If we are to believe the version of Bill Clinton performed by actor Bob Paisley in his memorable one-man show, the most far-reaching mistake of the Come Back Kid’s presidency was suppressing Bubba.
Clinton had served one term as attorney general and four as governor in his home state of Arkansas, where he succeeded with a sort of back-slapping, down-home, small-state style of governing based on personal relationships and his ability to neutralize political obstacles with his considerable personal charm.
In a particularly vivid episode in “Bill Clinton Hercules,” a play by Rachel Mariner which depicts the president in a frank discussion of his successes and failures, Clinton describes a late night card game in Washington with his White House chief of staff, Mack McLarty (a friend since kindergarten), and his OMB director, the hard-nosed Leon Panetta. Panetta, remarking on the easy-going governing style typified by the two southern Democrats, tells the president: “Washington isn’t Arkansas.”
Subsequently, Clinton gave McLarty the boot and installed Panetta as the new chief of staff to impose discipline. The Bubba style was over. And in the play, Clinton regrets that decision. By so doing he sustained Panetta’s career, which led to Barack Obama choosing him first as CIA director and then as Secretary of Defense. Through the development of the aggressive drone-strike program, among other things, Panetta contributed to what Mariner’s version of Clinton frankly describes as a police state.
The Clinton of this play, directed by Guy Masterson, is a man of hope but one with deeply felt regrets. The monologue is presented as an informal talk with an audience, performed on a bare stage except for a leather easy chair and a small side table. The dramatic spine is provided by Seamus Heaney’s verse play, “The Cure at Troy,” a copy of which rests on the table, and which Clinton refers to often during the play.
Anyone who wants to be president is, almost by definition, a narcissist prone to self-mythologizing, so it tracks that Clinton would identify with the gods and demigods of Greek mythology in Heaney’s play as a way of measuring his own life and record. But Mariner’s play is more than Clinton patting himself on the back or flogging himself for some rather spectacular failures.
It’s about Clinton’s attraction to -- and his ability to connect with -- people. People are what he believes in. He speaks of his great admiration of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, his enormous respect and affection for Nelson Mandela, his enthusiasm for getting his hands dirty as he hammered out a historic peace agreement between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.
The depiction of Panetta, who during his years in Congress projected the image of a mild-mannered public servant, as a Machiavellian figure is one of the interesting surprises in this play. Other historical figures emerge in sharp relief. The young Hillary Rodham, described by Clinton as an “intellectual Republican,” appears in intriguing contrast to the tough moderate Democrat now running for president. Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House and Clinton’s chief nemesis, is amusingly drawn as the manipulative blowhard his enemies believe him to be.
President George H.W. Bush, with whom Clinton became close, is depicted as smart pragmatist. (Paisley’s recreation of Bush’s nasal speech pattern is very funny.) A telephone argument between Clinton and Ted Kennedy -- Clinton wanted Teddy to endorse Hillary, not Barack Obama, after Obama won the 2008 Iowa caucus -- is vivid. Clinton’s reflections on Monica Lewinsky render her less a seductress than a victim.
Judging by his many performances at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, Paisley has always been a decent actor. His performance of John Clancy’s cerebral one-man show “The Event” showed his smarts and an ability to be surgically precise. As Bill Clinton, Paisley brings just as much emotional precision to the stage, but also a relaxed style that is nuanced and filled with small details. What we get is a vulnerable, human-sized version of a charismatic, ego-driven leader with formidable brain power.
This is an attractive depiction of the man from Hope, Ark., but “Bill Clinton Hercules” might be called speculative drama, because Mariner doesn’t restrict herself to verifiable facts. Her goal is to both depict a complicated man and make him a mouthpiece for her own political views.
At a time when our politics appear irreparably fragmented, Clinton (as rendered by Mariner) has a hopeful message for us by virtue of his praise for the Occupy Movement. In the play Clinton says Occupy represents a non-ideological desire to bring political power back to the people. That’s a beautiful thought: No “right” or “left” sloganeering, just responsive government. It’s enough to make you weep.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Bill Clinton Hercules” runs through Saturday May 9 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. Call 816-569-3226 or go to www.metkc.org.