MotherJones MA93: The court rules

Does Clinton have the mettle to shake up the establishment he ran against? Inside the head that wears the crown.

There's a painting in the Louvre, I think, by some dead Frenchman, called The Crowning of Charlemagne. It's an enormous mural that takes up the whole wall of one gallery--very important artistically and all that--but its interest for a student of politics lies in its portrayal of Christmas Day, 800 A.D., when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, until then a mere King of the Franks, Emperor of Rome and all that remained of its empire. Charlemagne had already raped and conquered most of this land, but he didn't really feel he could look himself in the mirror until he had that crown on his head. Leo, though short on troops, had something even sexier: the power to crown Charlemagne emperor.

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Something about a column William Safire wrote for the New York Times near Christmas Day, 1992 A.D., got me thinking of Leo and Charlemagne. Safire was confiding, to more than a million of his closest friends, the schmoozing he had done at a party earlier in the week, "at Kay's for Bill." (If you have to ask, forget it.) Not much happened there, just the usual kneeling and kissing of rings. After a hectic and frequently disturbing exercise in television democracy, all the stars were back in place in Washington's insider constellation. As he tells it, Safire, Pope of the Punditocracy, was hanging around the living room, minding his own business, when "sure enough," Bill Clinton (formerly King of the Ozarks) came his way. The president paid his respects, promising Safire, "You write it, I'll read it," and then disappeared into the night. As if cued by a bishop offstage, along came Hillary. "You gave me some good advice early in the campaign," she told Safire. "I took it."

I should think so. Woe to the politician or politician's spouse (as Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan, and George Bush learned to their respective misfortunes) who gets on the wrong side of one of Safire's obsessions. It must be fun to watch politicians rail against Washington and tap into the anger of voters worried about losing their jobs, their health care, their futures, only to find the same politicians purring, "Washington is a better place than most Americans think it is," over dinner at Kay's barely a month after the election. Going home and writing it up in your Times column the next morning without fear of retribution because, hey, after all, you're Safire-- what can a mere president do to you?--that, I imagine, is better than sex.

In the five months since the election, progressives have been beating themselves on the head, asking over and over, how the hell can we invest our hopes and dreams for a new America in a guy whom William Safire supported for president? Clinton is apparently as much at home with conservative pundits and corporate shills as he is with innovative progressive thinkers. Just who is getting sold the snake oil here? Is it the Neocons, the party hacks, the old-line Southern pols, whose palms Clinton needs to grease in order to smooth the way for a revitalization of government and redistribution of political power? Or is it us? Somebody, certainly, left our names off Kay's guest list.

The key to understanding Clinton's politics is that, unlike Ronald Reagan, the guy doesn't seem to believe in any clearly delineated doctrines or political philosophy. Clinton has comfort levels. He has feelings. He is, in the words of one staffer, "all nerve endings." The staffer describes Clinton as "the most empathetic person of all time."

On the campaign trail, Clinton came into contact with people in real pain, fighting real struggles, and this transformed him. Their pain became his, and so, temporarily, did their struggles. That's how the guy managed to convince us he was for real.

Now that he's in office, Clinton has assembled people with whose judgment he is comfortable. He listens hard, and accepts or rejects their advice depending on whether it makes him feel OK about himself. Clinton doesn't really care what these people's political inclinations are. Intellectually and politically, he figures he can take care of himself. That's why the only political common ground between many of Clinton's advisers is Clinton.

Clinton reasons, to borrow a term from philosopher Charles Taylor, "dialogically." His sense of authenticity is situational, proceeding from a pragmatic understanding of a problem, rather than from any deep-seated philosophy or ideology. This dialogical self-definition helps explain the smorgasbord of cabinet choices that appears to reflect no political philosophy save pragmatism. That's why visionaries like Bob Reich, Laura Tyson, Donna Shalala, Bruce Babbitt, and Tony Lake ended up in the same cabinet with Lloyd Bentsen and Ron Brown. Safire and company feel pretty good about these appointments, particularly when you throw in Neocon Les Aspin at Defense and hard- line Reaganite R. James Woolsey at the CIA.

Liberals and progressives ultimately made their stand on tokenism, thereby demonstrating just how corruptive identity politics have become for the Left's hope of any real influence in American politics. The quota cops' highly publicized "demands" for ethnic and sexual representation could not have been more self-defeating. Not only did Clinton's perceived acquiescence give his adversaries the impression that he was a man who could be rolled, but it also probably robbed him (and us) of some of our best people--people like Tim Wirth, who, as energy secretary, could have done far more for the goal of a stronger, safer economy than a nuclear power industry executive who happens to be a black woman. The promise of the Clinton administration was not that the O'Learys, Browns, and Frederico Penas of the world (whose previous salaries put them up in a microscopic percentile of black, Hispanic, and female America's income-earning population) would run cabinet departments instead of getting rich in the private sector. The promise was that all of minority America would find better jobs, affordable health care, safer neighborhoods, and decent schools for their children.

There are good reasons to worry about Clinton's cabinet. Even if Clinton does sustain the kind of superhuman political endurance he demonstrated at his two-day economics seminar and intimately involves himself in every major decision his government faces, there will still be lots of little judgments, affecting the lives of millions of people, that will be made by the hacks and conservatives running the departments. It may be impossible to govern the country, at this point in history, without at least the tacit cooperation of the Bentsens, the Safires, and the people who get invited over to Kay Graham's house for dinner. Keeping them pissing out from inside the tent, scheming and maneuvering on behalf of your program, is probably the smartest way to go--for now.

In the long run, the most crucial question is what dialogical effect these appointees (in conjunction with the conservative crowing of the punditocracy) might have on Clinton himself. The problem with Clinton's having regressive advisers is that he will start feeling comfortable around regressive advice. In the whorehouse that is Washington, the question is less who you lie down with than how the transaction has changed you once you've put your clothes back on.

Clinton presently has the power, as Ronald Reagan did twelve years ago, to smooth-talk the punditocracy and its establishment allies into a whole new political frame of reference. But to do so, he will need to listen less to Bentsen and Safire and more to the thinkers who helped him channel the anger and frustration of 1992 into the most progressive economic platform a major candidate has run on since 1936.

Those thinkers are already firmly committed to Clinton, should he decide to listen to them. And he just might. After all, he married one.