In an interview in the Guardian, former president Bill Clinton relates how Nelson Mandela guided, counseled, and comforted him in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. According to Clinton, Mandela told him of how “he forgave his oppressors because if he didn’t they would have destroyed him.”
Clinton recalls Mandela as having said, “They destroyed my marriage. They abused me physically and mentally. They could take everything except my mind and heart. Those things I would have to give away and I decided not to give them away.” And then Mandela added, “Neither should you.”
Clinton took a leaf out of Mandela’s book of forgiveness and forgave special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the rest of his “legal tormentors.” Proving himself a true child of psychobabble, Clinton continued, “You do this not for other people but for yourself. If you don’t let go it continues to eat at you.” And could anything in the world be more important than the former president’s peace of mind?
You don’t have to be an idolater of Nelson Mandela to find Clinton’s appropriation of his mantle not merely absurd but repellent. The African might not have been the apostle of freedom that his secular canonization has made him out to be, but no one can deny that he spent a long time in jail for opposing a monstrously unjust and cruel system of government. To compare the pain of over a quarter of a century’s incarceration with the self-provoked humiliation of having one’s sordid, adolescent misconduct in the Oval Office publicly investigated raises self-pity to new heights—or rather lowers it to new depths.
This is far from the only instance of Clinton’s grotesque egotism, which proclaims him a true child of the sixties. Asked why he thought the Republicans hated him so much, he replied that, deprived by the end of the cold war of the Soviet Union as an object of hatred, they had to have some target on which to vent their anger. Alas for poor Bill, more arrows would soon pierce him than transfixed Saint Sebastian.
Think about what the former president seems to be saying: the cold war resulted from a persistent psychological quirk of Republicans, a need for an object of hatred. Nothing in the nature or conduct of the Soviet Union provoked the hatred of cold warriors, just as nothing in his own behavior might have aroused his opponents’ disgust.
Clinton is the product of the disastrous influence of psychology in our culture. It can render those susceptible to it incapable of distinguishing between the day-to-day flux of our emotional life and the greatest events in history. An interest in our own psychology encourages us to lose all sense of proportion—one reason that people are so apt these days to make trivial metaphorical use of Auschwitz. It also can blind one to the existence of real evil. Clinton, after all, had the power to stop genocide in Rwanda, but his own petty drama was of more interest and importance to him.