It was a remark of dazzling, if unintended, self-revelation. But its perversity being subtle, it went entirely unnoticed. It does not deserve such obscurity.
During his press conference with Vaclav Havel on September 16, Bill Clinton was trying to demonstrate his engagement in world affairs. He cited the following evidence: "I had a good talk with President Chirac of France, who called me a couple of days ago to talk about some of our common concerns and the U.N. inspection system in Iraq and other things. So I feel good about that."
Feel good? Just days before, Saddam Hussein had announced the termination of that very U.N. inspection system. Having called the American bluff, he shattered the system of constraints placed on him after the Gulf War to keep him from developing the most terrible weapons on earth.
In February, Clinton had himself warned in a speech to the nation of the perils of such an Iraqi breakout: "Iraq still has stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions, a small force of Scud-type missiles, and the capacity to restart quickly its production program and build many, many more weapons." He explained why it was firm American policy to force Saddam, if necessary, to comply with the inspection regime: "What if he fails to comply, and we fail to act? . . . Some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal."
But now Clinton feels good about his chat about this colossal foreign-policy failure. It feels good to talk with a head of state.
But Jacques Chirac is not just any head of state. He is a head of state who has been singularly destructive of American policy toward Iraq. He has been staunchly supportive of Saddam in the Security Council. He has refused to back any American action to force Iraqi compliance, has sought to embarrass the United States when it threatened to do so, and has pushed openly for an end to restraints on Saddam. In seeking to thwart the United States in the Gulf, Saddam has had no better friend than Chirac. You might expect the president of the United States to feel bad about that.
Not this president. He feels good because for him national interest pales beside personal interest. Indeed, for him national interest does not extend beyond personal interest. This is l'etat c'est moi, writ small. Very small. Phone call small. The Chirac phone call was heartening to Clinton because it served as a prop for his collapsing presidency. A call from the president of a serious country about a dramatic world event shows, does it not, that Clinton still counts among world leaders, that his hollow presidency still has some life. Americans may find it hard to look him in the eye, but foreign leaders are still happy to talk to him on the phone.
And it does not stop with France. Why, just "yesterday, as it happens," said Clinton, "I got calls from the presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and the prime minister of Canada, all thanking me for what I said on Monday [re: the world economy] and saying they wanted to be a part of it. So I feel very good about where I am in relation to the rest of the world."
Now, under normal circumstances with less deranged presidents, such giants of the world stage as Mexico, Brazil, and Canada covet the attention of the American president. This American president, however, covets theirs. Under normal circumstances, the president of Brazil is grateful for a mere mention; he'll kill for a state visit. For Bill Clinton, a phone call from Brazil is an emblem of his prestige, his standing "in relation to the rest of the world." Yet more proof that he is not what he appears: a political corpse.
So he feels good. These calls are the diplomatic equivalent of phone sex: It's not the message that counts but the feeling conveyed. They give Clinton the feeling of relevance. Indeed, they recall his immortal protest at an April 1995 press conference, when he was still reeling from his crushing defeat in the 1994 congressional elections: "I am not irrelevant."
The mission of Bill Clinton's life has always been to escape irrelevance; to transcend the provincial anonymity of his Arkansas boyhood; to seek in recognition, "political viability," honor and applause, validation of his worth, his very existence. To prove himself relevant has been the mission of his life. It is now the mission of his dying presidency.
Clinton's need for such validation is endless and constant. It explains his unnatural love for the rope line, his thirst for approval and applause, his indiscriminate desire for the adulation of audience and acolyte. It makes his life a maw for the instant and shallow gratification delivered by people he barely knows. It explains his lifelong dream of the White House: Being the most bountiful trough on the planet, it is the Holy Grail for the creature that is forever feeding.
Ambition is universal in politicians. But insatiable need is not. All presidents are ambitious or they never would be president. But our good presidents, even our mediocre presidents, did not become president or conduct their presidencies solely to validate their own worth.
Ronald Reagan was ambitious to enact an agenda and spread an ideology. George Bush lacked those polestars, but he saw himself as an aristocratic steward whose role it was to guide America through great crises, such as the breakup of the Soviet empire and the invasion of Kuwait. Jimmy Carter's agenda was not political but moral: His ambition, both internationally with human rights and domestically with personal probity, was to bring a new uprightness to American political life.
Eisenhower and Truman, of course, were men who knew who they were long before they became president. Nixon, by contrast, did not. Indeed, the one president of our time who comes the closest in psychological hunger to Clinton is Nixon. For Nixon, too, the presidency was a way of validating his worth. And in the end, that insecurity, that need to have and use the office to prove himself and to show them -- the elites, the snobs, the Kennedys -- was his undoing.
Nixon's narcissism was nervous and transparent. Clinton's is masked by the charm and cool of a sociopath. But now the charm is gone. Clinton stands naked. All that's left is the hunger, and we stand aghast at the sheer volume of his personal need.
As Clinton has seen himself exposed, as he's watched his spiral descent into mortified irrelevance, his solipsism has acquired a desperation. And in that desperation lies national danger. Personal survival is everything, and he'll take the country through anything -- through seven months of surreal dissimulation, for example -- to ensure it.
America is caught in his psychodrama. One day, he observes that perhaps his troubles will help heal the nation. Another, he runs about giving speeches, raising money, and going through the motions of governing. "White House officials," explained ABC's Chris Bury, "insist the president finds it therapeutic to focus on his job." On yet another, he feels good about a phone call from France about a policy failure that endangers the United States. Lines between self and other, between Clinton and country, had always been blurred. Now they have disappeared entirely.
Until now, having a therapeutic presidency hardly mattered. The country was living off the accumulated capital of a half-century of astonishing diplomatic and economic success. With the enemies of the United States still in stunned retreat from their defeats in the Cold War and the Gulf War, and with the economy humming, there was no obvious harm in having an entirely personalized presidency. The luxury of having a narcissist-in-chief can be tolerated when there really is no need for anyone at the helm. But now there is.
Saddam has broken out. The Balkans are seething. Greece and Turkey are nearing a showdown over Cyprus. The Middle East will erupt next May when a Palestinian state is unilaterally declared. North Korea has just attempted the launching of an orbiting satellite, which means that it is working on three-stage rockets, and three-stage rockets can reach anywhere on earth, including the United States. And, oh yes, the world economy is teetering.
The world looks to America. And what does it see? A man who feels good to be relevant.
The articles of impeachment drawn up against William Jefferson Clinton will list lying under oath and obstruction of justice. We should add: solipsism. The world's "indispensable nation" can no longer be led by a man incapable of seeing, or feeling, anything beyond himself.
Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.