Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Vanna White

Sam Smith
2008

The secret of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is that nobody knows who they are. They are vases on the table of politics waiting to be filled by whatever flowers arrive at the door. Jody Kantor, in the NY Times, nicely captures this in a piece on Obama:

“Friends say he did not want anyone to assume they knew his mind ­ and because of that, even those close to him did not always know exactly where he stood. . . Charles J. Ogletree Jr., another Harvard law professor and a mentor of Mr. Obama, said, ‘He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts’. . .

“People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words. . . Mr. Obama stayed away from the extremes of campus debate, often choosing safe topics for his speeches. . . In dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.”

This is not a new phenomenon in presidential politics. It was introduced by Bill Clinton, our first post-modern president, and his wife Hillary Clinton. In “Shadows of Hope,” I discussed the arrival of post-modernism in politics as well as one of its inspirations, Vanna White, the wheel spinner on ‘Wheel of Fortune.” As Ted Koppel put it, “Vanna leaves an intellectual vacuum, which can be filled by whatever the predisposition of the viewer happens to be.”

SAM SMITH, SHADOWS OF HOPE, 1994 – 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 again 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.

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 become a reflection for those around us rather than being innate.

Later, Blonsky 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.”

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