The Breakfast Table

The Bare Buffet Table


This was supposed to be a dream week for you and me to be undertaking the Breakfast Table. Hell, our pieces should have been able to write themselves. Impeachment Week! It promised to be a buffet table groaning under the weight of a thousand desserts. But instead, as even a cursory glance at the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle front pages will demonstrate, it’s yielded us almost nothing. Yesterday, the Times devoted many column inches to the burning question of toilet training, and today we’re asked to consider school sports programs in jeopardy. Both are worthy stories, to be sure, but hardly front-page material during the impeachment trial of a president. Or so one would have thought.

If this sort of thing keeps up, we may be forced to discuss my book.

Of course, there is one story of historic significance that did make the cut: Michael Jordan’s retirement. But there isn’t anywhere to go with it other than to sing his praises. Sportswriters seem to be trying to outdo each other with their redundant encomia. The worst offender, I think, was Frank Defatuous on today’s Morning Edition. He mused about Jordan’s being the single best basketball player in the history of the world– I suppose that’s incontrovertible–and seemed overcome with amazement at such an astonishing phenomenon. He even saw fit to point out that there would be more debate over Shakespeare’s pre-eminence in his chosen field than Jordan’s in his. Which is probably true, but then again, there’s been 3,000 years of literary tradition, as opposed too, well, to however many years professional basketball has been with us. Somewhat fewer, I daresay. But I don’t mean to take anything away from a truly extraordinary athlete, just from the people who insist on saying uninteresting things about him because saying nothing is unthinkable.

And so we’re left once again with Clinton. His single worst contribution to American politics may well prove to be the time we’re forced to spend discussing him.

I agree with what you said about his unpopularity among his colleagues, and have occasionally heard evidence of it in private conversations. A certain figure in this administration once said of his boss (off the record, as you’ve probably surmised), “He’s there for you when he needs you.” Many congressional Democrats have suffered, personally or politically, as a result of his cavalier assumption that loyalty need only flow in one direction. But that’s different from voting to impeach, and especially voting to convict. There’s a gravity to such actions that goes far beyond mere pique, or hearty dislike, or even outright contempt. Many House members and senators feel all of the above, but there are other, more proportionate ways of expressing one’s displeasure. And the real punishment–a tainted reputation–has already been exacted. Irrevocably.

But that isn’t to suggest members of the House and Senate wouldn’t prefer him gone. The thought of two years with President Gore as a run-up to 2000 must make them positively salivate. All the successful policies of the Clinton administration and very little of the baggage. Plus two years to erase some of the unfortunate associations currently adhering to the words “Clinton-Gore.” For the first time in a generation, Democrats are more popular on the issues than Republicans. It’s just they have this unfortunate aura to contend with.

I laughed out loud at your versions of Bill and Hillary discussing how to manage the Paula Jones’ pay-off. But it was also a useful exercise; it’s so easy, no doubt for Bill and Hillary as well as for us, to forget that in addition to everything else they’re also human beings with ordinary needs and ordinary susceptibilities. If my years in Washington taught me anything unexpected about people in power, it’s precisely that. The demands of ordinary life don’t cease altogether just because a person is riding high. Somebody, I don’t remember who, once said, “Even if you’re sitting on the highest throne in the world, you’re still perched on your own behind.”

Even presidents sometimes have to dip into their family’s personal savings to get out of a jam. Sometimes they even have to face the music, just like the rest of us.