Trump vs. Clinton

As Trump stares down impeachment, Esquire's archives remind us how great writing can reveal presidential characters

Trump vs. Clinton

If you blinked in the past week, you’d be forgiven for missing one or two or ten news stories related to President Trump and the ongoing impeachment inquiry. Developments are breaking so quickly that each day is taking on a dog-year quality, causing many to wonder if it’s possible that we’re still in the first term of the administration.

Where does one go in this day and age to hide from politics? I don’t mean simply being uninformed or ignoring most of it, because, let’s face it, that much is easy. But to truly hide is another thing altogether, isn’t it?

I look to the past. Because of my master’s thesis topic, I’m deep in the archives of Esquire magazine’s political writing of the past 25 years. For all my interest in and daily engagement with political news, it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to write a weekly newsletter that envisioned ever possibly keeping up with it these days. I physically retreat into the fourth floor of Ellis Library, where bound copies of countless publications live on well beyond their weekly or monthly shelf life. The history of those physical pages, their raspy, reedy rustle as I thumb through them, transports me back to the days before online media took over our lives. I could travel all the way back to 1933 when Esquire first published an issue; the books are right there for my perusal. What exactly am I searching for in those stacks? Perspective, perhaps? Reminder of all the places we’ve already been as a nation? Answers and lessons learned? Inspiration?

I found a bit of each in the December 2000 issue of Esquire, in yet another piece from Michael Paterniti entitled “The Last Will and Testament of William Jefferson Clinton

I remember bits and pieces from the presidency of Bill Clinton. I remember his remarks after the Oklahoma City bombing, as much as I remember grappling with evil at scale my young mind couldn’t really comprehend. I remember 1996’s reelection campaign, because I remember the elementary school exercise of a straw poll. I parroted the assumed wisdom of my dad whose objections to Clinton were loud and numerous, and I remember criticizing those who would parrot the wisdom of their parents in support of Clinton. It was the blind assailing the blind; my criticisms were not reasoned or substantive but rather jeering in tone, mocking their presumed deficit of knowledge. I remember the public’s outrage at Monica and the ensuing impeachment, though I’m not sure that I truly understood what he’d done. But I do remember the general feeling in the air, somewhere between the smug satisfaction of “See? I told you so,” and moral disgust.

Paterniti’s was not a piece written in the midst of Clinton’s impeachment ordeal, but rather at the end of his two terms. He was almost free from the shackles of the office, the last job he’d ever have. Those who support President Trump should read Paterniti’s description of President Clinton’s reaction and mindset with some sympathy. Some may not find Clinton to be their cup of tea as a president nor Paterniti their cup of tea as a writer, but Paterniti gives us a deeply human portrait of a deeply human president. A treatment they’d hope for Trump, when the time comes. The beauty of his prose is constant; his observations seem ever so slightly off axis of “normal” for a piece of political writing.

He has felt their hands with his own, seen the hardest human emotions in their eyes. And he has tried to carry them all within his huge, enveloping body, on his wide shoulders. After all, he is the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He is the American flag. And then everything else, too: McDonald’s, stealth fighters, and Satan; a late-night joke, Elvis, and God. He understands the gravity of this, his station, all the good and bad that gets projected onto him, and how, even though he is human, he is still meant to reflect back the best of his country. And he understands how his mere physical presence—the bulk of his body, the corona of hair—is a message of hope to some and, for others, a totem to despise.

Thoroughly interested in the piece, I ended up reading a somewhat snotty Washington Post review of Clinton’s sunsetting media tour from 2000, in which the author dismisses Paterniti’s piece, among others, as too soft, not hard-hitting enough, and somehow, a lesser form of journalism. It recommended a forever-long piece by Joe Klein in The New Yorker instead if you wanted some actual journalism. I read that, too, and it was characteristically great, but I’m here to celebrate the “lowly” men’s magazine profile of a president.

To defend Paterniti to those who might reflexively discount any story about Clinton or to those who don’t believe in magazine journalism as a means of knowing a subject, I’ll turn to another piece from that same year of Esquire, this one about Donald Trump and his 2000 run for president. It’s by Tom Junod, and it’s called “Lessons in the Simple Humanity of Donald J. Trump, America’s Host.”

“They say it takes 150 acres to build a good course, 185 to build a great one. This is 215 acres, okay? We’re charging $250,000 for memberships. And we’re raising the price to $300,000 in January. And still we can’t keep ‘em out. I have a folder of applications this thick—I’ll show it to you. The demand is incredible, nothing short of incredible. . . .”

Every so often, there are instances where a writer so perfectly captures the essence of a subject that descriptions and quotes alone let you know the piece will be good. It’s like a perfectly struck iron shot in golf—the sound and seeming absence of vibration of the club in hand tells the story, and the only question that remains is whether it was the correct club.

A recent example of this phenomena (outside the realm of politics) is Seth Wickersham’s ESPN piece on Alex Honnold, the celebrity rock climber whose ropeless ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite Vally was captured in the Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo. If you watch that film, you’re given a fairly intimate glimpse into Honnold’s life, and you feel like you know him, as much as knowing him is actually possible. But reading through Wickersham’s piece feels like it’s a coda to the film; you switch from one medium to another, but it feels as seamless as starting to read a long article in print and then finishing it on a mobile device—there is something fundamentally different about the experience, but you don’t stop to notice it, as it couldn’t really matter less. The quotes ring true; the mannerisms described are fully seen in the mind’s eye. It helps when you have a reference point for the person being written about, sure; the movie provided that for my assessment of the Honnold article. But it also takes a writer specially attuned and incredibly gifted to render another human being as a 3-D figure in a 2-D medium. Those writers are flexing the same muscles as a novelist, but with the added challenge of having to make it not just seem realistic but be realistic. How much harder does that become when the person is famous, knowable, and readers can easily call bullshit on any number of details.

So I give you Junod giving you Trump so that you might entertain the legitimacy of Paterniti giving you Clinton. Whatever your opinion on Donald Trump (and I’ll confess mine is incredibly low), I defy you to read this article and say Junod doesn’t absolutely nail what it’s like to be in Trump’s presence.

He appeared, in fact, to be exactly what he is: a determinedly unironic man whose career has been made possible by a culture of determined irony--by a culture that allowed him to matter precisely because it had decided he didn't matter at all. He was earnest, and though smart enough to exploit our cynicism--hell, to encapsulate it and turn it into a kind of swagger--he managed to remain ludicrously and hyperbolically uncynical himself, and so, even as he introduced Melania not as "my girlfriend" but rather as "my supermodel," he turned around and sang the praises of marriage, voicing his wry regret that he had not been up to its rigorous pleasures.

We can feel assured of that because, for all of Trump’s personality traits and deficits, he’s been blatantly transparent as president. He doesn’t seem different from his pre-presidency persona, which is revolting to some and just right for others. Journalists joke, “Wait…I was reporting on this story for months; I had the scoop, and now he just…he…he just tweeted it out?!” A recent flavor of this radical transparency was seen in his suggestion that China open an investigation into Hunter Biden. He did it openly (I linked that one to a Fox News article, for those inclined to think it’s a lie because the Times reported on it), without shame, in front of a pool of White House reporters and their cameras, while he’s still dealing with the release of a summary of the transcript of the phone call with the Ukrainian president that prompted a whistleblower to come forward with this very concern. It’s too naive to assume that he’s ignorant to the fact he’s going to be impeached over that conduct; it’s not enough to treat him as a doddering grandfatherly type who says what he says simply because he doesn’t know any better. The final lines of Junod’s piece, written nearly 20 years ago, show that he’s shrewder than that.

There are numerous reasons for highlighting these two pieces. First and foremost, I strive to share writing that I think people would enjoy for the art of it all. These pieces succeed in presenting a news figure, a politician or would-be politician, as they are, but remembering that dry news recitation has been done already, so why not make it literary? Next, the past reveals truths that feel forgotten in the midst of the constant chaos of our daily news cycles. We’ve been here before, in more ways than we’d care to admit, and many of our newest problems and revelations aren’t new at all. Lastly, these pieces serve as reminders for the power of journalism, not in its watchdog function characterized by the great ongoing newspaper wars of The New York Times and Washington Post, but rather as character studies, more “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and less “All the President’s Men.” Both are vital, indispensable even, but in an era of shrinking magazine numbers, it can be easy to question the marketability or consumer appetite for such works. I would argue that the form has always been the very best we can offer, and it’s needed now more than ever.