The Clinton legacy -- demagoguery

Posted: Nov 01, 2000 12:00 AM
Bill Clinton -- the largely, up to now, unseen elephant in our ongoing political circus -- tells Esquire that his eight years in office have made him "a better person.'' This, because being "constantly judged and condemned and torn apart," made him "less judgmental and less hypocritical.'' He expects to be "a better person" for the rest of his life. It's nice to know that someone got something out of the Clinton years, now ending, or maybe not ending as Mrs. Clinton leads in the polls for senator from New York. The Clinton legacy is sure to fill more books than Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt, with somewhat greater personal credentials, ever managed to do. One aspect of that legacy is on display as an ugly, unlikable presidential campaign sputters out. Bill Clinton -- often called the greatest public speaker of his political generation -- demonstrably lowered the tone of political discourse, never conspicuously high, to ground level. You know what ground turns into when it rains. It's rained a lot this year, politically speaking. Political discourse ideally concerns sharing your vision of government and contrasting that vision to your opponent's. This leaves ample room for exaggeration, Gore-style or otherwise. Dr. Samuel Johnson observed that in the making of epitaphs, no man is on his oath. The same goes for the making of political claims. The claims Clinton specializes in have an unusually sour and grating effect. Both halves of the Clinton-Gore administration traffic in the most appalling and polarizing ... shall we say untruths? Two examples suffice: race and the economy. Untruth No. 1: Without Bill and Al, American blacks are at risk, meaning no affirmative action. "Racial profiling" continues, and roadblocks for black nominees to federal court posts remain. Clinton pushed all these buttons on Sunday while haranguing black church-goers in the Washington area. There is no separation of church and state when one entity can be made to serve the other! Ah, and what about hate crimes, said Joe Lieberman, daring on "Meet the Press'' to defend an execrable Democratic ad accusing George W. Bush (via his opposition to harsher penalties for hate crimes) of murdering the late James Byrd "all over again''? Lieberman called that viewpoint -- expressed in the ad by Byrd's daughter -- "a sincere expression of her opinion.'' It is this opinion the Democrats naturally felt obliged to advertise in a gaudy fashion. Smearing your opponents as racists -- gee, doesn't that do a lot to promote racial understanding? Untruth No. 2: Republicans are slaves to the rich -- they are "the wealthiest 1 percent,'' as Gore likes to call them when he blasts George Bush's tax proposals. In the same way, Clinton depicts the tax cuts he regularly vetoes -- ignoring the reality that Bush's plan gives the biggest cuts, as a percentage of income or of taxes, to middle and lower income taxpayers. "Big oil'' and "big pharmaceutical'' companies, whatever their services to the economy, get tarred by the Clintonites for bigness -- meaning badness to those who wield the term. No doubt, voters are supposed to reply, "Yeah, break up those so-and-sos!'' -- a feat the Clintonites aren't about to attempt, given the economic costs such a move would entail. It's less risky to attack the "bad'' guys than to actually change their behavior, assuming their behavior is, in fact, bad. What might we call the Clinton-Gore modus operandi? Try demagoguery. There's nothing new about the ancient art of playing on popular emotions. From Alciabiades to Al Gore is a 2400-year descent. That doesn't render any lovelier the deliberate pitting of group against group, interest against interest, race against race -- all for the sake of ... Say. What is this thing all about anyway? It's about power: how we Clintonites have got it, and you Republicans ain't getting it away from us, see? Who isn't to contend that Gov. Bush has campaigned like the reincarnation of James Madison? He has campaigned, all the same, like a gentleman, and yes, like a patriot, sparing us the deliberate pitting of Americans against other Americans. It is no small service, although Clinton has in mind a larger one. You see, for all he's suffered on our behalf, he told Esquire he's never gotten an apology. Feel free to rush right out and tender one.