Clintonology 101

Back to school with C-SPAN2.

An optical illusion can look like a lady or a crone. Check it out. Isn’t it weird? The whole thing’s subjective—just like Clinton’s presidency! Moreover, if Reagan was a Teflon president—as viewers also learned during The Clinton Presidency—then Clinton was a Velcro president. Stuff stuck to him.

This is what viewers learned in the first of C-SPAN2’s 14 weekly classes on President Clinton, which were taped at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. Dr. Margaret Scranton, a political scientist who, like her many guest lecturers, uses her unmedical honorific, teaches this dopey course to a room of college kids, continuing-ed students, cameras, and microphones. She is a devoted Reaganite, one whose office door is plastered with Gipper bumper stickers, or so she has told the press. Dr. Scranton’s class has attracted advance notoriety, because it features some intriguing golden-oldie names on its roster of guest speakers. These include motley favorites like Frank White, governor of Arkansas from 1981-83; Ira Magaziner, architect of Clinton’s screwy health plan; and Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander who is now overexposed on cable. During the first meeting, however, the speakers were newcomers, at least to me: Hal Bass, a presidential scholar at Ouachita Baptist University, and David Alsobrook, the director of the Clinton Presidential Materials Project.

“I thought I’d start with a comment from O’Reilly,” Dr. Scranton announced. “The O’Reilly Factor O’Reilly.” She then quoted some disposable epigram and produced a batty introduction to the subject of President Clinton, using, no kidding, the crone-lady optical illusion to argue that people see things in different ways. She seemed to be speaking to some age group that doesn’t exist in human populations.

Having described being near Clinton as “mesmerizing” and “an unusual political experience,” she clicked through a series of projected photos of the late-lamented commander in chief, settling on one of him with Monica Lewinsky in an office. It was a shot I hadn’t seen before. Dr. Scranton laughed.

Were you waiting for this photo? You expected the photo of Monica in the hat! But I selected this other photo to make it clear we are not going to ignore the controversies and the investigations. We will deal with these matters in a very scholarly way. We know the difference between scholarship and salaciousness.

Oh yes, we do. And showing Monica without the beret is a really solid step in maintaining that distinction.

Dr. Hal Bass took the podium and gave a no-nonsense program for how to study a president. Students might take the “most venerable approach,” by examining the way a president authorizes political power; a “newer approach,” by reading biography and psychology; and a “third approach,” by treating the presidency as an institution, independent of individual presidents. He asked students if they had seen the movies Thirteen Days and A Beautiful Mind, both of which he thought would be pertinent to their studies.

Finally, Dr. David Alsobrook came on. Many students had questions about which documents are allowed into a presidential archive and which are shut out; as a federal employee, he repeatedly maintained, he couldn’t say. He did talk about the challenges of preservation. “We get rid of rusty things—staples, paperclips. We put in stainless-steel staples.” And he talked about weather. “I’m concerned about bad weather. We were in a renovated bowling alley at the Bush project. I always worried about the roof of that building.”

A bowling alley houses the papers of President George Bush I?

Dr. Scranton seemed to have close collegial relationships with Drs. Bass and Alsobrook. When she sat with Dr. Bass for a staged interview, she leaned toward him, conspiratorially. “Can I ask you if you’re a traditionalist or a behavioralist?”

“A traditionalist,” Dr. Bass replied, and Dr. Scranton approved. “Me too, me too!”

Things got even heavier with Dr. Alsobrook, when the archivist movingly thanked his patroness:

Let me add a personal note about Peggy Scranton. I have worked in presidential libraries for over 25 years. My work has brought me into contract with a lot of academics. I assure you that in terms of her dedication to teaching and scholarship and her preparation for this course, Dr. Scranton is a star.

At this, Dr. Scranton dropped her head, her eyes brimming with tears. She held up one of the class handouts over her face like a fan.

This odd mood of sentimentality and condescension was broken only once, by a student, a young woman with long, thick hair. In a steady voice, she asked Dr. Alsobrook, “I recall reading last year that President Bush issued an executive order to block [access to] tens of thousands of pages of the Reagan presidential papers. How does that bode for the future of presidential research?”

Dr Alsobrook: “Uh—that’s probably one of those questions I better leave alone because I’m a federal employee.”

“Well,” she said, as the microphone moved away and then lurched back to her. “I’ve got a technical question then.”

“All right. Lay that one on me.”

Smiling slyly, she said, “Yeah. You gave a broad overview of the 1978 Presidential Records Act. What loophole did President Bush use?”

Now Dr. Alsobrook seemed a little bothered. “Are you an attorney? A reporter?”

“I’m a journalism major,” she said, evenly.

“Next question,” said Dr. Alsobrook.

And that was the beginning and end of scholarship for the day.