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The Incident

Was Bill Clinton's Affair With Monica Lewinsky Merely The Weakness of An Inveterate Horndog--or Something Else?

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By Violet LeVoit | Posted 11/26/2008

What's wrong with Bill Clinton? How could a successful, popular, shrewd, and intelligent president allow himself to be dragged into a sex scandal so notorious it would forever overshadow all the good his administration had accomplished in his double-term tenure? That's the question that nags at most people's understanding of our 42nd president, and it nagged at psychologist John D. Gartner too. "Everyone in the world seems to be slapping their heads, saying 'What was he thinking?'" Gartner says. "They just can't wrap their minds around [the Lewinsky affair], it was so unbelievably stupid."

But Gartner, who's a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, had a hunch. His previous book The Hypomanic Edge described several grandiose, self-sabotaging, bigger than life personalities such as David O. Selznick and Alexander Hamilton, all of whom Gartner hypothesized suffered from hypomania, a psychological tendency characterized by exuberance, impulsivity, big dreams, bigger appetites, and an inability to slow down or say "no."

"While I was writing The Hypomanic Edge, so many people said to me, 'Wow, this sounds just like Bill Clinton,'" Gartner says from his Towson home. "And that thought had occurred to me. If you've studied hypomanics, or been hypomanic, you know that hypomanics make stupid mistakes--especially around areas of impulsivity and risk taking and judgment--and in Clinton's case, especially sexuality. That's their Achilles heel."

On the other hand, Clinton achieved tremendous strides in his eight years as president, from balancing the budget to brokering a peace accord in Northern Ireland to persuading mortal enemies Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat to shake hands on the White House lawn. "This is this incredibly gifted guy, incredibly talented, who's accomplished so much," Gartner says. "And a lot of what animated that was his hypomanic charisma and energy and creativity and confidence and exuberance. He's put it to use, and it's benefited the world."

The enigma of Clinton intrigued Gartner so much so that he devoted several years to a psychological inquiry into the depths of Clinton's contradictory psyche. His diagnosis, as collected in the psycho-biography In Search of Bill Clinton (St. Martin's Press), is that Clinton's intelligence, ambition, enthusiasm, and (often inappropriate) appetites spring from his acute hypomania. Add to that a convoluted family life, a deeply felt (yet intensely private) religious devotion, and an almost superhuman capacity for empathy, and you've got one of the most unique and phenomenal individuals influencing the world today.

Gartner isn't a stranger to hypomania--he freely admits his interest in the condition (which affects 5 to 10 percent of the American population) stems from his own hypomanic tendencies, which may explain how he had enough energy to do all the research and travel needed for this book. He started by reading every biography, news report, and first-person account about Clinton he could get his hands on (a task that took six months to complete), and then traveled to Arkansas, Ireland, and finally Africa (there, as part of a corps of reporters observing Clinton's AIDS-fighting foundation up close) for more than 4,000 pages worth of interviews conducted with people who knew Clinton firsthand. (His first clinical impression of Clinton's hypomania was quickly vindicated by one subject after another agreeing that the descriptive profile of a typical hypomanic was exactly the Bill Clinton they knew. "A number of people asked me if this profile was based on Clinton," Gartner notes dryly.)

Clinton doesn't grant interviews to biographers, and so all of Gartner's information came from those close to him, not the man himself. Is it really possible to diagnose someone's psychological state from afar this way? "Actually, a lot of the work we do in psychology is with what we call informants," Gartner says, noting that many psychiatric hospital diagnoses, by necessity, are formed from interviews with people close to the patient, rather than the patients themselves. (On the African tour, Gartner was able to sling one pointed question in Clinton's direction--and Clinton's succinct, eloquent acknowledgement forms the book's conclusion.)

There's a lot to understand about Clinton, and the place to start is with the two most important women in his childhood--his mother Virginia and his grandmother Edith. Virginia Kelley (nee Cassidy) was "wild" (as Gartner describes it) even by the freewheeling standards of Hot Springs, Ark. This pretty, vivacious brunette with the sparkling eyes and a big grin liked drinking, gambling, and falling in love, usually with ill-advised partners who paid as much attention to their own marital status as Virginia paid to hers. (Gartner's most controversial conclusion is that Bill Blythe, Virginia's then-husband who died in a car crash three months before Bill Jr. was born, was not her son's father.) But Virginia was also a deeply loving, caring person who adored people and made friends and strangers alike feel special in her company--a knack she passed on to her son.

After Blythe's death, Virginia had to move in with her strict and stern mother Edith, and young Bill was torn between the attention of two women--his grim, frumpy, and tough-as-nails grandmother, who made sure he was fed, clothed, and disciplined, and energetic, happy-go-lucky Virginia, who may be the only mother in the history of the world to complain that her baby slept too much. Gartner diagnoses that Clinton carries that dynamic into his adult intimate relationships: There's Hillary, the steadfast, dependable, and responsible rock in his life, supplemented by sunny, impetuous "playmates" with long brown hair and irrepressible smiles.

"I thought the Monica [Lewinsky] chapter in history needed to be rewritten," Gartner says. "Since Monica's the one thing we all remember, maybe we ought to remember Monica the way that she really was. This was a love affair--a complicated love affair, with unconscious motivations."

When Lewinsky flashed her thong at Clinton in November 1995, Virginia Kelley had died nearly two years earlier. The absence of her affectionate, playful, and flirty personality left a tremendous void in her son's life. "Big news flash--Bill Clinton was not just using Monica Lewinsky for sex," Gartner says, noting that the two would talk on the phone for hours about "everything under the sun" (Lewinsky's words) during a 10 month separation--not exactly the behavior of a compulsive fornicator. "The conventional wisdom is wrong," Gartner says.

But more than that, Gartner finds proof that the conventional wisdom about the relationship between Bill and Hillary is wrong too. When a mobilized group of conservative lawyers led by Kenneth Starr used the Lewinsky scandal as a wedge to break the Clinton and Clinton political machine, Hillary stood by her man not out of dumb loyalty or Machiavellian gamesmanship, but genuine love. Gartner makes clinical significance out of the fact that Bill Clinton's favorite movie is High Noon (where a scorned Grace Kelly returns in the final act to save her husband Gary Cooper from an ambush), and recounts the passage from Virginia's autobiography where Bill scolds his mother for the shabby way she treated Hillary at their first meeting: "Look, I want you to know I've had it up to here with beauty queens. I need to have someone to talk to."

The tendency is to focus on the salacious personal relationships and not the triumphs, and Gartner makes certain he does the other thing, too. But if there's a flaw in Gartner's book, it's that by the middle passage, he's unabashedly starry-eyed about Clinton. Granted, there are many impressive things about the man, and Gartner takes notice of them all, from his voracious appetite for books, his pugnacious triumphs in the legislature, and his Pentium-chip-worthy ability to multitask, but Gartner's hero worship starts to gets in the way of his ability to diagnose a patient.

"I know this is an area of the book that people will critique, and I knew that going in," Gartner says. "I think one of the things that I tried to write these [vignettes from Clinton's life] as suspense novels. And in each one of these cases, he's up against incredible odds, and he accomplishes something totally improbable and amazing through creativity and energy and persistence and flattery.

"When you see him among the people in Africa, you see him illuminated with joy to be touching these people," Gartner continues. "Being in Africa, the sun was setting and [the light] was glowing off his head. I really felt like I was in the Bible or something. I know I got criticized for that last line of 'They just want to touch the hem of his garment.' But you had to be there! He was glowing!" Gartner laughs. "I'm telling you, I saw it."

Gartner describes the spectacle thusly:

When Clinton left the stage he began walking along the road, and pandemonium erupted. Suddenly everyone was running, shouting, rushing towards him . . . But Clinton was unfazed. Indeed, he looked blissful, reaching out his hand jovially to the jostling crowd of excited people . . . a half-dozen black hands reached back at once, grasping his fingers, his wrist, his elbow--they wanted, so badly, just to touch any part of him . . . As I watched him there, the thought crossed my mind: "Character issue." Character issue. What character issue? The man is healing the sick in massive numbers . . . these people who look down on Clinton, how many lives have they saved today?

Is there a frustration that Africa gets it and we, the nation that nurtured him, don't get it? "It's very frustrating," Gartner says. "I was on the national radio station for Colombia [promoting the book] and the translator stayed on for another 30 minutes to talk to me: 'We love Bill Clinton here, we love him, we love him.' When I was in Ireland, I mentioned I was writing a book on Bill Clinton and I couldn't buy [my own] drink in a bar . . . I did have a positive feeling about Clinton going in, but I left with much more admiration. I think awe is a little too strong, but it's more than admiration. This really is an extraordinarily, once-in-a-generation kind of guy."

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