Bill Clinton was The Onion's cartoon president
Remembering The Onion's President Clinton coverage as we approach 20 years since he left office
Hello, friends! Welcome to a special issue of The Onion: 20 Years Later while we wait one more week to recap The Onion’s first issue of 2001.
If you missed last week’s year-end recap, find it here. And, as always, please share this newsletter with any Onion fans. If you’re new here, sign up!
This week, we explore a milestone: The 20th anniversary of President Bill Clinton leaving office, which is 10 days away.
The real-life Clinton wanted to be that everyman who felt every American’s pain, and he was also a regular Joe in that he caused many of his own problems by not controlling his urges. The Onion captured all of that, quite likely having more fun with Clinton than it ever had with Bush, Obama and Trump combined.
It’s no mistake that, since the Clinton presidency, the best example of The Onion’s political coverage has been Onion Joe Biden — a well-known career politician who also came of age in the 1960s, similarly empathetic yet starkly flawed, and also someone The Onion could use as a blank slate for its vivid imagination.
The Onion’s website only dates back to 1996, but we still have more than 120 stories about Clinton or prominently featuring him (here’s a Google Doc of the list). Most of these stories fall into 4 large buckets:
Regular Onion parody: President Clinton doing something or other. The most infamous is “Lewinsky Subpoenaed To Re-Blow Clinton On Senate Floor.” A less-explicit article about Clinton’s scandals is “Clinton Ordered To Testify Before Grand Ole Opry.” And there’s plenty of ordinary material, like “Clinton Gets Box To Put Government's Stuff In” from 1996.
Clinton as a cartoon fantasy: Sometimes, this is literally comic book material, such as “Clinton Forced To Kneel Before Zod.” Another version is Clinton as the plot of an action movie, such as “Clinton Injected With Highly Unstable Experimental Growth Serum.”
The Onion asking people about Clinton: The “What Do You Think?” feature was liberally used by The Onion during the Clinton administration.
Apocalyptic Bill Clinton: The Onion’s 2000 election coverage, as I described in November 2020, created a world in which Clinton became a lavishly garbed dictator. This was not the first time The Onion had placed Clinton in a world gone mad, however.
Clinton before The Onion had a website
We’ll briefly cover those categories in a moment. First, let’s acknowledge that an unknown number of Bill Clinton stories from The Onion can’t be readily located, mostly from 1992 through 1995, when The Onion was a print paper without a website.
All that’s available from that era is a few Clinton gems from “The Onion: Our Front Pages,” which is a book showcasing select front pages from 1988-2008.
The first prominent cover story included is Nov. 2-8, 1993, which shares how Clinton pledged to kill a man within the first year of his presidency, and how he turned down death row inmates because he didn’t want an easy kill. All this is to show his readiness for the presidency.
Please note the “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” slogan in the top left corner. Below it, obscured by my bad photography, is a parody of the New York Times slogan, “All The News That’s Fit To Print.” The Onion’s is “All The Advertising That’s Fit To Print.” And, speaking of ads, all of those coupons at the bottom have expiration dates, sadly.
In 1995, Bill Clinton again returned to The Onion’s cover as part of a special kids issue. The bad news: Clinton has gone from the hunter to the hunted. The good news: He only suffers a broken hand.
Also of note: Clinton was discussing his failed family “sit com” before the attack, and he also is quoted as saying, “I feel my pain!”
Clinton as a cartoon
I want to talk less about The Onion’s regular coverage — or what passes as such — of Bill Clinton, and more about what made him different among The Onion’s presidential coverage.
Onion Bill Clinton could be a character in a novel, a comic-book superhero, the ill-fated victim of supernatural, fantastical or absurdist fantasy. No matter how silly things got, we could read those and still feel like, “well, that could happen to Bill.”
A good parody of Clinton is less about mimicry than about getting his demeanor right. You want to at least be in the ballpark with his voice, yes, but it’s more important to capture his vibe — the jocularity of a bad-behaving, Ivy League hillbilly who wants to feel your pain and maybe a few other things.
Here are two must-read stories from this genre:
“Clinton Invents New Steam-Powered Contraption To Fix Economy" combines the idea of a wacky Clinton adventure with the language and plot of a traveling huckster’s scam straight out of the 19th century (and vaguely like Phil Hartman’s Lyle Lanley in the Conan O’Brien-written “Marge vs. the Monorail” episode of “The Simpsons”).
The "Fabulous Financiamalizer” runs on steam, says “W. Jefferson Clinton,” and he demonstrates how the device triggers rallies in the stock market:
Within seconds the entire machine was a twirling, puffing mass of pumping pistons, brightly colored fluids racing through clear glass tubing, and a mechanical cuckoo bird which popped in and out of a tiny hatch near the top of the machine.
While an old man objects, most onlookers are fascinated, including a Wall Street Journal reporter. Clinton, his work done, makes a quick exit.
Having stuffed his leather satchel with cash, Clinton bid the press conference farewell, hopped into a horse-drawn wagon and caught the 2:15 train to Philadelphia.
“Clinton To PLO Terrorists: 'Leave The Girl Out Of It’” is extremely 1990s in the way it thinks about an action movie and in making the Palestine Liberation Organization the main villain.
Clinton is aghast that Valerie — "idealistic, sexy brunette” daughter of industrialist Milton Herrick — has been kidnapped, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to ensure her safety. Valerie Herrick isn’t just a damsel in distress, however; she had been hunting down these terrorists when “she broke a heel and was captured.”
Clinton and his national security team have a plan that involves grappling hooks, a warehouse that explodes into flames and Clinton making a pun after killing one of the terrorists. However, he must also overcome the lead henchman, who once lost an eye to Clinton and now threatens the same to Herrick. The henchman contacts Clinton via videotape:
Upon viewing the tape, a visibly disturbed Clinton told reporters: "I told her it wasn't a game, and I thought it was getting through to her. I'm the one who drove her to this—I was so focused on revenge that I couldn't see what was going on right before my eyes."
Here are a few other fun reads:
Apocalyptic Bill Clinton
“Clinton Declares Self President For Life” is the best-known tale of President Clinton in a crisis, but this wasn’t new ground for The Onion. Two earlier stories mine this genre:
“Low Voter Turnout Blamed On Election-Day Zombie Attacks” is ahead of its time in being a full-on “Zombieland” scenario during the 1996 elections.
The article is also written like the advertising for a horror movie or pulp novel, with nearly every paragraph ending with dramatic italicized text:
"No one is safe!" said President Clinton in a televised address from his campaign headquarters, which were recently relocated to an abandoned shopping mall. "These are not your friends, family members, and loved ones! They will not respond to emotion! They are vulnerable to fire, but the only way to stop them is to destroy the brain, or sever the spinal cord! They must be destroyed on sight!"
“Clinton: 'Every Man For Himself’” does not have zombies, just some unnamed catastrophe whose consequences include high radiation, the dissolution of the U.S. Army, mass looting and rioting, and ritualistic deaths for the Supreme Court and Vice President Al Gore. Clinton hopes to escape through the White House tunnels, but he’s pessimistic about his chances:
"Whatever happens to me—whether it be savage beatings and brutal rape at the hands of crypto-anarchists, or consumption by marauding cannibal sun-worshippers, I am certain that the ideals of America will live on after me," Clinton said. "Good luck, goodbye, and God bless the United States of America."
Best of the rest
Like I mentioned, there are well over 100 articles that at least quote Clinton, and many of those have Clinton at the heart of the story.
Here are 5 more of my favorites.
“Price Is Right Demands Pullout Of U.S. Forces” plays the story seriously, as if a tank standoff on the “The Price Is Right” set is a normal thing.
“Clinton Seduced by Suave International Diamond Thief” is predictable but no less enjoyable for it.
“Golden Calf To Unite Nation” is a relatively faithful retelling of the Biblical tale. Take this Clinton quote for what you will in 2021:
"I say unto you, for more than 200 years we have worshiped the false gods of democracy and freedom. Yet, have any among you ever seen democracy? Have any among you ever seen freedom? Such things cannot be seen. But behold that this idol is made of gold. This is a true god, made of gold!"
Finally, “Clinton Fires Cabinet After Watching X-Files" made me laugh a lot. This might be the hardest-working version of Onion Bill Clinton we ever see, as he digs for the truth that Agents Scully and Mulder have uncovered.
I hope y’all get some nostalgia, some laughs and some new information out of this newsletter and the Google Doc of Onion stories, which has 123 such stories!
What have I missed? What’s your favorite? Let me know.
See you next week for a new year of The Onion from 20 years ago.