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January 11, 2001
In the offing, Clinton continent looms
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
It's all very well for children to want to be doctors, lawyers, ballerinas, astronauts or union pension-fund managers when they grow up. But what you really want to encourage the little urchins to become is a continent.
A lot of people are speculating about Bill Clinton's plans once he leaves the White House next week. What post-presidential role will he choose for himself - Hollywood mogul? Porn star? Speechifying billionaire?
You can be sure of one thing: whatever line of work he chooses to pursue, he'll also be a continent.
By "continent," we mean people who become the subjects of intense and wide-ranging study by hordes of professionals over lengthy periods of time. In that respect such individuals are like Antarctica, only they wear clothes and go out for dinner. They are something scholars write dissertations and get grants to write books about. Whole research Institutes are dedicated to studying them.
Bill Clinton won't be the only continent out there. The writers James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett are also continents. In the political realm, Richard Nixon is a continent. So are John Kennedy and FDR. Gerald Ford is not a continent. Henry Kissinger imagines he's a continent but he isn't.
None of those men, perhaps, started out with the ambition to become a continent per se. But their goals were almost as exalted. Joyce's plan was to be the greatest literary artist the world had ever known. Beckett's was to depress the living daylights out of everybody with the most lugubrious prose imaginable. Nixon, Clinton and the other chief executives wanted to be the supreme leaders of the most powerful commonwealth in the history of the world.
Each one of them achieved his goal, and, as a kind of added bonus, also became a continent.
The case of Nixon proves that you don't have to be virtuous to be a continent. In fact, you can be hounded out of your exalted position, as he was, and still make a perfectly serviceable one. Wrongdoing or accusations of it may actually do a lot to make you, the continent, more interesting to study. Imagine the number of forensic experts who will be drilling core samples from the Rose Mary Wood Mountains for the next 100 years.
Continents like Joyce and Beckett even have quarterly magazines devoted to them and their work, filled with research into just what makes them such exciting land masses.
Men and women who themselves don't have a prayer of ever becoming continents will even get into feuds within the pages of these quarterlies and spend decades taking potshots at each other, quite as though the artist in question were the coast of Normandy on D Day.
Political continents like Clinton and Nixon have libraries devoted to them. Within these libraries every manner of paper and tape and image is stored so that future researchers will be able to delve as deeply into those continents as they wish.
You've got to hand it to Clinton - he knew from day one that continenthood was his destiny, and when all the trouble hit the fan in the form of verboten Oval Office encounters, etc., he never lost faith for a moment.
That, as much as anything else (like, perhaps, a profound gift for self-justification), kept him sailing along so confidently. He knew that Kenneth Starr was only creating fresh mountain ranges, forests and waterways for future experts of the Clinton continent to explore.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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