Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom.
Arianna Huffington is a social climber who married oil heir Michael Huffington, insinuated herself into the inner circles of the national Republican party, and then got divorced from her husband after he lost his bid to become a U.S. senator from California. One would like to believe she is deeply evil. Unfortunately, she is also charming and witty (at least if you don't work for her) and seems to genuinely care about political ideas. That, and her willingness to trash fellow Republicans, has increased her value as a member of the pundito-entertainment complex even as her serious political ambitions grow ever-more unrealistic.
Greetings From the Lincoln Bedroom must have seemed like a good idea: a satirical Lewis Carrollish fantasy in which the droll, idealistic Arianna spends a harrowing weekend in the through-the-looking-glass world of the Clinton White House. But just as the galleys went out to reviewers, the Lewinsky scandal broke. With impressive speed, Huffington has turned out a revised Monicafied version, heavily overloaded with lame oral sex jokes, but at least not totally obsolete.
Judging from the acknowledgments, Huffington had a lot of help, though one of those she thanks, her friend Harry Shearer, can't have had that much to do with this project. If he had, it would have been a lot funnier. Nothing in Lincoln Bedroom is as good as Shearer's imaginary visions of Clinton and Gingrich on his weekly public radio program "Le Show." Huffington's purpose is too didactic: basically to show that everyone in Washington is mired in a sea of corruption and hollow compromise -- everyone, that is, except humble little Arianna/Alice, who (as the book's setup would have it) arrives for her White House weekend after losing a bet and contributing $300 to the Democratic National Committee. She goes to a seance with the Red Queen (Hillary), meets a hideous two-faced creature called The Bipartisan, attends various shakedowns; with corporate donors, and worries about a "late-night visit from the Fondler-in-Chief." The main voices of wisdom she encounters are Socks (who talks) and, yes, an ancient black servant named Walter, who says things like, "You don't want nothing to do with them Bipartisans, Mrs. Huffington."
The book ends with a nauseating sitcom-like moment of sanctimony when poor Arianna is chased back to her room by a horrifying mob only to be rescued by (yes, again!) the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, who delivers a lecture on the real meaning of leadership. (Hint: it's not just following the polls!) In between there are lots of semen-stained dresses, kneepads, and, oddly, urine jokes. I admit I laughed out loud once, but only once -- I don't want to say at what. There is a weak Maya Angelou parody, a "Contract with Corporate America" that reads like an out-take from The Nation, and a brave attempt to find double-entendres in Clinton's recent State of the Union address, even though rotating teams of White House speechwriters combed Clinton's text to remove virtually every possible unwanted laugh. It also takes some gall for the just-divorced Huffington, a sometime follower of guru John-Roger, to ask whether Bill and Hillary are "really married" and to make fun of the president for consorting with "self-esteem counselors! recovered-memory channelers! licensed astrologers!"
Which isn't to say Huffington has lost all her charm. There's a good bit with a statue-like Al Gore stashed in a catacomb-like Great Hall of the Vice-Presidents. Socks is an appealing, fully developed character, and the meeting with the monstrous Bipartisan has a genuine Carroll-like quality. ("The Bipartisan smiled and frowned at the same time.") Huffington's Sam Donaldson yells "Hold on, Mr. President," after a news conference, and then when the president actually stops to answer, doesn't have a question. ("No president ever held on before, sit. I'm sorry. I'll go now.") There may even be a profound insight in the political pointers Huffington has Clinton give Gingrich: "You make America feel bad about being selfish; I make America feel good about being selfish. That's my secret"
Huffington mocks Clinton, but she really seems to despise Gingrich, who is portrayed as an obese, unprincipled egomaniac. Her substantive complaint is that neither party cares about "what's happening to the poorest Americans." But the Alice-in-Wonderland format lets Alice/Arianna win all the imaginary arguments without ever having to defend her own proposed nostrums, which appear to be a "charitable tax credit" and "school choice for inner-city kids." Didn't Gingrich and Clinton transform welfare, so far successfully? At least when former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote a picaresque novel in which he was always the hero, it had some clear correspondence to his actual political battles.
What Huffington left out is also interesting. As a columnist, she has heavily promoted the unproven rumor that Clinton had an affair with Shelia Lawrence, wife of hotelier Larry Lawrence, whose body had to be exhumed from Arlington Cemetery when it was discovered he'd fabricated a heroic Merchant Marine record. At two places in the final galleys of Lincoln Bedroom, however, Huffington has crossed Shelia Lawrence's name off the list of Clinton paramours and substituted the names "Monica Lewinsky" and "Kathleen Willey." Who says American libel laws have no teeth!
Mickey Kaus writes the "Chatterbox" column for Slate magazine.