Shadows of Hope
When millions of Americans first saw Bill Clinton on television, he bored them. While nominating Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic convention, Clinton talked so long the crowd started interrupting, yelling “We want Mike.” According to biographers Charles Allen and Jonathan Portis, “It was clear to television viewers that Clinton was confused and frightened.” The governor pleaded for patience, but when he said the words, “In conclusion,” the conventioneers broke into cheers. One disgruntled delegate observed, “He wrote eight drafts but forgot to throw out the first seven.”
To those who had heard about Clinton, it was somewhat surprising. After all, a myth was already beginning to form around the Arkansas governor. His advance notices had been uniformly favorable: he was bright, capable and, above all, articulate. He was still considered a young rising star ten years after he had been first elected governor.
Clinton had also been the beneficiary of what one journalist has called the Great Mentioner. He had already been noted, remarked upon and welcomed in the smokeless salons where national politics are created. Clinton mattered.
How one comes to matter in Washington politics is guided by few precise rules, although in comparison to fifty years ago the views of lobbyists and fundraisers are far more significant than the opinion, say, of the mayor of Chicago or the governor of Pennsylvania. This is a big difference; somewhere behind the old bosses in their smoke-filled rooms were live constituents; behind the political cash lords of today there is mostly just more money and the few who control it.
Thus coming to matter has much less to do with traditional politics, especially local politics, than it once did. Today, other things count: the patronage of those who already matter, a blessing bestowed casually by one right person to another right person over lunch at the Metropolitan Club, a columnist’s praise, a well-received speech before a well-placed organization, the assessment of a lobbyist as sure-eyed as a fight manager checking out new fists at the local gym. There are still machines in American politics; they just dress and talk better.
There is another rule. The public plays no part. The public is the audience; the audience does not write or cast the play. In 1988, the 1992 play was already being cast. Conservative Democrats were holding strategy meetings at the home of party fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. The meetings — eventually nearly a hundred of them — were aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. They were regularly moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss, the Mr. Fixits of the Democratic mainstream. Democratic donors paid $1000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrats.
The play was also being cast by a group that called itself the Democratic Leadership Council. Although lacking any official role in the Democratic Party (and often appearing more a Democratic Abandon Ship Council), the DLC claimed it was the voice of mainstream party thought. In fact, it was primarily a lobby for the views of southern and other conservative Democrats, yet so successful was its media manipulation that it managed with impunity to call its think tank the Progressive Policy Institute.
In such places the important Democratic politics of the late 1980s was being made. Clinton may have bored millions of Americans on TV that night, but Clifford, Strauss, Harriman and the DLC found him intensely interesting, extremely intelligent — an appealing pragmatist, willing to compromise, and fully at home with the policy jargon of the capital. He was not the only horse in their stable — Pamela Harriman, for example, also liked Al Gore and Jay Rockefeller — but as good as any they had.
The appeal of Clinton to these matchmakers went beyond mere political calculations. Clinton was not only politically realistic, he was culturally comfortable. He projected the image of an outsider, yet had adapted to the ways of capital insiders. Official Washington — including government, media and the lobbies — functions in many ways like America’s largest and most prestigious club, a sort of indoor, east coast Bohemian Grove in which members engage in endless rites of mutual affirmation combined with an intense but genteel competition that determines the city’s tennis ladder of political and social power. What appears to the stranger as a major struggle is often only an intramural game between members of the same club, lending an aura of dynamism to what is in truth deeply stable.
The Yale law degree, the Rhodes scholarship, the familiarity with the rhetoric of the policy pushers all helped Clinton fit into the club. But perhaps most of all, Clinton knew when to stop thinking.
Just as the Soviets tolerated free thought only within the limits of “socialist dialogue,” so debate in Washington is circumscribed by the limits of what might be called Beltway discourse. Ideas that adjust or advance the conventional wisdom are valued. Those that challenge it are ignored or treated with contempt. Beltway discourse is informed by a number of disciplines but tends to ignore others. The teachings of law and political science as well as those of economics and similar pursuits of quantification are considered important; those of history, anthropology, religion, literature, philosophy and the arts tend to be discounted.
Clinton had a fine sense of the limits and the language. The media, the major enforcer of Beltway discourse, naturally found Clinton appealing. Clinton not only spoke the policy patois the Washington media understood and appreciated, he shared their orthodoxy about the future of the Democratic Party. By the late 1980s there was a wide-spread consensus among both the press and the Democratic leadership that the party’s problems could be traced to several factors:
- The loss of control by party bosses due to excessive democratization of nomination and convention procedures.
- Undue pandering to such traditional constituencies as blacks, liberals, and women.
- The need for a new and far more conservative Democratic platform.
By the 1988 convention, this consensus had taken root. US News & World Report reported:
That the Democrats went beyond all bounds to appear bland and “normal” is incontrovertible. The brief, boring and bulletproof platform gave “platitudinous” new meaning. “Notice,” complained New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, offering only one example, “that the word city does not appear in our platform. We talk about suburban hometown American and I figure that doesn’t mean the South Bronx.”
With the rise of this orthodoxy, the media’s language changed. What was once a civil rights cause now became “demands of special interest groups.” The conservative Democrats’ self-definition as “moderates” or “mainstream” was uncritically adopted. And “liberal” began to be used, even in purportedly objective articles, as a pejorative. It made someone like Clinton looked very good.
By the time of the 1992 New Hampshire primary the press would be overwhelmingly in the Clinton camp. Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Republic reported he had surveyed several dozen journalists and found that all of them, had they been a New Hampshire voter, would have chosen Clinton. Hertzberg noted that this was a change from previous elections when the press had tended to split their primary choices, sometimes sharply. He suggested that the “real reason members of the press like Clinton is simple, and surprisingly uncynical: they think he would make a very good, perhaps a great, president. Several told me they were convinced that Clinton is the most talented presidential candidate they have ever encountered, JFK included.”
While the most that even reasonably informed Americans knew about Bill Clinton when he spoke in Atlanta in 1988 was a string of favorable adjectives from the Great Mentioner, the governor himself was well enough positioned to have already given serious consideration to running for president. He had reflected, waffled and finally backed out, citing among other things his responsibilities to his daughter Chelsea. But now, in the wake of his convention debacle, he faced a big political problem anyway. He had gone national and flopped.
The incident provided a glimpse of a personality America would only really begin to understand some months after Clinton had been inaugurated:
- There was, for example, the elaborate but futile preparation — multiple drafts of a effort that would ultimately misfire.
- There were the 19th hole rationalizations — ranging from valid complaints about the failure to dim the lights in the convention hall to a disingenuous claim that he had plowed ahead out of obligation to Dukakis.
- There was the sense that Clinton perceived the speech — much as he regarded politics itself — in intensely personal terms. It was not the disservice to Dukakis that seemed to matter, but the fact, as he put it to a reporter, that “I just fell on my sword.” This was not the comment of a second banana — of the warm-up act — but of a man who, like so many successful individuals of the 80s, found himself in a lonely battle against the rest of the world and who was, in the end, his own best hero.
- Finally there was the recovery, the come-back. Our country loves comebacks, perhaps because they help keep the American Dream alive by giving everyone another chance. They are entertaining, moving and inspiring. Few question whether such mercurial swings, whatever their appeal in sports or entertainment, serve any national purpose. The political comeback is just assumed to be a virtue canceling any failure that necessitated it.
The speech quickly became a joke. Johnny Carson ridiculed Clinton, calling him a “windbag.” But Clinton managed an invitation to the show and proved not only an ingratiating guest but played sax with Doc Severinson’s orchestra. In doing so, he received post-modern America’s equivalent of a presidential pardon: laughter and applause on late night television. Clinton went on that evening to a party given by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. There was a sign there depicting the White House. On it was a slogan: ON THE ROAD AGAIN . . . CLINTON ’96.
Even in this small incident, four years before the election of Clinton as president, we find the outlines of the Clinton style, of the meat of myth and of a politics so personal that politics seems almost an afterthought. We would be seduced into the Clinton saga again and again not because it was noble or tragic, not because of its political substance or ideological appeal but simply because we wanted to know how it would turn out: Days of Our Politicians’ Lives, starring Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The beginning of TV-era politics is generally traced to the Kennedy-Nixon debates. In his book on the Fifties, David Halberstam quotes Russell Baker describing the battle between a sweating Nixon and the cool Kennedy: “That night image replaced the printed word as the natural language of politics.”
Adlai Stevenson had seen it coming. A few months earlier he gave a speech in which he observed: “If freedom is really the organizing principle of our society, then we cannot forget that it is not an illusion, propaganda or sedatives, but truth alone that makes us free. Under the influence of the politics of sedation and the techniques of salesmanship, I believe that in recent years self-deceit has slackened our grip on reality.”
True enough, but Kennedy and Nixon remained essentially traditional politicians manipulating a new electronic world. They each would learn to use it well but in the end would still unmistakably possess their own virtues or failings. In our enthusiasm for Kennedy’s telegenic ability, we tend to forget that the reason Nixon was able to debate Kennedy at all was because of his own remarkable “Checkers” speech, perhaps the only television address to single-handedly save a political career. It would be a couple of decades before we felt the full power of television to create the reality of our politics. Ford, Carter and Reagan were all televised but television, for better or worse, could not change their natural state. Reagan seemed to have been born in syndication and neither Ford nor Carter were willing or able to adapt to the great eye.
George Bush was another matter. Without television, Bush would have been just one more dull country club Republican. His media handlers, however, transformed him from a stiff flop in the early primaries to a television version of a president. To be sure, Bush was to JFK as Connie Chung is to Edward R. Murrow, but that was irrelevant because television no longer needed or wanted JFK or Murrow. It had discovered that complex, well-developed characters actually conflicted with the brutal simplicity of its message. It wanted primal symbols, Punch & Judy characters, myths and comfortable “concepts.” If politics was to make full use of the medium it could not remain baroque theater occurring outside of television. It had to become simple enough for the camera to explain. It had to become television, each campaign another series pilot.
By the end of the 1980s, television, it seemed, was more important than anything. Newspapers were hurting. Peter Teeley, press secretary to then Vice President Bush, had described cynically but honestly a critical difference between the media: “You can say anything you want during a [presidential] debate and 80 million people hear it. [If the newspapers later correct the record] so what? Maybe 200 people read it or 2000 or 20,000.” In the midst of the Gulf War, one poll reported that 81% of Americans were getting most of their news from television. By 1993, as United Nations troops searched for clan leader Muhammad Farah Aidid, the Somalian general was insisting on staying only in those safe houses that received CNN.
Television’s secret was that it was more important than many of the people appearing on it because, while they could not exist outside of the tube, television had plenty more where they came from. Bush falters; bring on Clinton. In fact, it seemed you didn’t even need live politicians anymore. In August 1993, a correspondent appeared on the CBS morning show to discuss the relative power of senators and the White House. On his lap, to assist in his report, was a enormous voodoo doll in the likeness of Senator David Boren.
It is true that Clinton had been reelected many times by the people of his state, had been judged the best governor in a newsweekly poll of his peers, was demonstrably personable, well-informed and intelligent, and far from being the political equivalent, say, of some eminently replicable network weatherman. Still, there were important things about the man that were missing.
Such as history.
In its darkest corners Clinton’s past is his enemy, something to have overcome and to overcome still. In the Clinton campaign story there was talk of family, but his mother and half-brother remained in the shadows. There were those older than himself who helped him on his way, such as Senator Fulbright, but they too appeared far on the periphery of his story. His most moving tale was of challenging his abusive stepfather. His daughter is named not after a relative, but for a popular song. He has good friends, but apparently hundreds of them. He has no home and no vacation home. He left the place of which he has spoken most often, Hope, when he was seven; his family moved to Hot Springs, a resort for Chicago and New York mobsters with flourishing illegal brothels and casinos whose patronage included Chicago and New York mobsters.
Clinton’s convention documentary would try to suggest roots yet, carefully crafted as it was, there was a void. Clinton was there and people were there, but they seemed around him, not with him. He reaches out of the crowd at Boy’s Nation to touch Jack Kennedy’s hand, just as during the campaign tens of thousands would reach out to touch his. A touch. A moment. A moment gone.
It was the normal work of the politician, but with Clinton there seemed too much. Too many hands, too many friends, too many words, too many hours before he went to sleep, too many hours on C-SPAN solving the nation’s problems with too many industrialists and economists — and, in the end, too little else. It was as though he was afraid that if he excused himself from the public eye he might no longer be real. It was not surprising that Clinton said he wanted to run his administration like a campaign. His whole life had been one.
Politics used to be about remembrance. The best politicians were those who remembered and were remembered the most — the most people, the littlest favors, the smallest slights, the best anecdotes tying one’s politics to the common memory of the constituency.
Politics was also about gratitude. Politicians were always thanking people, “without whom” whatever under discussion could not have happened. You not only thanked those in the room — as many as possible by name — you even thanked those without — for “having prepared the wonderful meal which we have just partaken of.” The politician was the creation of others, and never failed to mention it.
Above all, politics was about relationships. The politician grew organically out of a constituency and remained rooted to it as long as incumbency lasted.
Today, we increasingly elect people about whom we have little to remember, to whom we owe no gratitude and with whom we have no relationship except that formed during the great carnie show we call a campaign. Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson spoke for many contemporary politicians when he answered a question about his memories of Thanksgiving Day football games by saying, “Memories? That’s not my style.”
At the beginning of the 1992 campaign, few of us knew — let alone remembered — anything about Bill Clinton. If we were not from Arkansas, we had nothing for which to thank him. And our whirlwind relationship, our arranged marriage, was under the constant control of the great American matchmaker: the media. Clinton’s past was not only unimportant to him, but to us as well.
In an earlier time, Clinton’s non-history would have been an enormous disqualification. Now it wasn’t because Clinton had one huge edge over his opponents: he looked and acted well on TV. Tom Harkin moved and spoke as mechanically as the Energizer bunny; Kerry’s personality and platform remained a cipher; Tsongas talked funny; Brown was didactic; but Clinton was at home.
Against this advantage, facts faltered. The facts said that Clinton had been an unexceptional governor. He could claim better prenatal care programs and a decline in infant mortality, but at the same time the Center for the Study of Social Policy would rate the state only 41st on children’s issues in general. Arkansas also ranked — according to the Southern Regional Council — in the bottom ten percent of all states in average weekly wages; health insurance coverage, state and local school revenue; unemployment; blacks and women in traditional white male jobs; environmental policy and overall conditions for workers.
An examination of his record raised warning flags, not the least of which were rocky relationships with labor and environmentalists. At the beginning of the campaign Clinton came under attack by his state’s AFL-CIO president who (before the national union ordered him to shut up) sent around a highly critical report on Clinton’s record. Labor, said Bill Becker, should expect Clinton’s help only 25-30% of the time. And the League of Conservation Voters ranked Clinton last among the Democratic candidates on conservation issues.
Greater attention to Clinton’s record also might have brought to more prominent notice the major tax increases during his tenure. Or the comment by the union official who said that Clinton would slap you on the back and piss down your leg. Or the tendency to waffle on issues. Early in the campaign, David Maraniss of the Washington Post cited Mrs. Clinton’s reflection 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.
Acting on the latter part of this circumlocution, Clinton left the New Hampshire campaign to oversee the execution of a lobotomized black murderer named Rickey Ray Rector, a man so removed from reality, reported Richard Cohen, that “at his last meal, he set aside a slice of pecan pie so he could have some later.”
Similarly, in February 1992 Clinton said, “I supported the Persian Gulf war because I thought it was in our national interest” while one year earlier he had said “I guess I would have voted with the majority [of the Senate on the war] if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made.”
Perhaps the most revealing story of this sort did not appear until after the election. According to the New York Times, it seems that following five days of agonizing over a higher education bill, Clinton finally vetoed the measure with a stamp that read DISAPPROVED. The bill was delivered to the clerk’s office but because it was after closing it had to be slipped under the door. Clinton then called the state’s university presidents to explain his decision. They convinced him that he had made a mistake. The Times continued:
So the Governor summoned a state trooper in his security detail and asked him to go back to the clerk’s office and retrieve the vetoed bill. The trooper could see through the locked glass door that the bill was lying on the floor. He took a coat hanger, slipped it under the door and slid the bill out. He brought it back to Governor Clinton, who simply crossed out the letters DIS and sent it back as APPROVED.
Although each of these stories appeared somewhere in the American press, journalistic traditions lessened their impact. In the first place, most papers prefer to run their own stories and downplay any other paper’s contribution. As a result, the aggregate investigative output of American journalism is unavailable except to those who subscribe to expensive clipping or computer search services. Secondly, as a campaign progresses, the past becomes less and less important. There is a foreshortening of concerns; media attention is focused on what happened yesterday or the day before. Basic information about the candidate developed early in the campaign inevitably fades, is considered stale and irrelevant, and we are left to judge by only the most recent standards.
There is also a compression of language. A once complex investigative story gets reduced to a candidate’s “controversial relationship” with someone, a 75-page policy position to a “detailed jobs proposal.” In 1993 even the candidates, as though bored with their own rhetoric, compressed their pitches dramatically, creating a sort of pidjin politics.
Here is Paul Tsongas:
“Twinkie economics. Tastes good. No nutrition.”
“Cold War? Over. Japan won.”
And Jerry Brown on the North American Free Trade Agreement:
“Clinton: jobs there. Brown: jobs here. It’s real simple. Don’t complicate this vote.”
There are other journalistic factors that affect campaigns, not the least of these being peer pressure. George Orwell once noted, “At any given moment there is a sort of all-prevailing orthodoxy, a general tacit agreement not to discuss some large and uncomfortable fact.” A journalist wishing to challenge this orthodoxy faces not only the resistance of sources but the ridicule of peers, well described by D.D. Guttenplan in the Columbia Journalism Review:
Polls, fundraising, media strategies — that’s what the [media] insiders on the road want to know about. Ask a candidate a detailed question about health care and you’re instantly marked as a yahoo. Ask about day care or job creation or the racial makeup of his staff, and you’re tagged as a fanatic — some kind of “ideologue.” Why this should be so is difficult to explain, except that “on the bus,” naiveté is the worst possible offense. The best way to seem sophisticated is to ask the shallowest questions, preferably with a sneer in your voice.
Why this should be so is perhaps explained in The Evolution of Cooperation, in which Robert Axelrod describes how German and English soldiers in the trenches during World War I tacitly developed a mutually protective relationship, right down to eliminating salvos during lunchtime and timing other gunfire so the opposing side would know when to stay under cover. He quotes a British officer facing a Saxon unit of the German Army:
I was having tea with A Company when we heard a lot of shouting and went out to investigate. We found our men and the Germans standing on their respective parapets. Suddenly a salvo arrived but did no damage. Naturally both sides got down and our men started swearing at the Germans, when all at once a brave German got on to his parapet and shouted out, “We are very sorry about that; we hope no one was hurt. It is not our fault, it is that damned Prussian artillery.
Axelrod cites this analysis by Tony Ashworth:
In trench war, a structure of ritualized aggression was a ceremony where antagonists participated in regular, reciprocal discharges of missiles, that is, bombs, bullets and so forth, which symbolized and strengthened, at one and the same time, both sentiments of fellow-feelings and beliefs that the enemy was a fellow-sufferer.
A similar bonding — complete with “regular, reciprocal discharges of missiles”– occurs in the trenches of politics between the media and those it covers. In such a closed reality, the reader or viewer — not the news subject — becomes the one left out.
The single-mindedness of the press can be astounding, witness this from the Washington Post of May 26, 1993:
White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers claims to have won a press office betting pool on how many [questions about the mass firing of White House travel office employees] would be asked at yesterday’s daily briefing. She guessed 127 and the tally came in at 118.
Orthodoxy can also be reinforced by the bias of words used to describe something, as in this query from an ABC News poll:
Which of these statements comes closer to your view? Beneath it all, Clinton is an old-style, tax-and-spend Democrat; OR Clinton is a new-style Democrat who will be careful with the public’s money.
It can be even more blatant. Extra!, a progressive media watchdog magazine, for example, listed a few of the terms that purportedly objective journalists used during the campaign to describe Jerry Brown, one of Clinton’s opponents:
- Annoying–Ted Koppel, ABC News
- Weird–Cokie Roberts, NPR
- A pain in the you-know-what — Bernard Shaw, CNN
- Flailing about, spewing out charges like sparks from a Fourth of July pinwheel. — RW Apple, New York Times
- He’s a chameleon, a character assassin and a first-class cynic. — John Alter, Newsweek.
- Brilliant, self-absorbed, friendless, idealistic, erratic, opportunistic, cold, hypocritical -New York Times
- Jerry Brown’s more corrupt than the system – Eleanor Clift, Newsweek
The nature of politics has also been affected by the decline of descriptive journalism in the wake of Watergate and television’s rise. Real reporters now prefer smoking guns — stories that offer the potential of major victory or defeat, if not of resignation, impeachment or indictment. Stories that merely reveal character or style, or open a window on our political experience, are downplayed or relegated to gossip or “lifestyle” coverage, especially if there is any suggestion — without formal proof — that something is amiss. In short, a legalistic rather than a literary standard of coverage has evolved. Politics, once the great American novel, has been reduced to a case study.
Absent a smoking gun, editors often favor stories that explain import, perceive perceptions, and reveal meaning. Detailed chronicles of the daily joys, inanities and mishaps of politics have faded. News, for example, has literally started to disappear from the front pages of the Washington Post, replaced in no small part by the reflections of various writers about what the unreported news means to them or is supposed to mean to us. This approach, a futile and often boring attempt to justify the paper’s existence in a world of television and USA Today, creates some oddities, such as the Post commissioning a presidential poll and then failing to reveal the results for nine full paragraphs, during which one has waded deep into the story after a tedious trek through E.J. Dionne Jr.’s analysis of the facts we might learn if we only hang on long enough.
Further, a priggishness has infected a generation of self-consciously respectable journalists. This can be easily seen by comparing the exuberant reportage of HL Mencken or AJ Leibling with the stolid work of today’s analysts. The former was intensely descriptive while the latter is written in an ritualistic and abstract style that sucks life from politics and which, by making it all seem so boring, may actually be a cause of electoral apathy. If democracy is no more exciting than David Broder would have us believe, why bother to vote? When, rarely, today’s columnists do go after a politician with vigor, the target is almost always someone on the political edges like Jerry Brown or Pat Buchanan rather than an establishment figure such as Clinton and Bush.
Here, on the other hand, is an example from the 1920 presidential coverage of Mencken. It clearly violates just about canon of contemporary objective journalism yet, with the benefit of hindsight, hardly suggests that Mencken misled his readers about the choice before them:
No one but an idiot could argue seriously that either candidate is a first-rate man, or even a creditable specimen of second-rate man. Any State in the Union, at least above the Potomac, could produce a thousand men quite as good, and many States could produce a thousand a great deal better. Harding, intellectually, seems to be merely a benign blank — a decent, harmless, laborious hollow-headed mediocrity. . . . Cox is quicker of wit, but a good deal less honest. He belongs to the cunning type; there is a touch of the shyster in him. His chicaneries in the matter of prohibition, both during the convention and since, show the kink in his mind. He is willing to do anything to cadge votes, and he includes in that anything the ready sacrifices of his good faith, of the national welfare, and of the hopes and confidence of those who honestly support him. Neither candidate reveals the slightest dignity of conviction. Neither cares a hoot for any discernible principle. Neither, in any intelligible sense, is a man of honor.
With the current more somber and “responsible” approach often comes a bowdlerized view of the candidates and the politics surrounding them. This doesn’t mean that the coverage is better. The media, in its desire to avoid unsubstantiated political allegations, can easily find itself instead providing unsubstantiated exonerations. The most prominent example in the Clinton campaign involved Gennifer Flowers’ claim to have had an affair with the governor. Flowers backed up her allegation with tape recorded conversations between the governor and herself. Most of the major media declined to run excerpts from the tapes, some using the argument that the tapes did not prove the existence of a sexual relationship. (Clinton himself gave substance to the recordings by apologizing to Mario Cuomo for pejorative remarks made on one about the New York governor).
While it was true that the tapes could be interpreted in a number of ways, they did suggest that Clinton and Flowers were covering up something and at the very least provided an enlightening view of the ethical calculus of the candidate.
Clinton was never pressed by reporters for the inner meaning of his comment that if “everyone hangs tough, they’re just not gonna do anything. They can’t. . . They can’t run a story like that unless somebody says, ‘Yeah, I did it.’ ” Certainly, when Richard Nixon had similar reflections on the Watergate tapes we thought it of more than passing interest. A year and a half later, Adam Nagourney of USA Today admitted to Vanity Fair, “Nobody pursued it. You could have taken those tapes and gone to town.”12
Back when the Gary Hart story broke, a public relations man suggested how he would have handled the scandal: put up billboards featuring photos of FDR, Eisenhower, JFK and Hart. Underneath would be the single phrase: HART: IN A GREAT TRADITION.
In a similar vein, some reasonably made the argument that if Hillary had bought her husband’s explanation that was good enough for them. Still the Flowers story, and the way Clinton handled it, went directly to concerns about the man other than adultery. There were times during the campaign when Clinton’s versions of his past reminded one of the Raymond Chandler character: “smart, smooth and no good.” Tracking a Clinton explanation, whether of past actions or present policy, could be like trying to dance on a floor covered with marbles. As Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette put it: “Bill Clinton is a presidential debate.”
Further, in the Flowers case the media seemed to be having it both ways. The Washington Times pointed out, for example, that Clinton’s alleged affair got far kinder treatment from the media than had similar stories involving others. The Flowers story quickly disappeared from the mainstream press. In contrast, said the Times, the 1980 story about Dan Quayle — then just a congressman — sharing a Florida cottage with Paula Parkinson and several other members of Congress was the topic of 11 stories in the New York Times and 16 in the Washington Post all in one week. During the same period, the major networks ran 13 stories.
When John Tower was nominated to be Secretary of Defense, the networks ran 32 stories concerning Towers’ alleged sexual improprieties. The Washington Post ran a story by Bob Woodward that accused Tower of having “appeared to be drunk” during two visits to a Texas Air Force base and having fondled two women. The only source for this story was one former Air Force sergeant. And during the nine days before the Senate voted to confirm Clarence Thomas, the networks ran 99 stories — the New York Times ran 63 and the Post 61 — about Anita Hill’s allegations, though they were unbacked by anything so substantial as a tape recording. More recently the sexual activities of Senator Robert Packwood have attracted intense media interest while those alleged of Senator Daniel Inouye, a far more popular Washington politician, have been downplayed. In the politics of sex, politics counts at least as much as the sex.
If the media merely reported the public actions of politicians there would be a strong argument for avoiding a story like Flowers’. But that’s not what happens. The Washington press, for example, consistently projects a halcyon, virtuous, and lovable image of our presidents at play, which then inevitably colors our reaction of them at work. The now mandatory White House tour, in which a network anchor fawns over the presidential couple, their pets, furnishings and knickknacks, is only the beginning.
A double standard develops. If the recipe for Barbara Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s chocolate chip cookies is important, then at least equally true the tale of Gennifer Flowers. If it’s okay for the children of a politician to be up on the nationally televised stage, why not the politician’s mistress as well? Besides, the umbrage taken at the Flowers allegations must be considered in light of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s swipe at George Bush’s own friend named Jennifer and the Clinton team’s post-election snooping into Bush personnel files. As it turned out, someone had been expecting them. The Jennifer Fitzgerald file was empty.
It may be that the media, deep down, does not believe that the American people are wise enough to be trusted with the truth that their leaders are often not what they would seem. In any event, the result is an expurgated version of politics which creates the very sort of lie from which the media claims to be protecting us.
Even beyond Flowers, the press was little interested in stories that scraped the presidential patina from the Clinton campaign. The major exception was the draft controversy.
Here Clinton discovered the outer boundaries of media tolerance. That this line should have been drawn between marital and national fidelity may reflect the self-protective instincts of those on the road covering a presidential campaign for months on end. In any case, the media pursued the draft story with considerable diligence, missing only a few ancillary matters such as who paid for Clinton’s stay in an upscale Moscow hotel at a time when the Oxford student was supposed to be broke.
In the end, Clinton survived the story, but would suffer from this account as much as any that grew out of the campaign, leaving many with sour reactions over his manipulation of the draft system as well as its suggestion of underlying arrogance not unlike that of British scholar Heathcote William Gerard, who explained his absence from World War I by saying, “I am the civilization they are fighting to defend.”
In other matters, Clinton fared far better. His precipitous mid-spring interest in fairness as he went after black and labor votes, for example, attracted little media interest. The Nation quoted Bob Borosage, a Jackson aide in 1988: “You have to be a political junkie to remember that Clinton now is not how he positioned himself for the last four years. The irony is that Clinton is now using a major theme of fairness against Tsongas when fairness was the word the [Democratic Leadership Council] was going to banish from the Democratic lexicon. The DLC said it was for growth and told people they had to stop talking about fairness. It’s hilarious.”
Only a few sharp-eyed reporters caught Clinton filching ideas from other campaigns. Gwen Ifill of the New York Times was one, noting Clinton’s use of Kerry’s cry for “fundamental change,” Harkin’s demand for increased use of ethanol and his “real Democrat” line, and the anti-corporate rhetoric of Jerry Brown. Later, Christopher Georges, an editor of the Washington Monthly, would point out in a Times op-ed that many of Clinton’s ideas — including 39 of the 49 specific proposals in his economic plan — were virtually identical to programs advocated by Michael Dukakis in 1988. Included among the Dukakis clones were Clinton’s apprenticeship program, worker retraining initiative and planned assault on tax cheaters.
Although the national press blanketed Arkansas early in the campaign, the effort proved only marginally informative. Thus the public heard about Clinton’s success in attracting new business to the state but little about the wage differential that was far more appealing to industries than the governor’s charm or skill. It heard about his economic development efforts, but little about how Clinton’s development agency had favored friends of the governor. There was virtually nothing in the mainstream press about Mena, Arkansas, a Contra training and drug running center nor of Clinton’s curious reluctance to investigate what was going on there. Only a handful of reporters took an interest in Worthen Bank although its $2 million line of credit kept Clinton alive in the early stages of the campaign.
Only fleeting attention was given the fact that Bill Clinton’s wife had represented a client and co-investor before a regulatory agency of her husband’s government. Or that federal and state agents, while wiretapping Clinton’s half-brother Roger, heard him describe the governor’s mansion as a favorite trysting place.[SS7] Or that at the beginning of the campaign Clinton’s personal security chief was being sued in a Contra-connected case in which a federal judge ruled that “an unlawful conspiracy may exist.” This story required no digging; the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had reported it in January 1992. Yet the tale barely made it out of Arkansas, Alexander Cockburn’s coverage in the Nation being a rare exception.
Similarly, the media quickly and uncritically accepted the opinion of the Clintons’ attorney friend that there was nothing amiss with the candidate’s investment in the Whitewater Development Corporation, a judgment that would be badly shaken by the end of Clinton’s first year in office.
Some stories providing a useful view of the political and social culture in which Clinton operated would appear in one media outlet but be ignored by others. For example, Money magazine reported that Clinton annually received about $1.4 million in admissions tickets to the state-regulated Oaklawn racetrack to hand out to campaign contributors and others. Money couldn’t find another major racing state that allowed such gifts and quoted an authority on government ethics as saying “It creates appearances of impropriety.” Said the expert, “I’m stunned frankly at the amount. It’s a staggering amount.” The Clinton campaign’s reaction to the story was that the passes, which have gone to the state’s governors since the 1950s, are a “great nuisance,” adding that “I guess the potential is there for a conflict of interest, but we never let it be a conflict.”13
Nor were such practices a fluke. According to Brooks Jackson of CNN, the commission that regulates Arkansas’s only greyhound track — the nation’s largest — held its regulatory meetings several times a year at the track’s exclusive Kennel Club, with the Southland Greyhound Park paying for the commissioners’ food and booze.14
Once the media has bestowed gravitas upon a candidate it is reluctant to let contrary facts get in the way. Thus the media portrayal of Clinton quickly lost its Arkansas flavor. It was Clinton the Rhodes Scholar, Clinton the man of policies, who came to the fore and Bubba Bill began to fade.
As simple political narrative this was a disservice. If there was one thing that made Clinton stand out among his political contemporaries it was the complexity of his character, friendships and past. Without such full — even if contradictory — details, the portrait of Clinton was destined to be more myth and propaganda than reality.
As such it was left to the conservative Washington Times to tell the story of how a convicted Arkansas drug dealer got pardoned in the middle of the Washington inauguration, complete with allegations that Clinton had reneged not only on payments to the dealer’s father (who had worked on Clinton’s last state campaign) but on his promise to help market the father’s recipe for sweet potato pie.
The alleged deal provoked considerable discussion in Arkansas, but the national media was otherwise engaged, installing with proper sobriety the next president of the United States. To any aficionado of southern politics, the story roots Clinton in a long and engaging if not entirely honorable tradition. One southerner, to whom I told the story, remarked, “I didn’t believe you until you said the part about the sweet potato pie.”
But this tradition is at odds with what national statesmen are supposed to be about and so was let pass by a media which, reported the Washington Journalism Review, was busy using the phrase “defining moment” 700 times over an 18-month period.
Not all the myths of the Clinton campaign were for public consumption. There were also the myths it created for and about itself.
Every campaign has them. It’s one of the things that keeps people working 18 hour days for little or nothing. When a campaign turns out to be a winner, these myths move easily out of the campaign boiler rooms and into the public consciousness. Camelot actually began in grimy halls in West Virginia for it is on the campaign trail that the most mundane activities start to gain an almost sacred quality.
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 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.
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.”17 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. In fact, the Legal Times found that while on the Court of Appeals Judge Ginsburg had sided only 55% of the time with liberal Judge Patricia Wald, but 85% of the time with conservative Robert Bork.
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.
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.
( Maureen Dowd provided a different view of the dying Lee Atwater in the New York Times. According to one associate, Atwater called in friends he had double-crossed and confessed his lies about them. Said the friend, “It was not a true conversion but just the best calculation he could make to settle old scores because he was scared. Lee was spinning his own death.”)
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.29 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.
To a few, the convention reintroduction via film and telethon rhetoric was bizarre and tasteless. Imagine, one Democrat suggested, FDR on the podium telling the full story of his struggles with polio or Harry Truman turning off-stage a la Clinton and saying huskily, “I love you, Bess.” But to many more, especially party workers desperate to end their 12 years of exile, it was an appealing and fully credible myth.
It worked, thanks is no small part to the semiotic sophistication of Clinton’s glitzkreig, which borrowed from television’s disease-of-the-week specials to create the shameless bathos of the candidates’ acceptance speeches and then immediately proceeded to evoke every male buddy tale from Huckleberry Finn to Newman & Redford by sending its stars across America together on a bus. It wasn’t Greyhound or, as Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser put it, “891 hard miles with a warm Dr. Pepper and a stale cheese sandwich,” but nobody seemed to care. Nothing that would happen in the next three months would quite match it. Fortunately for Clinton, it didn’t have to.
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 usingd 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?