BILL CLINTON: OUR FIRST POST MODERN PRESIDENT

The following is an excerpt from “Shadows of Hope: A Freethinker’s Guide to Politics in the Times of Clinton” by Progressive Review editor Sam Smith, written after just one year of the Clinton administration and published by Indiana University Press

Not all the myths of the Clinton campaign were for public consumption. There were also the myths it created for and about itself.

At the center of the Clinton team’s internal mythology were some of the values that characterized America’s upwardly mobile minority of the 1980s. Most Americans lost ground in this decade; the real income of a male worker with only a high school education dropped some 15%. Gaps showed up everywhere. According to economist Robert J. Samuelson, the difference between the best and the worst paid college graduates grew as did that between the best and the worst paid lawyers.

But there was a small group of winners and the Clinton people were among them. They had gone to the best undergraduate schools and the best law or business schools. A few had made millions during the 80s. They possessed boundless self-confidence, a strong sense of entitlement, a willingness to work extremely hard and long to win admission to the society of the hyper-successful, and were neither burdened nor blessed with notable institutional, family or community ties.

Clinton and his team had grown up as many of the communal support systems of society were disintegrating. Family, church, and neighborhood were all on the ropes. Politics was also breaking down: not only had the machines faded, but the parties were faltering and Congress splintering. Extraordinary national common symbols were gone as well: the Kennedys, Rev. King, and — just as the 80s began — John Lennon. Young America entered the decade very much alone.

Thus the egocentrism of yuppie America did not originally spring from greed, but from an apparent reality; it truly seemed a struggle between oneself and the rest of the world. Quietly, and unnoticed at first, the economy was following community into disarray and a Darwinian imperative took hold. Winning became its own justification.

The Clintonites’ sense of entitlement stemmed from qualities they valued in themselves and others: intelligence, skill in communications, and a managerial ability to rise above the factions and ideologies of everyday life.

The intelligence they admired was not that of the philosopher, the artist nor even that of a good street politician or business entrepreneur. It was of the sort that excelled in the accumulation and analysis of information and data. It was the skill of the lawyer or academician who could find every defect in an argument and compose every possible counter-argument. As congressional aide and former Washington Monthly editor Jonathan Rowe would say during Clinton’s first year, “The proposals they send up here are term papers; they have no politics in them.”

Politics has many traps for those who rely on rationality and analysis, for it requires not only objective calculation but a blending of experience, morality and knowledge into judgments that can not be parsed and decisions that can not be charted. And it frequently demands choices before all their implications can be calculated.

Further, skillful campaigners, no matter how brilliant their account of the inadequacies and injustices of current affairs, will not necessarily become wise or intelligent incumbents. The jobs are so different that one politician, burdened with the newly discovered problems of office, remarked, “Hell, I didn’t want to be governor; I just wanted to be elected governor.” When Clinton, the lawyer, became president some of the decisions he faced seemed to propel him towards catatonia. In contrast, Harry Truman, the haberdasher, directly and simply made even tougher choices and yet slept well the same night. Clinton, seeing the possible flaws in a policy, would hesitate, pull back. Roosevelt, on the other hand, understood that government was a constant act of experimentation, and that experimentation included failure.

The second virtue, the ability to communicate, is one common to all animals. What distinguishes human beings, it has been noted, is that they can also think. This is not a mere quibble, because people who use the verb communicate a lot tend to mean something closer to a frog’s baroomph than an essay by Emerson. In response to their communications they seek not thought nor an articulated response, but a feeling. We are supposed to feel like having a Michelob, feel like the president’s bill will stimulate the economy, feel like all our questions about healthcare have been answered.

The rhetoric of contemporary “communications” is quite different from that of thought or argument. The former is more like a shuttle bus endlessly running around a terminal of ideas. The bus plays no favorites; it stops at every concept and every notion, it shares every concern and feels every pain, but when you have made the full trip you are right back where you started.

Consider Mrs. Clinton’s comment on the death penalty:

We go back and forth on the issues of due process and the disproportionate minorities facing the death penalty, and we have serious concerns in those areas. We also abhor the craze for the death penalty. But we believe it does have a role.

She paused dutifully at major objections to the death penalty yet finished her homily as though she had never been to them at all. In the end, the president would propose fifty new capital crimes in his first year.

The approach became infectious. As the Clinton administration was attempting to come up with a logical reason for being in Somalia, an administration official told the New York Times that “we want to keep the pressure on [General] Aidid. We don’t want to spend all day, every day chasing him. But if opportunity knocks, we want to be ready. At the same time, we want go get him to cooperate on the prisoner question and on a political settlement.”

If you challenge the contemporary “communicator,” you are likely to find the argument transformed from whatever you thought you were talking about to something quite different — generally more abstract and grandiose. For example if you are opposed to the communicator’s proposed policy on trade you may be accused of being against “change” or “fearful of new ideas” and so forth. Clinton is very good at this technique. In fact, the White House made it official policy. A memo was distributed to administration officials to guide them in marketing the president’s first budget. The memo was titled: HALLELUJAH! CHANGE IS COMING! It read in part:

While you will doubtless be pressed for details beyond these principles, there is nothing wrong with demurring for the moment on the technicalities and educate the American people and the media on the historic change we need.

Philip Lader, creator and maitre d’ of the New Year’s “Renaissance” gatherings attended by the Clintons for many years, liked this sort of language as well. Said Lader on PBS:

The gist of Renaissance has been to recognize the incredible transforming power of ideas and relationships. And I would hope that this administration might be characterized by the power of ideas. But also the power of relationships. Of recognizing the integrity of people dealing with each other.

There is an hyperbolic quality to this language that shatters one’s normal sense of meaning. Simple competence is dubbed “a world-class operation,” common efficiency is called “Total Quality Management,” a conversation becomes “incredibly transforming,” and a gathering of hyper-ambitious and single-minded professionals is called a “Renaissance” weekend.

Some of the language sounds significant while in fact being completely devoid of sense, such as “recognizing the integrity of people dealing with each other.” Some of it is Orwellian reversal of meaning such as the president’s pronouncement after his first budget squeaked through: “The margin was close, but the mandate is clear.” This is the language not of the rationalists that the communicators claim to be, but straight from the car and beer ads. One might ask, for example, exactly what has really been transformed by the “power of ideas and relationships” at Renaissance other than the potential salaries, positions and influence of those participating.

The third virtue claimed by the Clintonites is the ability to arise above the petty disputes of normal life — to become “post-ideological.” For example, the president, upon nominating Judge Ginsberg to the Supreme Court called her neither liberal nor conservative, adding that she “has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels.” In one parenthetical aside, Clinton dismissed three hundred years of political philosophical debate.

Similarly, when Clinton made the very political decision to name conservative David Gergen to his staff, he announced that the appointment signaled that “we are rising above politics.”

“We are,” he insisted, “going beyond partisanship that damaged this country so badly in the last several years to search for new ideas, a new common ground, a new national unity.” And when Clinton’s new chief of staff was announced, he was said to be “apolitical,” a description used in praise.

Politics without politics. The appointee was someone who, in the words of the Washington Post, “is seen by most as a man without a personal or political agenda that would interfere with a successful management of the White House.”

By the time Clinton had been in office for eight months he appeared ready to dispense with opinion and thought entirely. “It is time we put aside the divisions of party and philosophy and put our best efforts to work on a crime plan that will help all the American people,” he declared in front of a phalanx of uniformed police officers — presumably symbols of a new objectivity about crime.

Clinton, of course, was not alone. The Third Millennium, a slick Perotist organization of considerable ideological intent, calls itself “post-partisan.” Perot himself played a similar game: the man without a personal agenda.

The media also likes to pretend that it is above political ideology or cultural prejudice. Journalists like Leonard Downie Jr. and Elizabeth Drew don’t even vote and Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, once instructed his staff to “cleanse their professional minds of human emotions and opinions.”

“What part of government are you interested in?” I asked a thirtysomething lawyer who was sending in his resume to the new Clinton administration. “I don’t have any particular interest,” he replied, “I would just like to be a special assistant to someone.” It no longer surprised me; it had been ten years since I met Jeff Bingaman at a party. He was in the middle of a multi-million dollar campaign for US Senate; he showed me his brochure and spoke enthusiastically of his effort. “What brings you to Washington?” I asked. He said, “I want to find out what the issues are.”

If you got the right grades at the right schools and understood the “process,” it didn’t matter all that much what the issues were or what you believed. Issues were merely raw material to be processed by good “decision-making.” As with Clinton, it was you — not an idea or a faith or a policy — that was the solution.

This purported voiding of ideology is a major conceit of post-modernism — that assault on every favored philosophical notion since the time of Voltaire. Post-modernism derides the concepts of universality, of history, of values, of truth, of reason, and of objectivity. It, like Clinton, rises above “party and philosophy” and like much of the administration’s propaganda, above traditional meaning as well.

Like Clinton, the post-modernist is obsessed with symbolism. Giovanna Borradori calls post-modernism a “definitive farewell” to modern reason. And Pauline Marie Rosenau writes:

Post-modernists recognize an infinite number of interpretations (meanings) of any text are possible because, for the skeptical post-modernists, one can never say what one intends with language, [thus] ultimately all textual meaning, all interpretation is undecipherable.

She adds:

Many diverse meanings are possible for any symbol, gesture, word . . . Language has no direct relationship to the real world; it is, rather, only symbolic.

Marshall Blonsky brings us closer to Clinton’s post-modernist side in American Mythologies:

High modernists believe in the ideology of style — what is as unique as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body. By contrast, postmodernism. . . sees nothing unique about us. Postmodernism regards “the individual” as a sentimental attachment, a fiction to be enclosed within quotation marks. If you’re postmodern, you scarcely believe in the “right clothes” that take on your personality. You don’t dress as who you are because, quite simply, you don’t believe “you” are. Therefore you are indifferent to consistency and continuity.

The consistent person is too rigid for a post-modern world, which demands above all that we constantly adapt and that our personalities, statements and styles to become a reflection for those around us rather than being innate.

Later, Blonsky (perhaps illuminating why Gennifer Flowers and the draft and ever-changing policy positions don’t matter) writes, :

Character and consistency were once the most highly regarded virtue to ascribe to either friend or foe. We all strove to be perceived as consistent and in character, no matter how many shattering experiences had changed our lives or how many persons inhabited our bodies. Today, for the first time in modern times, a split or multiple personality has ceased to be an eccentric malady and becomes indispensable as we approach the turn of the century.

Other presidents have engaged in periodic symbolic extravaganzas, but most have relied on stock symbols such as the Rose Garden or the helicopter for everyday use. Clinton, on the other hand, understands that today all power resides in symbols and devotes a phenomenal amount of time and effort to their creation, care and manipulation. Thus the co-chair of his inauguration announced that people would be encouraged to join Clinton in a walk across Memorial Bridge a few days before his swearing-in. “It signifies the way that this president will act,” Harry Thomason said. “There are always going to be crowds, and he’s always going to be among them.”

As a post-modernist, Clinton is in some interesting company. Such as Vanna White, of whom Ted Koppel remarks, “Vanna leaves an intellectual vacuum, which can be filled by whatever the predisposition of the viewer happens to be.” Blonsky reports that Koppel sees himself as having a similar effect and says of Bush’s dullness: “You would think that the voter would become frustrated… but on the contrary he has become acclimated to the notion that you just fill in the blank.” And then Koppel warns: “It is the very level of passion generated by Jesse Jackson that carries a price.” Clinton understands the warning and the value of the blank the viewer can fill in at leisure.

Of course, in the postmodern society that Clinton proposes — one that rises above the false teachings of ideology — we find ourselves with little to steer us save the opinions of whatever non-ideologue happens to be in power. In this case, we may really only have progressed from the ideology of the many to the ideology of the one or, some might say, from democracy to authoritarianism.

Among equals, indifference to shared meaning might produce nothing worse than lengthy argument. But when the postmodernist is President of the United States, the impulse becomes a 500-pound gorilla to be fed, as they say, anything it wants.

Michael Berman describes one postmodernist writer’s “radical skepticism both about what people can know and about what they can do [passing] abruptly into dogmatism and peremptory a priori decrees about what is and what is not possible.” The result, Berman says, can be a “left-wing politics from the perspective of a rightwing metaphysics,” not a bad description, it turns out, of President Clinton’s health care policy.

That postmodernism is confusing there is no doubt. Stephen Miller, writing in American Enterprise, quotes the editor of a collection of essays on the subject attempting a definition: “I have regarded Postmodernism as a theoretical and representational ‘mood’ developing over the last twenty years.” Novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco says the term appears to be “applied today to anything the user of the term happens to like.”

Certainly Mrs. Clinton found the concept troubling. In a speech some have compared to Jimmy Carter’s maladroit oration on malaise, she said:

We are, I think, in a crisis of meaning. What do our governmental institutions mean.? What do our lives in today’s world mean? What does it mean to be educated? What does it mean to be a journalist? What does it mean in today’s world to pursue not only vocations, to be part of institutions, but to be human?

We lack at some core level meaning in our individual lives and collectively.

Quoting a dying Lee Atwater as saying, “You can acquire all you want and still feel empty,” Mrs. Clinton went on:

We need a new politics of meaning. Now, will it be easy to do that? Of course not. Because we are breaking new ground. . It’s not going to be easy to redefine who we are as human beings in this post-modern age . . .But part of the great challenge of living is defining yourself in your moment.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer cast a skeptical ear towards all this:

Heavy, as we used to say in college. Yes, there is more to life than power and prestige. Yes, there is more than politics and economics. Yes, life needs meaning. Most adults, I dare say, have come to these thundering truisms early in life.

Trite indeed, a fast-track lawyer’s yearning out of sync with the 94% of Americans who say they believe in God. Another example of the current trend towards intellectual cross-dressing in which ministers mess in politics and politicians pretend they are theologians. Yet in the speech was a cry for something to grab, something solid in the moment-driven, symbol-pumped postmodernism of the life she and her husband have known. And Mrs. Clinton did touch on a common sense that something is missing, better expressed by UCLA history professor Joyce in the journal Liberal Education: noted

We live in an era of posts. The buildings going up around us are postmodern. Our age is postindustrial. Our literary criticism poststructural. We have postpositivist sociology, postbehavioral political science, and postanalytical philosophy: Ours is clearly an age that knows where it has been and senses that it is no longer there.

Later, she says:

We continue to think within a liberal frame of reference even as we chip away at the frame. What we no longer share is liberalism’s potent, energizing, cohering faith in progress. The use of “post” language to locate ourselves in cultural time indicates that we still identify ourselves through the old convictions. We have not rejected liberal values so much as we have lost liberal certitude.

Of course, Bill Clinton, as in other matters, is far from pure in his post-modernism. He likes facts and data too much. Writing about the president at the end of his first 100 days, Arkansas columnist Paul Greenberg remarked, “What the clintonized culture hath wrought is summarized pithily in one of the better chapters of Jack Butler’s new novel, Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock: ‘People. . . understood reality as machinery rather than God’s own dream of existence, intelligence as information rather than judgment.'” Clinton might sell his programs with the postmodernist’s flair for symbolism and indifference to truth and consistency, but he would head the most rationalistic government this country has seen since Robert MacNamara and his whiz kids attempted to purify Vietnam.

In Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West the Canadian historian John Ralston Saul argues: “When the 18th-century philosophers killed God, they thought they were engaged in housekeeping– the evils of corrupt religion would be swept away, the decent aspects of Christian morality would be dusted off and neatly repackaged inside reason.” Instead says Saul, came “a theology of pure power — power born of structure, not of dynasty or arms. The new holy trinity is organization, technology, and information.”

Reviewing Saul’s work for the Utne Reader, Jeramiah Creedon wrote:

The new priest is the technocrat, someone who interprets events not morally but ‘within the logic of the system.’ Saul’s point is that reason alone has no inherent virtue; it is simply an intellectual tool. In fact, when reason is allowed to unfold in an ethical vacuum, untempered by common sense, the results are apt to be terrible. The classic example is the ‘perfectly rational’ Holocaust, planned by the Nazis with ‘the clean efficiency of a Harvard case study.’ . . . Reason has also created a recurring human type well suited to perpetuating it: the leader for whom calculation is everything.

To embrace all of this — from cold logic to hip logos — and to create a technicolor technocracy without drowning in the contradictions was a tour de force. To the trinity of organization, technology and information, the Clinton team had added a spectacular symbolic sound and light show.

In Work of Nations, seminal Clintonite Robert Reich described the world’s emerging new elite as “symbolic analysts” who spend their time “manipulating symbols. Blonksy goes further:

Connotation today — far beyond advertising phenomenon — is no longer merely ‘hidden persuasion’ but is in fact a semiosphere, a dense atmosphere of signs triumphantly permeating all social, political, and imaginative life and, arguably, constituting our desiring selves as such.

The Clinton campaign would ultimately become a victim of its own success in manipulating the semiosphere, for it would not only fool us, it would, once in office, delude itself. But in July 1992, everything was still in tact, albeit after a few symbolic alterations in which the media gladly acquiesced. The message — what with Ms. Flowers, the draft and the drifts — had gone awry. The campaign let it be known that the Clintons would be “reintroduced” at the convention. They were and few seemed to find it at all strange or disingenuous, for we had become postmodern, too.

The convention at times looked more like a leveraged takeover than a political gathering. Clinton operatives were busy spinning off the unwanted assets of the Democratic Party — blacks, unions, the cities and progressives, as longtime workers of the firm, from Jesse Jackson to Gov. Casey, were told they’d have to take a cut in pay or that their services were no longer needed. If you took a loyalty pledge you got a few moments on the podium and one sentence in the candidate’s acceptance speech (where liberals were lumped with the homeless as among the pariahs of America), but after such cameo appearances you were expected to shut up and get out of the way so the lawyer-lobbyist kill-or-be-killed tough guys could turn the party into a lean, mean and profitable corporation.

They didn’t fool around. Even the language had a yuppie baron’s tone to it. One businessman reported getting a call from Clinton fundraiser Rahm Emanuel that began, “The governor’s gonna be in Chicago next week, and he wants to see you. Bring $10,000 or don’t come.” The day before the election, Clinton campaigner Paul Begala told a reporter the campaign couldn’t coast, it had to “drive a stake” through the GOP’s heart. And Newsweek reported Clinton responding to a Bush offensive by saying, “I want to put a fist halfway down their throats with this. I don’t want subtlety. I want their teeth on the sidewalk.”

After you cut through the talk about a “new covenant” and “inclusion” and so forth, much of the Clinton campaign was about political power in its purest sense. There was mention of “vision,” but as they say in Texas, it was all hat and no cattle. These weren’t people out to build coalitions or create a movement, only to win and make sure everyone knew they had. Later, Time would calculate that phrase ‘new covenant’ had virtually disappeared by the spring of Clinton’s first year in office.. A check of five major newspapers found it mentioned 45 times in July 1992, 31 times in August, but only four times the following April.

The 80s began with the murder of John Lennon. In the early 90s, Mark David Chapman explained it this way: “I wasn’t killing a real person. I killed an image. I killed an album cover.”

Within days of the election, Ford began running a TV ad using a voice-over that sounded just like Clinton delivering a speech to an enthusiastic audience. Or was it really Clinton delivering a speech to an enthusiastic audience? Or really Clinton selling cars a few days after his election?

We had helped put Clinton in the center of the semiosphere. He knew how it worked and how to work it. But did we?

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