MotherJones JA93: Diving in

  • The people along the sand
  • All turn and look one way.
  • They turn their back on the land.
  • They look at the sea all day. . . .
  • They cannot look out far.
  • They cannot look in deep.
  • But when was that ever a bar
  • To any watch they keep?
–Robert Frost

We’re into the summer and I still find myself keeping a watch for Bill Clinton. What kind of leader is he? Finding no clear answer, I turn to those around me and find them watching as well.

Our common gaze into the unknown can look, as Frost implies, comical. But then his final stanza takes a sudden turn. Maybe, rather than sheep, we’re seekers.

Looking for leadership is natural, but waiting too long for its appearance makes us feel restless. We begin to criticize. Washington’s rush to judgment, however, reeks of insider smugness. During the Reagan-Bush era, these same shallow columnists and commentators betrayed their calling and the country. Now they’re letting Clinton preview his political obituary as a reminder that if he doesn’t include them as players, they’ll do their best to drive him out of town.

We outsiders are also waving a threat: Deliver or we’ll vote you and every other politician out of office. Perot is the chief avenger poised to distance America from its inadequacies.

But if Clinton becomes the nation’s scapegoat, progressives are likely to be added to the fire as sacrificial lambs. My generation is particularly at risk, since he could be our best and brightest offering.

John Kennedy, the previous best and brightest, may have chosen Frost to inaugurate his presidency, but privately he was bored by the arts. Our last young, apparently idealistic president was emptier than we wanted him to be. The only domestic affairs he cared about had nothing to do with the republic.

Kennedy was a man’s man. Unfortunately, the man who possessed him was his dead, corrupt, driven father. Clinton seems to be his mother’s man, long on empathy but short on convictions about his core identity. The article you see excerpted appeared in Mother Jones when Clinton was still Arkansas’s attorney general. The worry about his pliant political character that we raised then still remains. One evening I hear from a well-placed lawyer that the president is prepared to appoint superb federal judges. The next morning I wake up to a report that he plans to resume nuclear-weapons testing.

Clinton’s activism conceals an underlying desire to accommodate power. This leadership style makes him an easy mark for the military and every other establishment. Instead of employing practical means to realize a moral vision, Clinton has a practical agenda that he’s trying to meet by the politics of compromise. This disheartens friends and inspires contempt among enemies.

Half a year after Maya Angelou’s inaugural incantation, as we look out to see in what direction and how far Clinton has swum, we find him still working the crowd on the beach. The irony is that enough voters have already accepted his call to sacrifice for a common investment in our future.

Clinton needs to dive into the water. But we can’t just watch him and wait. His inclination is to swim neither out too far, nor in too deep. Without our pressure, he’s more likely to confirm his weaknesses than to find his courage. Meanwhile, the rest of us must brave the unknown in our own realms–a school, a home, a business, a community–and provide moral leadership now.