America Deserves a Cool First Family

We live in a square world
We all got square eyes
We live in square high-rises
We read from square books

—Thee Headcoats, 1990

The other day a C-SPAN interviewer asked Hillary Clinton how the First Family spends the time it has away from the glare of the klieg lights.

First of all, it turns out that the Big Three have a lot more time on their manicured hands than do most other Americans. According to Hillary, it’s rare that any official duties are scheduled between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. Since Bill & Hill & Chelsea don’t have to worry about patching the roof, trimming the hedges or even shopping for groceries, they have their whole weekends to themselves.

There’s just not that much for leaders-of-the-free-world to do these days, what with all of the good wars already fought and corporate executives doing such a swell job running the economy. Two years of post-Gingrich gridlock have accustomed the populace to a legislative Pax Americana. And the outlook for the Clintons’ down time looks excellent, now that they’ve been returned to office. Amazingly, Bill got through an entire campaign without making any promises for their second term other than that, four years from now, it will be four years later.

History offers few precedents for leading with a mandate to do nothing. But the President shouldn’t think that he has no obligations to the public. The citizenry may not insist on any social programs, foreign policy initiatives or other sweeping moves from Clinton II, but when you’re number one, people require something from you, even if that something isn’t immediately obvious.

So, Clinton at least owes us a cool image. We’ve come a long way from Jimmy Carter, whose 1976 pre-election book was titled “Why Not the Best?” We expect nothing so grand anymore, but we do want our First Family to appear worthy of their fancy, taxpayer-funded surroundings. They should dress sharply, speak well and know how to crack a snappy retort. And they ought to have a clue about pop culture—after all, it’s our last national product.

At any given point in recent history, if you visited Britain you could see America in 20 years time. Right now, we’re 1977 England, a land of economic serfs governed by an oblivious elite, people with nothing to look forward to and no system worth caring about. Only the gaudy distraction of the Queen’s Jubilee kept London from going up in flames that summer. We may need the same thing soon.

As the Kennedys (and to a lesser extent, the Reagans) showed us, the folks who live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are at their best when they act like royalty, but this First Family belongs in the maid’s quarters.

How the Clintons spend their private time is important to our national self-image—so what was Hillary’s answer?

“We watch a lot of televised sports,” said the Yale Law grad. “Football, especially.” Great. While one hardly expects a guy who grew up in a trailer to while away his extra hours studying Proust, why watch football, the most inane of all sports, which when broadcast features only 6 seconds of action per minute, the one American sport so insipidly dull that it never caught on overseas?

Then the conversation turned to cinema. “What’s the best movie you’ve seen lately?” Without hesitation, Hillary smiled and replied: “Jerry Maguire.” She spoke in a breathless tone normally used to describe “North by Northwest”: “It was a great movie. We found it very moving.” Again, no one’s expecting the Clintons to have seen, say, “La Cérémonie,” but you have to question the judgement of anyone who would even admit to having watched Tom Cruise’s sports-agent flick. Like porn, it’s OK to enjoy it, but not to talk about it.

Okay, so what about exercise? How do the Clintons rate as outdoors people compared to, say, Teddy Roosevelt? “Yes,” said Hillary, “just the other day the President and I took a long walk.” Where? “Well, right here on the grounds. I walked him into the ground.” Look, I’ve been to the White House, and that lawn just isn’t that big. I couldn’t walk my cat into the ground there, and I’m not exactly Mr. Physical Fitness. What the hell are these people thinking?

Let’s face facts—the First Family are dorks. As if those New Agey “Renaissance Weekend” things aren’t sufficiently embarrassing, the Clintons insist on publicizing their attendance at a Baptist Church. Couldn’t they have chosen a cooler religion? And they listen to Fleetwood Mac. News flash: It wasn’t OK to like them in the ‘70s, much less now. Know how the Clintons always talk about wiring up schools to the Net? It turns out that Bill and Hill are waiting for Chelsea to teach them how to send e-mail before she leaves for college. They’re not even cool enough to be low-grade geeks.

Chelsea, old enough to know better, is still practicing ballet. Clinton wears hideous power ties from the ‘80s. When will this madness end?

Mr. President, it’s up to you to restore a wee bit of hip to the presidency. There’s a long line of cool moments to emulate—Nixon’s meeting Elvis, Reagan’s friendship with Charleton Heston (and you know they talked about “Soylent Green”), Carter’s wearing out three copies of the Sex Pistols LP. No one can teach you how to move into the ‘90s—you’ve got to absorb a ton of movies, a pile of CDs and check out how the greats dress. Meet with James Brown. Ask Courtney Love to play a concert in the Rose Garden. Ditch the sax, and pick up a guitar. Read some Richard Carver books. Watch “Pulp Fiction”; it’s like a self-help film for the savvily-challenged. If we Americans know anything, we know what’s cool, and you ain’t. (Note: The ironic use of the improper contraction “ain’t” amid proper prose is cool.) Now is the time to get started—and with all the spare time afforded us by ongoing unemployment, you can bet we’ll all be watching.

(Ted Rall is a cartoonist and writer based in New York. His latest book, Real Americans Admit: The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done!, was published by NBM Publishing in September 1996.)

© 1997 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.