Bubba and Elvis

Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in the Land of No Alternatives, by Greil Marcus. Henry Holt and Company, 248 pages, $25.00.

Even now, it is an indelible image: Bill Clinton in sunglasses blowing "Heartbreak Hotel" through his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. It was the meeting of politics and pop, Bubba and Elvis. Proof that rock 'n' roll can make a president--and, though less successfully, vice versa.

If anyone can take that moment and run, across the divide between jukeboxes in small-town bars and television sets blaring The Capital Gang, it's Greil Marcus. "The spirit of freedom in Elvis's best music is a freedom of self-discovery," Marcus writes. "This night, Clinton accepted the gift, or seized it." The question that would haunt the next eight years: What would America do with what Clinton revealed about himself, and us?

The author of countless music columns and several classic books, Marcus includes select pieces of his criticism from the past eight years in his collection Double Trouble . The book is a history of sorts, but in it Marcus has little to say about economics or public policy. Instead, he offers a key to understanding America's affair with Bill Clinton by linking the president to Elvis Presley. These two icons remind us of what Marcus once called "the old, weird America," with its good ol' boys so full of charm and danger (and their AstroTurf-padded pickup trucks). Each man is a southern embarrassment of our most fantastic selves; each became both a threat and a star.

Once we got Clinton, Marcus points out, we didn't need Elvis anymore. Sightings of the King in supermarket frozen-food aisles diminished with the 1992 presidential election, and "tabloid Clinton stories replaced tabloid Elvis stories." But much of this book looks back at old icons, their reunion tours and box sets, their obituaries. Not all pieces are about Elvis or Clinton, but the connection between their decades is there in incisive analysis of, for instance, Kurt Cobain and Allen Ginsberg. The past that lives on here is not the 1960s, with hippies proclaiming love and activists fighting for a new America, but the 1950s, with its sexy sons exposing the old family secrets and not understanding why they get disowned.

If Double Trouble were meant to be a history of American culture during the Clinton years, the conspicuous absence of rappers and women rockers--the two most musically and culturally important pop makers of the time--would mar the account. But this is not that kind of history; it's a sometimes meandering but most often incisive look at how a cultural divide has endured from The Ed Sullivan Show up to the Clinton impeachment.

Marcus closes with a superb and scary analysis of the Clinton scandals' roots in the clash between the Arkansas country boy and Washington's smug elite. Although music is a small part of this discussion, the reason he aligns Elvis's sense of liberation with Clinton's is clear. The fundamental Republican message since Ronald Reagan was president, Marcus writes, has been that "some people belong in the United States, and some people don't; that some are worthy, and some are worthless, ... and that with the blessing of God, God's messengers will separate the one from the other." Marcus continues: "Clinton has communicated the opposite of that sentiment from the beginning of his presidency through his impeachment. It might be that sentiment, and the way that he communicated it, that made it possible for him to be impeached; it was certainly the fact that he did communicate it that kept him from conviction."

The elegy Marcus gives to Allen Ginsberg holds true for Clinton, and for this often breathtaking book, as well: "The America he had so often evoked so eloquently and so completely seemed small enough to see whole, and too hot to touch."