he revived popular issues such as paying down the debt and increasing the minimum wage.
He also used the media spotlight to influence the campaigns of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Clinton warned reporters not to drag him into the campaigns, but he couldn't resist commenting that, given the strong economy and low crime rate of the Clinton years, "it's hard for [the Republican candidates] to figure out what to run on."
The president hasn't always been this talkative, though. There was a long drought during the impeachment period when he shut out the media, even bringing the White House band into the tiny Rose Garden to drown out questions from reporters.
And last week, he refused to comment on whether he will answer a complaint from the Arkansas Supreme Court over his truthfulness in his 1998 Paula Jones testimony. He could lose his law license over this.
Still, the usual Clinton way is to pour it all out, and Americans by now know far more about their president than they may care to.
Historians point out that earlier generations knew a lot about their presidents, as well. "Teddy Roosevelt had an overwhelming sense of who he was, and reporters had it too," says Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential scholar at Towson State University in Maryland. But no one, not even Ronald Reagan, has been in Americans' living rooms quite the way Clinton has.
Mr. Fields sees our close-up on the president as reflecting a "culture that is so centered around knowing every detail about a person." The media are part of that culture, but so too are in-home cameras to spy on au pairs, or the public nature of courtship and divorce. "Clinton is both a product of that culture, and Clinton also strongly likes that trait - the sense of intimacy with everybody is part of his style," says Fields.
He also sees Clinton as simply seeking affirmation - which isn't so unique. "His desire to be loved isn't terribly different from the public's desire to be loved."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society