Bill Clinton, role model Featured

9:59am EDT July 22, 2002

According to a recent survey, Bill Clinton is the most admired person in the world. By the American people. By a wide margin.

More admired than Cenozoic-era evangelist Billy Graham. More admired than the pope.

Two conclusions may be drawn from this discovery:

1. America is a lot more screwed up than even the most cynical among us feared, and

2. Slick Willie is The Man!!

Seriously though, if we indulge a strict etymological interpretation of this Twilight Zone-type finding, it's not hard to understand how many, if not most, of our fellow Americans might find something to admire about the 42nd president of the United States. Something to commend him to history, and yes, even (gag) to our children.

As is often the case, African Americans anticipated this cultural development before the general population. "Saturday Night Live" alum Chris Rock dubbed Clinton "our first black president." He obviously wasn't referring to Clinton's melanin content. Rather, he meant some black people are down with a junk-food-eatin', El Camino-drivin', no-propers-havin' po' white boy constantly dogged by Five-0. Whether Ken Starr meant to or not, he's given people who feel put-upon some rationale to identify with the president.

But there are additional reasons Clinton has earned grudging respect from enough people to land him at the top of an admiration survey.

Persistence. Clinton is like one of those blow-up clowns with sand in the bottom; no matter how many times you knock him over, he pops right back up. He was read political last rites after his first term as governor of Arkansas, before the first presidential primary in 1992, after Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Monica Lewinsky. For a society that praises persistence to reject one of its most ardent adherents seems a tad hypocritical.

You're known by your enemies. Ken Starr & Co. look like the kids that kids like Bill Clinton used to beat up, now all grown and ready for revenge. They act like it, too. After Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate et al. came to nothing, Starr exposed a pathetic sexual liaison to ruin his quarry. And when the rest of the class yawned at the news, Starr appealed to the rules. To paraphrase Ted Cassidy's character, Harvey Logan, just before he was cut down by Paul Newman in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,": "Rules? In a political fight?!?"

You can't fool all the people ... but you sure as hell can buy a lot of them off. Clinton has put his budget surplus to good use: A couple million dollars for cops here, a couple billion for defense there. Instead of wasting precious political capital on losers like health reform and his legacy, Clinton has ingratiated himself to core constituencies by going to church with black ministers, reading to schoolkids and biting his lower lip before women's groups. It's not style versus substance, stupid-in politics, style is substance.

Zip it up. A reporter once bet Calvin Coolidge he could goad the president into saying more than two words. "You lose!" crowed the wily Cal. That brand of cleverness won't play in today's TV age. Instead, Clinton has mastered the art of talking a lot while saying nothing. He may not be able to keep his pants up, but Clinton is king when it comes to avoiding commitment. His bigger challenge is keeping a straight face, something careful observers might have noticed him struggling to do when he told grand jurors, "It depends on what your definition of 'is' is."

So maybe it's not such a mystery that Good Time Willie is our most admired person. After all, commuters gawk at car wrecks, moviegoers root for bank robbers, distant newspaper readers feel a pang of regret when the escaped convict is found dead. But maybe we also understand that, as my mother repeated often enough to make my nose bleed, "You can learn something from everyone you meet." You can learn, for one thing, not to be like him.