Magazines: Elective Reading


All three of the candidates in the 1992 presidential race had major personality problems. George Bush spent his four years as president as if he were a robot whose principles were loaded in the back of his neck each morning by software prepared by his speechwriters. Boot up one disk, and Bush was Winston Churchill, sending his legions to the shores of Panama and Kuwait to make the world safe for democracy. Boot up a second disk, and Bush was the goofy but lovable dad familiar to viewers of situation comedies. A third disk allowed Bush to give a marginally persuasive imitation of Ronald Reagan. It was hard work crafting the presidential persona, and an ugly sight when Bush's assistants took the software out of the presidential disk drive and Bush powered down for the night.

But every time I saw Bill Clinton, I felt as though I was looking at an overstuffed scarecrow; I constantly worried that a dry little piece of him would fall out during a speech and make him a lesser man. When I read Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn's opinions of Clinton, I clenched my fist and said "Right on!"

"Counseled by friends of mature judgment, I tried to like Clinton," Cockburn writes in the November 9 Nation, "It's impossible. Listening to him is like having a pillow stuffed into one's mouth. He just can't stop talking….There is something doglike about Clinton, smacked on the muzzle, always coming back for more. Woof Woof. Paws up on your chest, eyes desperate for the nod of approval, tail going thump against the ottoman."

Ross Perot's mangling of the English language ensured that the diminutive billionaire raised the spirits of recession-weary Americans with a constant supply of free humor. (My favorite Perotism is when he replaced "the middle" with "midflight," as in "I'm in midflight on that.") But given Perot's lack of substance, my only comment on him is to pass on Rush Limbaugh's observation that Perot was "a hand grenade with a bad haircut."

When Bill Clinton won, there was glee in certain sectors of the left. In a move calculated to confirm the worst suspicions of the hard right, Entertainment Weekly reporters Benjamin Svetkey and Steve Chagollan claim in that magazine's November 20 issue that the personal stock of numerous Hollywood celebrities rose if they backed Clinton and fell if they supported Bush or Perot. Allegedly dead pharmaceutical consumer Elvis Presley, they report, gained 20 posthumous (?) points because Clinton sang "Don't be Cruel" on The Charlie Rose Show. Super-liberal songstress Barbra Streisand, they say, gained 30 points because she organized a dinner for Clinton "and promised to leave the country if he wasn't elected." (This is one of the few persuasive reasons I found to support George Bush.)

In the November 23 New Republic, columnist Michael Kinsley tells the world that Clinton's victory made him happy. "No doubt it will all end in tears," he writes. "But for the moment, I FEEL GREAT! It's like the lifting of a terrible headache, or like coming up for air after swimming underwater."

Kinsley's proclamation is the most astonishing political statement I've read since National Review's then-Washington Editor William McGurn announced his theory that President Bush had carefully chosen precisely those economic policies that would most annoy William McGurn. But few other liberals were willing to gild the president-elect and lay garlands at his feet. As in 1976, the prevailing sense among liberals was that Clinton's greatest virtue was that he was not the Republican incumbent.

In the November 16 New Yorker, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. claims that Clinton's triumph was part of an inevitable cycle of presidential politics. Americans, says Schlesinger, alternate between liberal and conservative presidencies with the precision of a metronome; every 15 years one faction tires and another takes over. In 1901, 1933, 1961, and 1993, liberals took over from exhausted conservative administrations; in 1917, 1948, and 1978, conservatives grabbed the baton from tiring liberals.

Whenever one side of this "dialectic of democracy" stays in power past its time (Wilson and Truman's second terms, Richard Nixon's presidency), the end result is national stagnation and malaise. The Nixon administration, Schlesinger claims, largely continued the Great Society, and if Thomas Dewey had beaten Harry S. Truman in 1948, the rise of Joseph McCarthy might well have been prevented.

Schlesinger's theory is, at first glance, appealing. Certainly Bill Clinton's triumph, like those of other liberals, represents a generational shift. Teddy Roosevelt succeeded the last president to have fought in the Civil War, John F. Kennedy followed the last president to have fought in World War I, and Bill Clinton comes after what will probably be the last president to have served in World War II. But except for Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, none of the liberals who became president entered in a landslide. Theodore Roosevelt was elected vice president in an age when that office meant nothing. John F. Kennedy became president with a margin so narrow that some historians question whether he actually won.

And Bill Clinton not only had a smaller percentage of the vote than did Michael Dukakis, but his party gained nothing in the Senate and lost eight seats in the House. And even Clinton's victory did not necessarily mean that the voters wanted more government; an exit poll conducted for the networks by Voter Research and Surveys, reported in the November Media Watch, found that 55 percent of the voters surveyed said they wanted a government with fewer services and lower taxes.

And many Americans still wondered what Bill Clinton stood for. As The Economist's "Lexington" columnist notes in that magazine's November 7 issue, "the 'real' Mr. Clinton is rather more complex than the folksy, schmoozy man that America thinks it has just elected as its next president." Voters knew that Clinton likes to eat, loves to read, and plays the saxophone better than any previous president. But they had no idea what Clinton's family life is like, or what he stands for other than his unceasing desire to be president. "Beyond his political ambition, which is so strong you can almost touch it, even those who have written about him for a year have little sense of what moves the man," Lexington observes.

If the winners in the presidential campaign were ominously quiet about the campaign, the losers were strangely muted in their backbiting, cheap shots, and verbal blows. National Review had a special "Recriminations" issue (November 30), but the contributors stuck their verbal knives into the departing president in a half-hearted manner. This is because very few journalists on the right backed Bush; since no one believed in the president, the debate over his defeat was far less vehement than would otherwise be the case.

The New Republic generously allowed Republicans to recriminate in its December 14 issue. The New Republic did a better job of Republican recrimination because they had more reporters and fewer commentators. John Locke Foundation senior fellow James Pinkerton's piece is particularly hard-hitting. He recounts how his innovative ideas were systematically thwarted by the "Kennedy school technocracy" of Office of Management and Budget Director Richard Darman.

But the best piece of back stabbing against the Bush campaign was in a unlikely source—the November 30 issue of New York. Television producer Russ Hodge, director of special projects for Bush-Quayle communications, writes that the campaign was dominated by what the movie White Men Can't Jump called "God's frozen people."

Hodge, who calls himself a working-class Reagan Democrat from Staten Island, had spent 10 years producing political talk shows, including three years working with John McLaughlin. But he knew that most of his colleagues in the Bush campaign were from America's upper crust. While working at the Astrodome during the 1992 Republican National Convention, he told a colleague from Houston how much he admired the huge stadium. "'I know,' she said. I used to sit and do my homework in the Astrodome after school.'

"'You mean they leave it open to the public?' I asked incredulously.

"'No,' she said. 'My father's one of the owners.'"

The campaign was packed with blue-bloods and preppies who bragged that they had gone to school with the Princess of Wales's brother. The woman who fed soundbites to radio stations was a Medici—of the Italian Medicis. However, Hodge reports that Cecilia De Medici lacked the cutthroat political skills of her ancestors.

These preppies, says Hodge, knew little about popular culture. They vetoed George Bush's going on MTV, thinking it unpresidential, and thus gave Bill Clinton a platform from which to woo the youth vote. When Hodge tried to make a comparison between Clinton and Doogie Howser, no one knew who Doogie Howser was.

And timidity inhibited the Bush-Quayle campaign from beginning to end. At one point the Bushies decided to fax a daily statement about Clinton's record, calling it the "Lie of the Day" in reference to Clinton's numerous miscues. The press picked up on these statements, and it looked as though the Bush campaign would finally go on the offensive.

But someone decided that the press might think that George Bush lied, so the fax was renamed "Clinton Record Highlights" and watered down so that it would offend no one. The press naturally took these boring "record statements" and put them in the trash.

"There was an incredible unwillingness on the part of the campaign hierarchy to change, to try anything new, to move with the times or adjust to different circumstances," Hodge observes.

As the Bushies go back to their trust funds and the Clintonites prepare to revel in power, allow me to give advice to both parties. The Democrats should memorize the maxim not to put one's trust in princes. Bill Clinton's record as governor of Arkansas convinces me that whatever he does during the next four years, he will constantly betray the confidence and trust of his supporters. Certainly there are a large number of liberal activists in Arkansas who will eagerly discuss how Bill Clinton constantly courted and abandoned them.

The Republicans should know that losing the presidency is not the end of the world. Americans will probably suffer from higher taxes, and many Republican political appointees, lacking marketable job skills, will have to live on cat food, gruel, and the occasional potato. But moving to the opposition should ensure that conservative publications will flourish and right-wing think tanks will thrive. And the antics of President Clinton, his frenetic wife, and his peculiar mother will ensure that satirists and comedians will never lack for work.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a writer, editor, and researcher living in Silver Spring, Maryland.