On Dec. 20, 1993, Clinton’s presidency unraveled. The evening before, CNN broadcast interviews with two Arkansas state troopers describing then-Gov. Clinton’s sexual escapades, and charging that the president tried silencing another trooper with a job offer. That day, the American Spectator published a lurid exposé, “His Cheatin’ Heart,” describing a libertine governor with countless conquests, including one named “Paula,” and his profane, neglected wife who yelled during one of their many shouting matches: “I need to be f—ed more than twice a year.” The Clintons had “more a business relationship than a marriage,” the then-right-wing “hit man” journalist David Brock charged.
The president found it particularly hard to endure such accusations with his mother and mother-in-law visiting the White House for the holidays. Paula Jones’s resulting sexual-harassment suit, based on Brock’s article, would ultimately criminalize the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, providing the legal rationale for Clinton’s impeachment.
Each of these presidents coped with a gloomy White House Christmas in ways modern therapists would applaud. One piece of advice many give is “acknowledge your loss,” understanding that “feelings don’t obey the calendar.” Lincoln’s Christmas Cabinet meeting was necessary strategically and helpful psychologically. Rather than denying the tensions with false holiday cheer, Lincoln faced the problem and solved it.
Nixon also acknowledged his troubles and devised a useful strategy. Even if it failed by the spring, it soothed him that winter. When lighting the national Christmas tree, Nixon also displayed remarkable psychological acuity, considering his infamous obtuseness. To conserve energy, only the star was illuminated on the national tree. But refusing to call this “a very dreary Christmas,” Nixon insisted “the spirit of Christmas is not measured by the number of lights on a tree. The spirit of Christmas is measured by the love that each of us has in his heart for his family, for his friends, for his fellow Americans, and for people all over the world.”
And despite whispered glances on 32 holiday receiving lines in 1993, Bill Clinton didn’t hide. “Do what you love,” therapists preach—and Clinton loved being president. “Don’t wallow in it,” psychologists teach—and Clinton was often too overprogrammed to obsess. “Look for connection,” counselors counsel—and both Clintons drew together when attacked, while turning their opponents’ hatred into partisan glue that united Democrats against the Republican onslaught.
Every day that Christmas 1993, Clinton threw himself into his job. Five years later, aides marveled at Clinton’s work ethic throughout the Lewinsky scandal. By refusing to cave—and staying in office—Clinton helped heal his scarred psyche and preserved his reputation. Today, people are more ready to assess Clinton’s entire presidency, moving beyond his indiscretions, which would have defined him had he quit.In the 19th century, Americans called their president the nation’s “ideal man.” Today, we know these hyper-ambitious pols are rarely “ideal,” and by January 2017 may not even be male. Still, their coping mechanisms can be illuminating. In our 24/7 media universe, in our therapeutic culture, presidents often serve as models, teaching by example what to do and what not to do, in good times and bad, in exceptional times and during everyday moments when “it’s raining in [our] hearts” as everyone expects us to sing “fa la la la la.”