The Sun King Back in the Spotlight 

As thousands of faithful adherents stand in line just to touch his hand, Clinton's new über-earnest memoir outsells all the populist pulpslingers.

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.

"Whenever he's around, you just feel so much more secure," said Aiyana Armijo, a young Cal student who lay on an inflatable mattress near the driveway that she hoped Clinton would take to get into the building. "He's charming, not so much in a handsome way, but he knows so much it's amazing. I just remember feeling a lot more secure when he spoke. And it wasn't in a speech -- it just all came out."

As the sun finally broke through the clouds and the crowd swelled to three thousand, the '90s era of good feelings, the generosity of this moment, stretched around the block. People passed food down the line. Men tried to help strangers in wheelchairs to cross the street. They looked like pilgrims on their way to Lourdes or Our Lady of Fatima. And they came in search of relics -- in this case, the president's handwriting, scrawled on the books they clutched in their hands.

By 11 a.m., the festival was really getting under way. The cops blocked Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street with metal barricades, and a crowd coagulated outside the perimeter. Reporters snagged man-in-the-street interviews by intercepting people in the Porta Potti line. Hare Krishnas soft-shoed down the street, ululating their mantras. The Cal marching band showed up and broke into a brassy rendition of "Come on Eileen." A college kid dangled from the fire escape across the street, wearing a Clinton mask and flashing Churchill's victory sign. Ten years ago, a mob of rabid radicals would have burned the former president in effigy. Now, just one lone street vendor hefted a "Ralph Nader for President" sign.

Clinton's book publicists and personal advance team scurried back and forth, tying up loose ends and finalizing the motorcade route. His personal entourage consisted entirely of young interns -- male ones, thank you very much -- all fresh-faced and idealistic, fresh meat for life's disappointments. Their leader was a skinny, driven woman in a black business suit who spent the day giving herself an ulcer. Secret Service agents swept the crowd with their eyes. The Cody's front doors burst open, and a linebacker in a suit and earpiece escorted out a crank who somehow had snuck in the building. The nut leaned on his cane and breathlessly explained how he had learned of a sinister assassination conspiracy, while the agent crossed his arms and listened with admirable professionalism. "I'd very much like to meet him, okay?" the intruder begged. "You can check out my background."

The publicists dropped hints of our impending annunciation: "He just left San Francisco." "He's ten minutes away." "He'll go through that entrance there." Security agents herded reporters and cameramen into the "press pen," which was exactly that, a cattle car of metal barricades. Using metal wands, the Secret Service swept us for weapons, but they might as well have been checking for brucellosis.

Finally, the goons ushered five reporters at a time into the store's second floor, where we dutifully waited behind a velvet rope. The first two dozen pilgrims assembled next to us, giddy with lack of sleep. One woman kept reciting what she wanted to say: "You know, you're the first presidential candidate I voted for that actually won!" Motown dripped out of the speakers -- the president signs faster to Martha and the Vandellas, we were told. A roar from the street tipped us off that the motorcade had arrived, and Clinton entered the building. Befitting his messianic itinerary, he spoke first with the disabled fans who had gathered on the first floor. No word on whether any of the lame could walk by the time he was through.

Cody's proprietor Andy Ross stood to the side, a big, beaming smile permanently etched on his face. This was the apogee of his career, and he knew it. Then, as Clinton's advance team scrambled to customize his autograph station, the former president glided into the room, drifting over to a bookshelf and lingering on the Judaica section. Everything was in its place -- the coiffed silver hair, the capillaried face, the immaculate suit. But when he said, "Hey, everybody," it came out timid and vulnerable. We had to strain to hear him. Everything about him was soft and warm, and the line of fans began to move forward into his amniotic orbit.

Outside, a few lefty radicals finally showed up, walking up and down the line and taunting the mushy, well-meaning liberals. Indymedia volunteer Chuck McNally hefted a loudspeaker festooned with Palestine stickers and shouted, "He fucks the world with a smile! ... Think about how you're screwing the world and yourself with your cognitive dissonance! Think. That's all we're asking!" One of his friends mockingly played the old Phil Ochs tune "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" from a boom box, and they all seemed deliciously pleased with themselves as the crowd rose to the bait: "Fuck you!" "Fascist!" "Go home!"

But back inside, the benediction proceeded without a hitch. Cody's staff moved each person forward, a Secret Service agent opened their books to the appropriate page, and Clinton signed with his left hand while shaking hands with his right. But that moment between patrons and the president, when his eyes crinkled and locked into those of his supplicants, and his lilting, soulful voice said how grateful he was that you came to see him -- that was the eucharist they slept here overnight to receive. Roadside bombs may spill Marine entrails onto the sand a world away, and John Ashcroft may issue a terrorist alert tomorrow, but today, these wayward liberals had their moment in the sun -- or, perhaps, with the Sun King.

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