The Unmasking of a President
Book Review: The X President
I'm of two minds about Philip Baruth's new novel, The X President -- if two minds, in fact, are sufficient to cope with this witty, fast-paced and wonderfully imagined blend of satire, science fiction and political commentary. On the one hand, I found the book deeply, raucously funny. On the other, it depressed me, inasmuch as the fantastic tale it tells is only slightly -- very slightly -- removed from the reality of America's now entirely chimerical politics.
Let me put it differently: If you were to discover that time is an illusion and that there are, right now, three living versions of George W. Bush -- the one we know, the boy that he was and the old man he will be -- wouldn't you want to pull the covers over your head? But isn't that what we live with all the time, really, in the age of television and "instant" everything -- instant news, instant images, instant replays and results? In Bush's case, what's the difference between the boy who blew up frogs with firecrackers and the man who bombs Iraq in the name of peace? And will he change appreciably in 30 years, when he's drooling through some endless senility in a hidden corner of the ranch?
My guess is he won't -- we'll still be seeing the same video clips. This review is written during a media orgy of Kennedy-assassination reminiscence and retrospective, none of it serving the slightest purpose beyond telling us and showing us, again and again, what we already know and have seen a thousand times, and which we'll never get to the bottom of no matter how hard we look. Conspiracy? No conspiracy? Two bullets? Three? What difference does it make? JFK is dead, one way or another -- sort of. This is the trick of the TV world, which only seems to give you depth and perspective, but is in fact as flat and fragmented as an unassembled jigsaw puzzle showing nothing but color.
All this to say that Baruth isn't far off the mark when, in The X President, he looks to the not-too-distant future and the not-too-distant past in an effort to make sense of the most recently "ex" President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton. To be sure, the name Clinton is never mentioned in the book -- Baruth is content to call his hero "BC," or, when Clinton appears as a teenager through the wonders of time travel, "yBC," the "y" standing for "young" and the "BC" for more than an unspoken name.
"Like the very best" of Clinton himself, Baruth observes, the designation is "true and nonspecific and vaguely biblical and entirely without a purchase for any after-the-fact prosecutor, or historian, for that matter. It says almost nothing." And that's just the start of the tale.
Baruth, a professor of English at the University of Vermont and a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, has come a long way as a writer since the publication of his Burlington-based novel, The Dream of the White Village, in 1998, revealing a gift for comedy and headlong narrative that the earlier, more lyrical work gave little sign of. In a recent interview, he described the plot of The X President as "quite trippy," and he's right, it is.
The year is 2055, and BC, when we first meet him at his presidential library in Little Rock, is 109 years old, kept alive by a combination of glue and genetic engineering. The United States is under attack in what are called the Cigarette Wars, a consequence of Clinton's NATO expansion and reckless moral fervor.
In exchange for ridding Americans of secondhand smoke, the tobacco companies have been allowed to market their product unmolested in the developing world, selling death to the poor, the yellow and the brown until, under a Chinese-Russian alliance, the world starts fighting back. The U.S. itself has become a paranoid, nightmare territory of anarchist bombings and techno-wizardry, only loosely distant from the current version and still, like Clinton, entirely recognizable.
"His body-walker is only one of several ways that BC has cheated age and gravity, outwitted decrepitude. About six years ago rheumatoid arthritis was threatening his ability not only to dial phones and manipulate a keyboard but to shake hands -- for him, the unthinkable. BC was roused violently into action. With acceptable speed, a research team at the Mayo Clinic performed what was then only the fourth complete digital ceramic replacement. Microsurgery removed entire joints and replaced them with smooth ball sockets made of treated dental ceramic, then nailed each construct together with doll-sized pins. Finally they infused the whole works with sea-green polymer gel -- a lubricant and antirejection agent all in one. The fingers work perfectly now, sleekly, and BC has adopted a habit of drumming them on tabletops."
Telling this story is a woman, Sal Hayden, red of hair and sharp of spirit, an academic from Vermont who is BC's authorized biographer. Sal has been working on the project for a number of years, commuting on bullet trains from Little Rock to Burlington, and has just begun to write her book when, with Clinton's connivance, she is drafted -- kidnapped, really -- into a daring experiment.
Along with three mysterious agents of the National Security Council -- two called "James" and "George," as in Carville and Stephanopoulos, and the third called "Virginia," presumably after Clinton's mother -- Sal travels backward in time, persuading a 16-year-old Bill Clinton to move up to the year 1995 and stop the president he will become from doing the things that, in the future, will bring on the wars. That all of this happens just when Sal has begun to get a handle on her subject is in the nature of biography.
"In the last several weeks," Sal remarks, "I've come to the point of my work where I feel I have the whole story, or what I think of as the whole story -- BC is clearly content to revise his version of events until death. But my interviews and fact-finding are done. The database is bursting. What I'm doing these days is deciding on the big themes, my take, my spin. You can't disentangle once you've affixed a story to your subject. You remain married to that biographical decision, your name is forever linked to that version of that person. Consequences extend outward from there. History starts to roll over you and through you."
And so it does -- the consequences of Sal's involvement with Clinton, in all his ages, guises and disguises, are the heart and the meat of Baruth's account. To tell more would be spoiling, though it's not as far-fetched as it might seem on the surface. "I have this profound sense of deja vu," says Sal near the end of her mission, "a certainty that I've experienced all this before. And I wonder how much damage we've done to the way things are supposed to be, how far removed we may be right now from what we were before we started splashing around in the time stream."
If I tell you this is all metaphorical, don't be alarmed. Above all else, The X President is a load of fun. Baruth does have a tendency to be too clever ("If you've never been on a jet circa 1995, I can only say it's enough to make a lapsed Catholic claw for the rosary beads"), but this is a problem all writers confront. Local readers, I expect, will thrill to a depiction of Burlington as imagined 50 years in the future. And Clintonistas -- there must still be some -- will find here not just a sharp and comic portrait of the man who gave us Bush, but a surprisingly astute one.
"For all of the promise and all of the charisma and kismet of BC's life," says Sal, "what knits it all together is an undeniable weakness of resolve and failure of integrity, in any venue other than the strictly political. BC's greatest successes were the direct result of a pressing need for reelection. Absent that pressure, he was a man adrift. I know that in his mind, it's his troubles, the scandals, that he thinks will sink his place in history, but it's not. It's the man he could have been and never was. It's the way he could never bring himself to look greatness in the eye."