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Walt Brasch’s ‘The Joy Of Sax’

by Bethan Marshall


When Hollywood felt let down by Bill Clinton they invented Jed Bartlett. With control of the script they could ensure that gays would get into the military and that the surgeon general would not be sacked for suggesting that cannabis was no more harmful than alcohol and that classing it along side heroine was 'bizarre'. Sure they had to make the episodes of West Wing realistic up to a point – there is always plenty of talk about bipartisanship and the President did lay into the environmentalists for not being tougher on eco-warriors. But in essence in Jed Bartlett the liberal left have there man.

Perhaps significantly though President Bartlett comes from pretty patrician stock. His family, we are informed in one episode have practically owned New Hampshire for generations – the American dreams equivalent of a rotten borough. Despite all their democratic credentials perhaps the Hollywood folk would really rather a ruling oligarchy in which they, with the purse strings, held the balance of power. Of course they could never let such an un-American thought to be exposed. Hollywood receives a regular slapping down. A producer is given short shrift for calling the President a coward as a means of gaining cheap publicity for his film; a comedian is told he can't appear with the President, despite having contributed thousands of dollars to the campaign, because he made an unseemly joke. This president, you understand cannot be bought by vested interest.

But just as the decadent ruling Whig oligarchy of the eighteenth century, famed for their extravagant lifestyles bankrolled both the theatre and the politicians of their day, so Hollywood has always had an uneasy relationship with the powers that be. Reagan was of course one of their own – ex actor, head of the union dodgy on his House un American credentials – and yet he never seemed to be quite so part of the scene as Bill Clinton. Baby boomer, draft dodging, dope smoking – though of course he never inhaled – Bill Clinton was a home spun Warren Beatty. This was a raging bull, an easy rider in the White House.

Clinton exuded Hollywood politically correct glamour. He played the sax, had Maya Angelou for his inaugural and oozed charm from every pore. And more films on the corruption of power on the liberal conscience came out than during any other presidency. Hollywood, it appears kept sending messages to its boy in the White House. Kevin Kline had a stroke in bed with a prostitute and was replaced by a much nicer man called Dave. Dave stuck to his principles and what do you know the people loved it. Good old Dave. He had to come clean in the end but not before he'd given those cynical White House hacks a lesson in democracy. The spirit of Mom and apple pie swept through number one Pennsylvania Avenue giving tawdry thoughts a good spring clean.

Then of course there was Warren himself. He had to be brain damaged, become an idiot savant rather as Peter Sellers and Harrsion Ford had done before him, to discover that he had sold out long ago, forgotten his own constituency. But again that fickle public – they loved the new improved and honest Joe he had become. While his minders fretted the people applauded.

So much for fantasy. Primary Colours was surely the real McCoy. Written by that anonymous Clinton insider, tracked down and exposed by a computer geek who analyzed his written style, Primary Colours was Bill's story by any other name. Here he was a dodgy dealing , womanizing con artist charming his way into the highest office in the world – President of the United States. But even here he was redeemable. Bill you understand – understands the down trodden and oppressed. More nigger than the whip smart black Harvard lad, son of a senator, Bill from dirt poor broken home, one step away from trailer trash is the original Horatio Algiers rags to riches kid. He is the embodiment of the American dream of democracy. Any one can make it to the top.

So we see him hours before power is conferred upon him dunking doughnuts with an old man across the way from the hotel where he is meant to be. And whip smart Harvard lad doesn't get it. He just wants him back in the hotel with all the security and acolytes – but Bill man of the people – he listens and understands where the old guy is coming from – he can chew the fat and shoot the breeze – he is of for and by the people. So he might have got a young black girl pregnant. He's a complex guy with a weakness for women. Yeah he treats his wife like dirt. Keeps her in the dark, lies to her but they are a team, fighting for the same cause and it will overcome – even the suicide of their close friend who cannot stand how corrupt they have become; how far from the truth and justice the American way they fought for in the sixties.

And then there is Christopher Hitchens account. Much nearer the bone. No Hollywood schmaltz here. Just irredeemably Bill Clinton a man who has ‘No One Left To Lie To.’ (Verso, 1999) Here Bill and possibly Hilary, weren't even so squeaky clean all those years ago back then when they appeared idealistic. He weaves a tail of corruption and intrigue that no screen writer would produce. It would seem to far fetched. For Hitchens the womanizing is not just a man thinking with his dick it lies at the heart of his deceit. This is more than an old fashioned take on whether the private life should affect the public office. It is that in the case of Bill Clinton sex speaketh the man.

Hitchens asks whether or not we have a rapist in the White House. The question resonates both literally and metaphorically. But is the literal that is the most disturbing. He cites the case of Juanita Broderick, who was allegedly raped by Clinton before he became Governor of Arkansas and corroborates her story with others who have come forward but remain anonymous. The notion of a CREEP fund takes on a grotesque and all to appropriate twist as Hitchens suggests that government money bought off Clinton's victims.

So are Walter Brasch's little satiric vignettes enough to expose one of the most successful democratic presidents of the twentieth century – if opinion polls and re-election is to be the judge. Brasch's weekly columns, collected together in the highly entertaining ‘The Joy of Sax: America During the Clinton Era’ (Lighthouse Press Inc, 2001) read more as if the West Wing had been turned into a sit com than any serious attempt to engage with the murkier side of the Clinton era. And they beg the question – should we simply be satirizing this man. Is satire enough.

What they play with is more the absurdity of spin, a kind of weekly Walk the Dog. But the Clinton truth was much nastier than the witty fiction. There is not enough unease in these pithy little pieces. We are back in Primary Colours territory. He is a rogue but perhaps, despite the satiric edge a little to loveable. In fact it is those who carp and criticize Clinton who come in for the most biting satire. In a piece entitled Singing off Key in the Starr Chamber – how fortunate all those copy writers were to have such an appropriately named Grand Inquisitor with its overtones of medieval torture – it is Ken who gets it in the neck not Bill.

Brasch lists all those oh so corrupt presidents from Adams to Bush who escaped the clutches of a special inquisitor and asks that instead we should examine Clintons economic record. 'Of course, we refuse to admit that in his six years in office Clinton has done more than Reagan and Bush did in 12 years to move the economy and vital issues forward.' Adding that perhaps those standing for public office in future 'should be eunuchs.'

Starr is painted as the republican lackey of the tobacco giants in Joe Camel Sent Me. In another scathing attack on the attorney called Impaling the Presidency he is mocked as both prurient and absurd. As witness after witness comes forward with evidence of criminal activity from drunk driving to using government funds to bribe Boeing, Starr dismisses them all because no sex scandal is involved.

But it is in Can't stop Thinking about Tomorrow that we see Brasch's true sympathies. Having watched Primary Colours he writes 'We snickered. And we cried. For what has happened to Mr. Clinton. For What has Mr. Clinton done to his own reputation. But more important, for allowing ourselves to be so manipulated that we believe that sex scandals are more important than health care and worker rights, and for allowing our government to spend more than $40 million for an "independent prosecutor". '

These are acerbic and entertaining articles. Not all the essays in the book are concerned with Clinton himself, however. Politicians are roundly criticized as a breed. In a series of question and answer sessions from his readers Brasch points up the absurdity of the two party system separated only by the rhetoric that they twist and contort to stay in power. In an essay entitled 'The Flip Flop Philosophy of Politics' he writes:

Democrats say they are for the working classes, and blame the Republicans for societies problems. Republicans say they are for American enterprise and the proliferation of country clubs. They claim the Democrats are society's problems.
Q And just what are those problems.
A The Democrats and the Republicans.
And so it continues. The Budget and taxes get similar treatment in other pieces.

This is witty stuff but all such tom foolery begs the important question – should Clinton's victims have to say it's OK to be raped if they get treated better by a new improved medi-care. Perhaps what Clinton needs is the treatment of Swift. We need a modest proposal to trammel the depths of a man who could allegedly rape a woman and sentimentalize his politics; who could buy off, if not bump off his friends, when they became enemies to his cause, and yet be elected on the veneer of social concern.

Yet perhaps the real story of Bill Clinton is not the man himself but our relationship with him. He is not a Hollywood president after all but that amoral cowboy of the Sergioni westerns. He swaggers into town to sort the chaos but leaves carnage behind him. There is presence but no commitment to see it through. He is a hero for a day, even a year but then rides off into the sunset, into myth. Only unfortunately for Bill the credits just refuse to roll and so he lives on in the limelight we refuse to let him escape. Fascinated and repelled by him he is destined to play out the same tawdry part until we the audience simply leave the building.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Dr. Bethan Marshall is a lecturer at King's College London. She writes a column for the Independent on educational issues and has written frequently for the Guardian. She is a regular contributor to the journal Critical Quarterly and often broadcasts on issues to do with education and the arts. Her book ‘English Teachers the Unofficial Guide’ examines the philosophical and political nature of English as a school subject. >

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