Bill Clinton Remakes American Beauty

Like everyone else, Chatterbox was greatly amused by Bill Clinton’s self-parodying home movie at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. (Click here to watch it.) In case you haven’t seen it, and don’t feel like viewing it now, the movie shows Clinton wandering through an empty White House, taking phone messages for Chief of Staff John Podesta, washing his limo, mowing the lawn, chasing down Hillary’s limo to give her a bag lunch, and hanging out, slacker-style, with a low-level twentysomething aide who teaches him how to use the Internet. The joke, which is very well executed, is that Clinton is a lame duck with nothing to do, and can’t get no respect.

But you don’t have to be a cinéaste to recognize the risqué similarities between Bill Clinton as presented in the spoof and Lester Burnham, the Kevin Spacey character in American Beauty. Like Lester, Clinton hangs around the house with nothing to do, attracting little notice from the careerist ice queen with whom he has a Potemkin marriage. (Chatterbox bets the first lady finds the joke that she’s just like Carolyn Burnham, the Annette Bening character, something less than hilarious.) Like Lester, Clinton makes an adolescent (well, post-adolescent) his mentor. For Chatterbox, the tip-off that this is an American Beauty parody is the appearance at the end by Kevin Spacey, a Clinton friend who happened to be staying at the White House when the last scene was filmed. Clinton holds Spacey’s Oscar and gives an imaginary acceptance speech to the mirror thanking the Academy. Spacey, in a dinner jacket, walks up and takes his Oscar back. Spacey, you’ll recall, won his most recent Oscar for his performance in … American Beauty.

Why wasn’t the American Beauty joke made more explicit? Well, there are limits to what a president, even today, can yuk it up about. A good many people would likely have been offended by Clinton’s comparing himself, even in jest, to a movie character who chain smokes dope and nearly seduces a teenage pompom girl. As TV producer Phil Rosenthal, who in addition to stage-managing the home movie is creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, said on CNN’s Talkback Live, “It can’t have too much of an edge. You want to be funny without being harsh or vulgar or crass in any way.”

Can Chatterbox say for certain that this home movie was intended to portray Bill Clinton as Lester Burnham? No, he cannot. But he can point out that Clinton greatly admired American Beauty. We know this because of an interview Clinton gave film critic Roger Ebert that aired in February. Ebert invited Clinton to criticize American Beauty’s negative characterization of bourgeois suburban culture. Instead, Clinton defended it:

It’s like Fight Club. You know, there’s got to be more to life than this. Okay, so you’ve got this nice little neat suburban lifestyle and that’s comfortable. Now what. I must say, it was also a disturbing movie but I thought it was an amazing film.

If Chatterbox is right, Bill Clinton can definitively be characterized as America’s first Bobo president. The coinage is from David Brooks’ amusing new book, Bobos in Paradise, which argues pretty persuasively that bohemian culture and bourgeois culture are now indistinguishable from one another. (Hence, “Bobo.”) Surely there is no more bourgeois an institution than the presidency. And yet, here’s this pillar of the establishment articulating and pretty much endorsing a movie about suburban alienation! And–yes–even imagining himself, albeit humorously, as its protagonist! At this stage in human history, however, the fantasy must be kept sotto voce. That’s why the home movie didn’t show Clinton actually saying, “Ah rule!”

Photograph of Bill Clinton courtesy AFP Photo/The White House.