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THE LETTING DOWN OF A NATION

It opens with an American flag so perfectly billowing that it seems almost mythic. This, en route to the introduction of Jack Stanton, a little-known Southern governor running for president. Jack is a big Bubba with great compassion and an utterly undisciplined penis, a well-meaning man whose inclinations toward greatness are frequently undermined by his inability to think with that part of the body that contains the brain.

But the part of the new movie "Primary Colors" that resonates comes at the very end. Setbacks surmounted, ordeals overcome, the new president works the receiving line at his inaugural ball. And a woman approaches him with words we all might whisper on that first day when everything is still unblemished and unspoiled: "Now, don't break our hearts."

It's a moment that lifts a sometimes good but never great movie. And it breaks your heart.

Because everyone knows what comes next, don't they? He said, she said. A seemingly never-ending parade of women, all claiming to have been pawed and prodded by the commander-in-chief. This, after scandals large and small purporting to link the First Couple to everything from obstruction of justice and fund-raising improprieties to drug-running and even murder.

The White House has seldom seemed so, well . . . nuts. No novelist could get away with this stuff.

Which is one reason "Primary Colors" never quite takes off on its mission of parody. The alleged sins of the Clinton administration are so extreme as to defy the attempt. Suddenly, Doonesbury is less outrageous than just redundant.

Welcome to the first post-ironic presidency. It's the perfect accompaniment for an age of smirks, an era without heroes, a time when even the blandest naif is unrockable and unshockable. The extreme has gone mainstream.

Small wonder the president's popularity remains at historic highs despite week after week of scandal. His critics just don't get it. They shake their heads, muttering how this would have broken Bush or killed Carter. They think the people must be stupid.

Me, I think the people are just smart in different ways.

Because jobs are plentiful and the nation at peace, because they like Clinton and hate mass media and because, after all, everybody knows some randy dog who's been caught with his drawers down, they've decided to cut him some slack on this.

There's another reason, too, I think. Seldom spoken, but there in communal memory. We've seen, too recently, what happens when a president is brought low. Seen that it brings a traumatic rupture, a psychic wound that attends the nation for generations.

We aren't eager to go through that again. Watergate was a victory for no one.

And yet, we still have a certain unease with all this. For all the forbearance people have shown, this isn't what we want from a presidency. Nor what we need.

"Primary Colors" says it best: We seek in a president someone who can help us get our faith back. People rally to the movie's Jack Stanton not because he has the best ideas, but because he has the biggest heart, because he seems to care, to be something other than another politician playing politics.

Never mind that that's exactly what he is, what they all are. We want something to believe in.

Yes, it's a hoary idea, ill-suited to the compromises of these post-ironic times. But that doesn't make it any less real.

Some people thought perhaps they had found what they were looking for in Bill Clinton, thought they had discovered someone who played the political game without selling it his soul.

Now they wonder. Now they hope against hope.

And, too, they make every concession, give every benefit of every doubt. Anything to avoid being betrayed. Again.

So when the woman at the inaugural ball approaches the president, expectant, yet somehow fragile, too, it's not hard to see us in her. "Don't break our hearts," she tells him.

Granted, we've made that harder to do. But that doesn't mean that it can't be done.

Miami Herald

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