The Common Good
March-April 1999

Paging Stuart Smalley

by Danny Duncan Collum | March-April 1999

Twenty-five years ago, I was a 19-year-old college kid joyously
wallowing in Watergate.

Twenty-five years ago, I was a 19-year-old college kid joyously wallowing in Watergate. The previous fall I'd volunteered for the McGovern campaign, in Mississippi, where we got about 20 percent of the vote. It was character-building to experience such crushing defeat at such a tender age. And it made the vengeance of Watergate that much sweeter.

As this is written, the Senate trial of President Clinton is beginning. Even at this late date, not many people are wallowing in Clinton's perjury and obstruction problems the way we did with the unraveling of Nixon's police-state ambitions. It all seems like a bad soap opera, and, like most Americans, I've tried mightily to avoid knowing too much about it.

Then, when the House debated impeachment in December, I happened to be spending seven hours in a car. Thanks to National Public Radio, I heard about as much of the debate as any reasonable person could endure. Now I'm following the story, at last, and experiencing some pop cultural flashbacks in the process, but not from the Watergate '70s.

In a 1965 song called "It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," Bob Dylan wrote the famous words "Sometimes even the President of the United States must have to stand naked." The president then was Lyndon Johnson. LBJ once pulled up his shirt to display a fresh surgical scar to the White House press corps and was known to hold conversations with aides while seated on the toilet. But Dylan seemed to have emotional and spiritual nakedness on his mind—the nudity that is every human's state before God.

Thirty-three years later, Dylan's line is not poetry; it's the daily news. The president has been all but stripped in the public media. The "right-wing conspiracy" Hillary Clinton indicted a year ago is real. This president was set up by Reagan-appointed judges, in cahoots with right-wing politicians, to appoint political hit man Ken Starr to the Special Prosecutor's office. Starr then conspired with his ideological soulmates on the Jones case to box Clinton into a perjury trap. The Jones case, of course, would not have existed but for the efforts of the right-wing magazine The American Spectator, which traveled to Arkansas handing out money to anyone with a tale to tell on the former governor.

THAT SAID, EVEN this cabal doesn't bear ultimate responsibility for the madness now dragging down the country. To get to the heart of this story we have to look at Clinton. It is his compulsive behavior, and his inability to be honest about it, that has brought his presidency crashing down and nearly halted the nation's public business.

We hear Clinton is going through some sort of private spiritual process with a group of advising clergy. The president's counselors are good people, and I'm sure they're serving him honestly and well. But I suspect Clinton might benefit more from a visit with his old buddy, comedian Al Franken.

Lately Franken has been most famous in partisan attack dog mode, as the author of a searching, thoughtful book titled Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. But Clinton needs him now in his 1980s guise, as 12-Step devotee Stuart Smalley. Smalley was an endlessly nattering member of every self-help support group in the book, from Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics to Overeaters Anonymous. He was so in touch with his feelings that his conversation was just an internal monologue conducted aloud.

But, by golly, Smalley knew a "pity party" when he saw one. And the president could have used somebody like that before he made that disastrous "non-apology" last August. Smalley could tell the president that someone who knows he's been under investigation for four years, who is facing a very public sexual harassment lawsuit, and who still can't keep himself from dallying with an intern, has a disease. He could point out that, for such a person, the only path back to sanity is a confession of powerlessness, followed by surrender of the disease to a Higher Power, and submission to a program of recovery and accountability.

The most powerful man on earth is powerless—like us all. But, because of the office he holds, we've all been dragged into his disease.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a

Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.
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