The Bill Clinton decade saw the unprecedented expansion of a scurrilous but age-old industry: professional populism. It began on the right, with Limbaugh and talk radio, and ballooned to comical proportions during the impeachment affair, catalyzed by communications technology that created so many Web sites and cable stations that no one ever again had to listen to a divergent point of view.
Now even liberals have learned how to play the game, as Michael Moore and Al Franken cash in by churning out invective just like right-wingers Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter did before them. The nation is awash in polemics that aim not to persuade, but reaffirm. And they all suck. Still, people eat 'em up: Every fatuous bit of populist pulp makes the best-seller list of The New York Times. These books are literally meant to be judged by their covers -- their value lies not in the crap that lines their pages, but in their totemic shorthand for the politics of the purchaser. They're ideological fetishes, trophies that declare your values to the world -- or at least to the visitors to your study.
Last Christmas, Andy Ross, the owner of Berkeley's venerable Cody's Books, did his best to exploit this trend by offering a holiday package he called "Bush in a Box," which included works by Molly Ivins, Al Franken, and Paul Krugman. But in this new era of politics as commodity fetishism, nothing beats Bill Clinton's My Life, which despite scathing reviews in journals across the country sold 2,200 copies at Cody's in one week alone. Of course, the former president's memoir is nothing like those other angry screeds. Aside from the white-hot passages about Kenneth Starr, his memoir is a squishy, Oprahfied reminiscence about everything from his broken family to the affair with that woman. But they have one thing in common: People buy them not to read, but to display.
Last Tuesday, thousands of people had an extra incentive to buy the book -- a Cody's sales receipt could get you inside the store, where Clinton himself would shake your hand, sign your copy, and give you a chance to swoon at his feet. And so an army of Clintonistas had camped beneath the trees near the store, braving the fauna of Telegraph street life for a chance to stand before the man who dominated the 1990s, to drink him in for five seconds before someone in a suit pushed them out the door. As they rubbed their sore muscles and dislodged their eye boogers just before eight in the morning, the overcast sky mirrored the fog in their heads, and more than a few sealed themselves within their blankets and lawn chairs, keeping out the morning for a few more minutes. But most of these devotees seemed perky. The stench of urine that usually permeates this side of the store had been scrubbed away, and people blearily greeted the new friends they had made last night.
New friends like Jeff, the Filipino banker, and Bill, the Republican with a bum leg. These two sat just thirty feet from the store's front door all night, fidgety and buoyed by the camaraderie of a common purpose. Guitarists serenaded them with folk songs during the night, and they even did the Wave every few hours. Bill even boasted that he had sprung for pizzas for his new buddies, although that was clearly payment for enduring the cheesy Catskills shtick that wouldn't stop coming out of his mouth. Nodding toward a few women to his left, Bill chortled, "This is the first time I've slept with three women on the first date!" and a young girl muttered, "Yes, we know -- you've said that five times now."
Meanwhile, Jeff Elardo sat in his lawn chair, clutching a copy of the memoir that would be his ticket through the door. "I really want to see Clinton," he said. "I originally came from the Philippines, and I've never seen a president face to face. That's something I'll be able to say in my old age, that's something I'll be able to tell my relatives." But when asked about Clinton's greatest accomplishments, Elardo fumbled for words. "I love him so much. I mean, every president is good. He brought something so good for this country. The economy was good, people had jobs. Especially the young ones, they had an opportunity; they graduated from college and got a job that paid $100,000. Nobody had ever seen something like that. When I started working, I made four dollars an hour!"
And so it went with most people in line. No one could point to, say, the earned income tax credit, or the Family Medical Leave Act -- in fact, no one seemed able to remember much of anything the man had done in office. And despite the folk songs, Bill Clinton was hardly a liberal's paramour: He rose to power by repudiating the very ideas so dear to Berkeley's heart.
But that wasn't why people were here, anyway. Up and down the line, you could feel a warm, insensate nostalgia for a time when everyone had a job, terrorism was a gnat buzzing around east African embassies, and the nation's leader spoke of pulling together and lifting people up, not of crusades and war. They yearned for Clinton's boundless, palpable empathy. They wanted to be seduced all over again by his need to love and be loved by us.
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