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Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 2004/ 9 Kislev, 5765

Suzanne Fields

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Who's 'in' and what's 'out' | Washington is about power and that means it's about who's "in" and who's "out." How else will anybody who's anybody in Washington know whom to invite to dinner? Condi Rice for Colin Powell, Alberto Gonzalez for John Ashcroft and Margaret Spellings for Rod Paige are almost as important as Patrick Ramsey for Mark Brunell. (Who's in at quarterback for the Redskins is the ultimate "who's in and out" in town). We're talking about who controls the agendas.

The post-election blues are about who gets what done. Bill Clinton wasn't joking (although he may have thought he was) when he told a luncheon audience in Little Rock for the opening of his library that the good news is that now he can speak his mind. "The bad news is that nobody has to listen because I don't have any power anymore."

The former president has finally become the hip celebrity he always yearned to be, and now without responsibility. He can pursue anything (and anyone) he pleases, and nobody will care very much. The library on the south bank of the Arkansas River displays the dark glasses he wore when he played "Heartbreak Hotel" on the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show" during the 1992 campaign. The museum store offers Clinton dolls - "Watch him Move and Groove to the Soulful Sounds of his Sax." Nearly all the artifacts of celebrity are there.

Like Graceland in nearby Memphis, observed Stephanie Mansfield in The Washington Times, "the Clinton library is a shrine to a mythical figure, a figure whose esteem is based more on having been a pop-culture icon than an occupant of the White House."

Bill Clinton insists he was most inspired by Jack Kennedy in his pursuit of power, but he probably owes more to Elvis Presley - the hound-dog vulgarity, the tacky reflection of his Arkansas roots, the ruthless male libido liberated by rock-and-roll rhythms.

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Music critic Greil Marcus catches the flavor of this comparison in his book "Double Trouble," when he writes how Elvis and Clinton are "alive in the common imagination as blessed, tawdry actors in a pretentious musical comedy cum dinner-theater Greek tragedy about their country's most unresolved notion of what it means to be good, true, and beautiful - and evil, false and ugly."

Both men used their talents to overcome poverty and provincialism only to be trapped in the way their upbringing encouraged them to push the limits of propriety, requiring them to misbehave. The critics of the library's $165 million glass and steel design call it "mobile home architecture," and even the ex-prez himself describes it as a "glorified house trailer." Bubba goes home, and to a library.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, traveling under the radar for all his prominence, the Texas cowboy brings high culture to the White House. The president's award of the National Medals of Arts and the Humanities to creative men and women brings artistic talents and scholarship a different kind of power to the nation's capital. This year several of the awards went to writers concerned with reviving moral purpose to the American culture.

Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of several books and dozens of papers on race relations. He is skeptical, to put it politely, of the motives behind the Great Society programs which, in the name of black rights, were more concerned with the moral redemption and self-satisfaction of white folks than of the black people the programs were meant to help.

Hilton Kramer, art critic and founder and editor of the journal New Criterion, writes of the ways multiculturalism and the ideology of racial, ethnic and sexual separatism is culturally divisive and demeans the intellectual debate. Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian, shows how much the mores and values of the 19th-century English can teach America in the new millennium. Marva Collins, the black Chicago teacher who demonstrated that children diagnosed as "unteachable" could reach for their high school diplomas - and the stars - with discipline and hard work.

At a White House reception where Laura Bush entertained the recipients of the medals, the first lady told how the arts and humanities nourish us all. She pointed to a painting on the wall of the reception hall and noted that John Adams put it there - the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

At the Clinton library in Little Rock there's a quotation from the former president's 1993 inaugural address inscribed on a wall: "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America." That sounds just about right, in spite of - or maybe because of - who's in and who's out.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS