Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives
Reviewed by Steven Rubio
Tuesday, September 26 2000, 8:20 AM
Anthologies consisting of short pieces by a specific author often suffer from their seeming randomness. The common thread is generally nothing more than the author; the subject matter can cover just about any ground. Greil Marcus, though, is prolific enough that he can anthologize his work and still find enough pieces on a particular topic to lend coherence to the resulting book. Such is the case with Double Trouble, which gathers Marcus essays from 1992-2000 on Bill Clinton, on Elvis Presley, and the land in which they converge.
One of Marcus' arguments here (and only one, for in typical fashion, he's making multiple arguments) is that the President and the King share a status as successful Southerners, a status that guarantees them the outsider label no matter how much they seem to move within the mainstream. The approach here is different from Marcus' earlier Lipstick Traces (which was, in fairness, a book on its own, not an anthology): whereas that book hunted down a "secret history" that at times occurred without the conscious knowledge of the participants, here Marcus notes how consistently Bill Clinton is perceived as the "Elvis" president, and how often Clinton himself draws the connection between the two Southerners (going back, in the public eye at least, as far as the then-candidate's saxophone version of "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Arsenio Hall Show).
Marcus is convinced that the Elvis-identified president will never be given props from the American establishment, who will always see him as trash, no matter how well he does his job. The argument, as Marcus makes it, is a persuasive one; if we are known in part by our enemies, then Clinton clearly is a good person because his enemies are so bad (and they hate Elvis, besides).
But there is a flipside to this argument. When a noted Elvis champion and scholar like Greil Marcus makes an effective connection between Elvis and Clinton, when we begin to see Elvis in Clinton, those of us who are fans of the King are more willing to accept Clinton, not just as a person, as a Southerner, or as an American, but also as a president and politician. If the rightwing hates Clinton for being like Elvis, then the Elvis fans amongst us love the president for exactly the same reason. We cut him slack that he might not deserve. As Howard Hampton writes to Marcus, the problem with Clinton "is that he's less Good Elvis or Bad Elvis than Arena Elvis" ... which strikes me as too kind to the president. In fact, if the Republicans and their running buddies could see past the symbolism that is Elvis Clinton, they'd recognize a politician who has continued his party's move towards the ideals of the very Republicans who hate him. Clinton's rush to associate himself with the political right-center is a lot like Elvis' move towards bland acceptability in his movies. Except Bill Clinton never did anything as good as "Little Sister," much less "Mystery Train," and he wouldn't seem to have a '68 Comeback Special in him. Hampton's description of Clinton as Arena Elvis might be correct, but it's an Arena Elvis who skipped right over "One Night With You," going straight from "No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car" to "Unchained Melody" without blinking an eye.
Which is not to say Marcus is unconvincing. In his closing piece, "The Man from Nowhere," he draws a compelling portrait of an America that is a better place for having had Bill Clinton as a president. The difference between President Clinton and a Republican president, for Marcus, is that "many people feel at home in the United States, feel part of it, feel they have to make no argument to justify that feeling, who did not feel the same before Clinton was president." Reagan and Bush's America was one of exclusion: "The secret message was that some people belong in the United States, and some people don't." Clinton represents a more open nation. If that openness finds expression more often in our daily culture than it does in specific political strategies, then we surely have a long way to go. But the door, and the nation itself, is more open than it used to be.
The rhetoric here is reminiscent of Marcus, in Mystery Train, describing Elvis singing "American Trilogy," a medley of "Dixie," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "All My Trials":
"Elvis recognizes that the Civil War has never ended, and so he will perform the Union.
"Well, for a moment, staring at that man on the stage, you can almost believe it. For if Elvis were to bring it off -- and it easy to think that only he could -- one would leave the hall with a new feeling for the country; whatever that feeling might be, one's sense of place would be broadened, enriched."
It's a beautiful piece of writing, and it evokes the same kind of communal acceptance that Marcus calls upon in writing about Bill Clinton. But, as he notes in Mystery Train, "it is an illusion." The Elvis who sang "American Trilogy" is the same Elvis who put out an entire album of himself jabbering on stage, the same Elvis who might follow up a performance of "American Trilogy" with an uninterested version of "Funny How Time Slips Away." Elvis, as a cultural figure, might have performed the Union, but even Elvis pulled back from the act itself. Bill Clinton, as a political figure with enormous power over the daily lives of all Americans, might also have performed the Union, but instead the only people he seems to want to unite with are conservative Democrats. Clinton as symbol, Clinton as Elvis, does indeed expand our sense of the possible. Clinton as president, though, has failed Elvis, and has in the process failed us all.
Double Trouble is published by Henry Holt