"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 25 July 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Lipstick Traces


It makes rather gruesome sense that the two authors who have stepped forward to swab the final layers of shellac on Bill Clinton's presidency are responsible for the nineties' biggest lapses in taste. No sooner had the stains of Bill Clinton's reign begun to fade under the glow of our collective relief than Showgirls scenarist Joe Eszterhas authored the briskly selling American Rhapsody, a fevered transcript of his peculiar variant of porno-politico Tourette's. Greil Marcus's Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in the Land of No Alternatives is a comparatively nuanced work, but his past sins are that much more obscene. Eszterhas may have put Elizabeth Berkeley in pasties, but Marcus put Gina Arnold in print.

Of the two books, Marcus's is slightly more ridiculous, its absurdity all the more apparent given its author's straight-from-the-MLA cadences. His thesis — what there is of it — rests on popular culture-culled evidence connecting Bill Clinton to Elvis; at times this can force him into uncomfortable places, such as a Clinton fundraising concert in the Haight, or a serious consideration of the dialogue on Jesse, a cancelled Christina Applegate sitcom that before expiring squeezed out a joke about the difference between the old and young Elvis. It is not worth repeating here.

True to star-screenwriter form, the Eszterhas book is jaw-droppingly insulting, hilariously macho, and — not that surprisingly — as much about Eszterhas as it is about Bill Clinton. It is usually all three at once, as in this passage that attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the Rolling Stone offices, circa 1970: "The women at Rolling Stone were young, nubile, attractive and liked the phrase 'I really want to ball you.' And they did, realizing quickly that they were balling the other editors on alternate nights. It was a combination of athletics and theatrics, intimate communal performance art, best exemplified by the staffer who took his girlfriend into the parking lot each noon while the other staffers lazily watched from the window upstairs while she fellated him." One can pretty easily infer how this bit of autobiography applies to understanding Clinton, but Eszterhas is not one for subtlety, and thus he drives the point home as only he can: "My wife wasn't one of the hot and willing young sweetmeats at Rolling Stone. She was, in fact, sort of like Hillary."

And there you have it. Despite section heads ripped from Elvis titles, the central conceit of American Rhapsody is not that Clinton is Elvis, but that Clinton is, in fact, Joe Eszterhas. It is difficult to say who should be more offended.


Throughout the book, we are treated to illustrations of the striking parallels between Eszterhas and the President. We discover, for instance, that both Eszterhas (in fact) and Clinton (in rumor) have had sex with black women. More astonishing than Eszterhas' regurgitation of Danny Williams's now-discredited DNA is the conclusion he draws from the allegation: According to Eszterhas, sex with a woman of another race proves you aren't racist. This would surprise most antebellum plantation owners — to say nothing of their female slaves.

Eszterhas's grim, Frankenstein-like determination to affix his own action-happy Hollywood visage on the President's adventuresome lower torso leads to some rather (even after everything) unorthodox interpretations of the Lewinsky imbroglio. Chief among them: the elevation of Eszterhas "creation" and very faintly rumored Clinton playmate Sharon Stone to the role of Marilyn Monroe opposite Clinton's JFK. While it's surely not the most dubious casting decision in the history of Eszterhasia (Agent Cooper as a Vegas player?), it is his most telling, and it does give him the excuse to tell the story about how Stone used his back to give herself an orgasm during a script meeting with Sliver director Phillip Noyce.

As you might imagine (if you haven't already heard about it in the book's deafening media blitz), American Rhapsody aims quite, well, explicitly to out-do the Starr report in pornographic detail. Eszterhas spends a hard-breathing few pages speculating on the Starr footnote regarding "oral-anal contact." There is also a chapter written in the voice of Bill Clinton's penis, who, it must be reported, writes much like Eszterhas, only as filtered through the Teletubbies — "I loved Pookie's precious!" — an exercise that exemplifies both the book's lewdness and its oddly quaint infatuation with euphemism. (Elsewhere, a post-Monica Clinton is described as "closuring himself.") Additionally, according to rumor, this chapter is responsible for a particularly gratifying addition to the Lewinsky house of mirrors: In the original celebrity line-up gathered by Tina Brown for a reading of American Rhapsody, the part of the penis was to be played by Matt Drudge.

Eszterhas's obsession with Clinton's penis — and his own — almost overwhelms any interest in Clinton himself, and the few sentiments about the man (as opposed to the manhood) that do emerge are rather confused. Eszterhas loves to reflect that the White House is now occupied by a dope-smokin', free-lovin', draft-dodgin' Boomer: someone just like him, in other words. But — unlike Marcus — he manages to dredge up some disappointment in Clinton as well, especially in his recollection of Juanita Brodderick's rape charge. With atypical understatement, he writes, "accepting homage to your willard was one thing, this was another."

What both Eszterhas's and Marcus's books have in common, of course, is a near-obsessive desire to somehow rescue Bill Clinton from both history and himself, from both Ken Starr and his own wild urges. And both want to use rock and roll as the lever in this exercise of uplift.


The Eszterhas-Marcus vision of the political landscape is a giant high school — American Graffiti metastasized into the entire republic. In this fond Boomer reverie, Ken Starr, Bob Dole, George Bush and the House Republicans are derided as "square," while Bill Clinton is a deacon in, as Eszterhas puts it, "the Church of Cool." Marcus approvingly quotes a friend's assessment: "All that shit about dignity and propriety misses the point — the Comeback Kid doesn't need to do a 'Crying' in the Chapel' plea, he needs to pull a '68 Comeback Special on the bastards, and finally tell Kenny and Kongress, 'If you're lookin' for trouble / You've come to the right place.'"

The teams thus divided, Marcus and Eszterhas make the process of choosing sides very simple indeed. As the passion play of Footloose has taught us, rock and roll is good; the grown-ups who want to shut down the school dance are bad!

And thrust into this paradigm, almost all of Clinton's misdeeds are magically reduced into Spicoli-esque antics, as if deceiving the American people — and (ahem) bombing both the Sudan and Iraq to cover up his johnson — were moral wrongs on par with skipping class. Describing Clinton's artful draft dodge, Eszterhas writes that "the way he pulled the whole scam off had rock and roll aspects many of us who'd dodged the draft admired." In this era of prefab preteen pop stars, it is understandably difficult to remember a time when rock and roll was about anything but guile, but Eszterhas makes clear elsewhere that when he says rock and roll, he means Jimi and Janet and Bob and the Lizard King. In eternal boomer cosmology, the myth that rock and roll once freed young bodies and minds has proved as durable as the one about George Washington and the cherry tree. At its rawest and most earnest, rock and roll is about exposing the system, not about manipulating the system to your own advantage.

But this kind of liberation can only go so far — usually, only to the soles of your feet. And after all, "manipulating the system to your own advantage" is pretty much what real rock stars do for a living. What's more, all the Rage Against the Machine songs in the world won't repeal NAFTA or free Leonard Peltier.

Greil Marcus wants to believe otherwise. His redemption of Bill Clinton is based on the assertion that as President Elvis, Clinton acted out a national desire to rise up against the squares who oppress us — and who, he says, might oppress us still should we not find the millennial equivalent of "Blue Suede Shoes," whose simultaneous topping of the pop, R & B, and country charts "suggested that all sectors of American society could sing the same song." For Marcus, Clinton's sax-toting — and, to a lesser extent, his sex and toking — represents a cultural triumph. This is important, writes Marcus, because "I know that political speech cannot make our political body speak. Only cultural speech can do that."

This is precisely wrong. It does, however, speak volumes about the disastrous misunderstanding at the center of both Marcus's and Eszterhas's bizarre conjectures. Both believe that politics is the battle ground for the culture war, not the other way around; that the freedom to buy rap records (a right name-checked by both books) is what creates democracy, not the other way around.


When you boil all politics down to culture, you forget that politics is more than just another soap opera. After all, behind all the ad campaigns, image consultants, and sound bites lurks the machinery used to distribute America's wealth and power. And when you willfully confuse the cultural sideshow with the main event, you do more than simply elevate canceled sitcoms into meaningful representations of the body politic — you further legitimize those whose best interests are served when the rest of the country is busy redeeming Elvis or blasting Murphy Brown. The true winners of our culture war are neither the hipsters nor the squares among us, but the increasingly interchangeable hipsters and squares who are already in power.

As Bush and Gore continue to fight for the center, the presumed political subtext of the Billboard top ten — or any other measure of popular culture — matters less and less. For every West Wing, there is a Touched by an Angel, for every American Rhapsody, another "Left Behind" book. Trying to wrestle the hydra that is mass taste into either a "What Would Jesus Do" T-Shirt or a Kangol cap is an exercise guaranteed to fail — though it may distract you from the almost-complete dismantling of the welfare state.

While the rest of us argue over a rap singer's suitability as a role model, both parties push platforms whose main distinction is which one will change the status quo the least. More to the point at hand, while we dithered over the President's pecker, innocent people died in Africa. In other words: Eszterhas and Marcus — and maybe you — may care about what the president did with his penis, but we should have been more concerned with the dangling appendage that launched the attack on the Sudan.

courtesy of Ann O'Tate
picturesTerry Colon

Ann O'Tate