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Not The First Time A Campaign For Hope And Change

Deja Vu: Not The First Time A Campaign For Hope And Change, Post-Partisanship And Rising Above Mere Issues

By Editor Sam Smith

[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]

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. . .

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. . . "

"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.. . .

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. . .

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.". . .

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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