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The State of the Union
1/1 On January 1, 1996, what does Campaign America look like? The view from California is foggy this morning, at least from the San Jose area and around Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Carmel—my points of reference. I've been trying to avoid road rage on the highways as I drive around in my rented Nissan, but I don't detect any immediate uprisings among the population as a whole. In fact, things look fairly OK.
Every time I come to California I say the following, since it seems easier to say here than in some parts of the Midwest: How rich this country is! When the Reagan eighties began to strip-mine the surplus value out of this country, it had a thick vein to gouge. The biggest thing manufactured in the eighties (except for the computer and software industry) was the money being produced out of the accounting legerdemain of the junk-bond, arbitrage laborers. Overvalued and undervalued companies were vampirized, and what was extracted was cash. Reagan was the Hollywood president, the corporate commander in chief, so it wasn't strange that his decade was so symbolized by this sort of sucking sound. That's the sucking sound I heard, not Ross Perot's.
The rich got richer and the poor got poorer through the eighties and nineties, but driving around California one is impressed with the amount of wealth scattered everywhere. It's the bounty hanging from the trees (oranges in this case), the fruited plains, indeed—the fruited hills and valleys is more to the point. Anddriving through the fruit basket of the world (the Watsonville area, the valley) and seeing stoop laborers, little clots of dark men and women and children in the fields, backs bent in the narrow rows, is like looking at stopped time. The insidious thought is that there seem to be relatively few of them and they look happy to be employed, exploited, and harassed. Such is trickle-down, where the only thing that trickles down is anxiety about having a job.
Shortly after the Rodney King verdict and the burning of South Central LA, my wife and I and our boy were in California visiting family. We had been invited to a wedding of an old friend in Beverly Hills and since we were in the state, my wife and I (Grandma baby-sitting!) were able to fly down from Sacramento to LAX. We arrived a few hours before the wedding and went to see the Watts Towers, the homespun American version of Gaudi's Barcelona sculptural configurations, built by a man named Rodia between 1942 and 1954. The route took us through the burned-out South Central area.
It was my first time in Los Angeles and I was mildly surprised by the "single-family houses," the neighborhoods of bungalows (though how many were rentals I do not know), the large sky above; and I wondered why, if so much social unrest can ferment so effectively in this sort of mild climate (as well as Florida's), the colder climates are not more racked and ruined. The Watts Towers, stuck at the end of a dry dusty road, adjacent to empty fields and the freeway, turned out to be a smaller, less colorful structure, its twisting surfaces studded with bottle caps, seashells, bits of china and glass, than I had envisioned from photos. We drove back toward Beverly Hills and, not knowing my way around, following signs, ended up on the road most burned out in the rioting. Not homes, but businesses, one after another, and I recalled that the torching was racial, attacks against "foreign" ownership, though in both examples of unrest (California and Florida) the match was a court verdict that was seen as unjust.
Riot as speech. At the wedding I was surprised to see that my friend, the groom, had hired off-duty LA policemen as guards. This was before the Year of O.J., but I do recall them being Mark Fuhrman look-alikes, since the fire-ravaged road reached Beverly Hills, and who knows what sort of intrusion the wedding party feared.
But on this family visit on the eve of Campaign '96 we travel to Half Moon Bay in my father-in-law's RV between Christmas and New Year's and we run into some German tourists who are very upset that Yellowstone and Yosemite—their next would-be destinations—are closed, thanks to the second government shutdown of nonessential government services. Not that I care too much about upsetting German tourists, but the idiocy of yet another congressional shutdown over Christmas is manifest. (The first was November 4-20, the current one began December sixteenth.)
The German tourists may or may not care about balancing our national budget (they sure aren't talking about privatizing their own social security system), but their vacation plans have been spoiled. Americans, those directly, or indirectly affected are getting to experience the first manifestation of the '94 Republican "revolution" (and what the Republicans have wrought are not all those parts of the Contract with America that have been voted on, all for the never-never land of down the road, but gridlock, parks closed, a hodgepodge of government services shut down, the type not much noticed till absent.) The shutdowns are in the long line of management "strikes" that have bothered the American electorate, the nonelite majority. The baseball strike of '94-'95 was an eye-opener. (Carter's reelection hopes, one recalls, were not aided by canceling our country's participation in the Moscow Olympics during his one and only term.)
Cracking down, having their way, was the name of the new Congress's game. The rich folks who own major league baseball teams felt the same way: they're real men, too—even Marge Schott. The authoritarian impulse, following the '94 election, was at loose in the land.
Cutting the NEA, the NEH, and PBS is also symbolic. Authoritarians (remember the good name Jeane Kirkpatrick bestowed on them back in the Reagan era) don't like antiauthoritarian institutions, and giving money to artists is something riddled with antiauthoritarianism. Forget the nitpicking over the pros and cons: it's about control. Ask bad Bud Selig. The baseball strike was finally "settled" in April of '95—canceled World Series back to back was unthinkable even for the owners.
But Bob Dole has let Newt Gingrich and the class of '94 shut down his Congress (Newsweek's December 26, 1994 cover, "How the Grinchrich Stole Christmas!," certified the popular perception). By the end of '95 Gingrich had imploded: on December 6 the House Committee on Ethics voted to hire an independent counsel to investigate Newt's TV "college course" and other possible violations of tax laws. His initial acceptance of a $4.5 million book advance from Rubert Murdoch seemed not only to be an act of hubris, but plain dumb. And Dole's presidential ambitions will get to reap the population's ire and disgust.
As diversion, Senator D'Amato still makes midnight raids on the Arkansas cemeteries of Whitewater. But what we have been hearing loudly and stridently from the haves the last two years, the Seligs, the Schotts, the Steinbrenners, the Doles, the Gramms, the Gingriches, has been a continual chorus of "Play ball!"—or else.
But Dole and Company, not learning much from the baseball strike, have let the big baseball team in Washington lock out their players—over Christmas!—and the natives are restless—cold (in most of the country), but restless. Even in mild Half Moon Bay—especially the tourists who can't point their RVs in whatever direction they choose and be welcomed.
A '92 campaign button I have reads, "Our Family Values Bill Clinton." It was produced somewhat late in the '92 campaign to counter, comment upon, the Republican Right's values campaign. Given the Bush family, the amount of capital involved, family values couldn't be pushed too hard by the candidate himself (his remark about his grandchild, the brown-blood remark, was Bush himself tangling with the issue); but the Republican Right, which was on the rise and would have its apotheosis in '94, pushed and pushed.
Values campaigning is nothing new. Bush had pushed this in '88, but the values were societal, not personal. Dukakis was not attacked for moral shortcomings, only physical. But, in a case of the sixties generation getting its wish, the old slogan triumphed, and the personal in '92 became political and the values attack was personalized.
Clinton may have flown back to Arkansas early in the '92 campaign to fry some brain-damaged death row resident, but he did so just as Gennifer Flowers was blooming in the national media. His death-penalty stance was the sort that would have been embraced by the Republican Right family-values crowd (they love the death penalty,) but that was dissolved in the hot attention focused on Ms. Flowers.
So we got the "Our Family Values Bill Clinton" button. That elliptical statement carries its own implied "despite," despite this, despite that, etc.
But we all have families, and in California mine are quite representative of the nuclear (as in weapons, energy) family of the 1990s. I have two sets of in-laws, given that my wife's parents divorced in the sixties and both have since remarried. They are my own personal focus-group yin and yang.
My contention has always been that the "family values" issue is generated out of despair when those who see it violated everywhere see their own families violate it and can't do anything about them, so they want someone to put a stop to it somewhere.
If anyone looks at the American family these days why should it be valued? One of the legacies of the 1960s and 1970s was that they did reduce the amount of hypocrisy allowed in the body public. After a period of revelation, of the unveiling of enough secrets—Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the White House tapes, the Church committee, etc.—it was a little difficult to cling to utter fantasy about what the world looked like. The election of Reagan signaled the change in perspective, the return of wishful thinking. We had Reagan's video view of America (a New Morning, etc.), and, in contrast, Reagan's actual family to contemplate, Ron, Patti, Maureen, Michael. They were Californian, too.
American families are well versed in the peculiar. From the richest to the poorest. Family-value issues are a curiously revisionist utopia, wishing for a perfect world that never was. It is a post-World War II world, the United States being the superpower, the only superpower, women returned (prodded) to the home from the factories, children off to school, Sis a virgin, little Butch on the baseball team, Dad in his chair, reading the paper, chuckling at Bonanza.
It was nice while it lasted. And why can't it be again?! the family-values crowd cries.
Well, all American families are typical, but each American family is typical in its own way. When I arrived at my father-in-law's house for Christmas, two books were on his cocktail table: Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Are Supposed to Be and Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve.
I, like Bill Clinton, have a Rush Limbaugh problem (and a Charles Murray problem, too). I have never met Mr. Limbaugh, but I have met Murray once. I—what's the word?—enjoy Limbaugh, first being exposed to him via my car radio. He, like George Will at the beginning of his national ascendancy, seemed to be the usual sort of anti-fluoride-in-the-water conservative libertarian, but, over the months I sporadically would hear Limbaugh, through the early nineties, a couple of major differences emerged.
For one, Limbaugh was funny, and he seemed genuinely surprised and pleased to death that famous people were beginning to take him seriously. I recall one radio broadcast early on when Rush couldn't get over the fact that Ted Koppel had either mentioned him kindly or quoted him approvingly (or returned his phone call), and Rush went on about sending Koppel a fax in thanks. I realized back then that you don't often hear so much undisguised happiness on the radio. Rush was, is, one happy guy. He might rant and rave, say all sorts of mean things, but you can't deny that he is happy, happy, happy. He likes his work. Americans respond well to that: they like success and people who really enjoy what they do. A portion of the public responds well to Bill Clinton for the same reason.
Charles Murray doesn't exude that joie de vivre. When I met him in the eighties, shortly after his 1984 abolish-welfare book, Losing Ground, appeared, he was decidedly melancholy and, even though he was succeeding, he seemed genuinely depressed about the gloom and doom he saw all about him. His aspect, I thought, was that of a low-level State Department functionary billeted in some second-rate Third World country. I told him that the Reagan administration would soon be calling, and he demurred, saying it hadn't happened yet. I then realized that his most productive role for conservative administrations might well be that of the friend outside, rather than the nonenemy within.
Murray, unhappy and dour as he still appears to be, doesn't inspire a lot of fan-club dittoheads to spread his fame, but he is after slightly harder fish to deep-fry. The talk about IQ that The Bell Curve, his 1994 book, generated—Murray has had the good luck to have a dead coauthor—is redolent with stale eugenist odors. They waft over the country whenever there is scarcity and economic fear afoot. In the early twentieth century such discussions were usually yoked to immigrants and immigration (and it is not coincidental that Proposition 187 in California had been penned with the same sour ink that Murray used). It has been pointed out a number of times that Bill Clinton is a product of the baby boom meritocracy, that period my generation of white males (which includes Murray and Limbaugh) so hugely profited from: the Great Society, Sputnik, the boost to education, the growth of jobs, the economy, one where all sorts of people were needed and had opportunities to show their stuff, get to Georgetown, Yale, and other elite institutions from various backwoods, play around in exotic foreign countries like Murray did after college, then go on to get advanced degrees from MIT.
But the more recent generation of white males have been feeling the pinch for some time. Reports reveal that college-educated white women have advanced their income levels, whereas college-educated white males have remained about the same, and white high school dropouts have fallen into the basement since the early seventies. It is not that unusual that when you reach the apotheosis of a phenomenon (Bill Clinton's election in '92 as a triumph of the postwar meritocracy), it signals the end of the phenomenon, not its continuation.
America before LBJ's Great Society, that explosion of mutual human and federal generosity, is now what the conservatives want to conserve; they wish to return to the thirties, forties, fifties, not the sixties, seventies, eighties. Blaming IQ lets you justify anything you care to: abolish general education, reinstate elites. The country needs fewer people to run things, corporations are downsizing: stop looking beyond the Ivy League for your talent. Upward mobility is derailed, why educate the messy masses? It shifts the blame onto the backs (so to speak) of human beings, where only procreation is to blame. Blame IQ and you blame nobody—and everybody: groups, "races"—but there are plenty of individual folks to blame for policies that were put into motion by a number of Republican administrations.
Back in 1970, there were other visionaries like Murray around. Roger Freeman, a key educational adviser to President Nixon then working for the reelection of Governor Ronald Reagan, warned: "We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That's dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education. If not, we will have a large number of highly trained and unemployed people" (San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 1970). Murray was banging a similar drum except he offered the apologia for the curtailment of affirmative action services.
My father-in-law jokes that Bill Clinton is going to impose a forty-eight-hour cooling-off period for the renting of Ryder trucks. The doorbell rings and a couple who appear to be dressed for a senior prom hand me a copy of Awake! (the December 12, 1995 issue). "Schools in Crisis" a cover line screams on top of a photo of two ten-year-olds, one black and one white, pointing a large handgun. Now, no one I know of is walking around passing out free copies of, say, The Nation house to house. That brackets one side of the family equation.
When I arrived at my mother-in-law's house on New Year's Eve day, there was a new six-foot TV and the only magazines on her table were copies of Architectural Digest, the Cosmo of the middle class home owner. The new TV was her husband Nick's, who bought it because he just got a lump-sum resolution of a past worker's comp claim. He is on disability and his monthly check makes the mortgage payment.
My mother-in-law is in a union, works for Democratic candidates locally, and has a lot of '92 Clinton campaign materials hanging in her laundry room.
My in-laws are very typical, as is my own family back in the Midwest. How anyone can think the American public is not sophisticated in the ways of America's family values is beyond me, beyond wishful thinking. The leaders of those who are most vocal on this issue—the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority, all those organizations which love alliteration—may or may not have fashioned their own 1950s lifestyle (see Jimmy Swaggart's motel forays), but only in the sense that Dad is gone a lot of the time.
1/3 For the first two days of the new year, football occupied most screens in the homes of Campaign America '96. The Fiesta Bowl spectacle, Nebraska versus Florida, on January 2, provided the sight of Lawrence Phillips, the black running back who vigorously assaulted his basketball-playing white former girlfriend (a confluence of two kinds of affirmative action in university sports, a Title IX clash, leading the Nebraska squad to victory and a national championship.
The case of Phillips is one of many in our accelerated culture: in 1996, a young African American football player of exceptional talent can still be a potential star after assaulting a woman, rather than having to keep his nose slightly clean till a long sports career has certified his stardom. Then, and only then, assaulting women might finally upend his stardom. Like O.J.
And, speaking of O.J., I often wondered during 1995 if a retrial of O.J. would help or not help Bill Clinton's reelection chances, since during most of the year I, along with quite a few, thought the most likely outcome of the Simpson murder trial would be a hung jury. My assessment was that a retrial would help, since it would monopolize so much television time that there would be less attention paid to the campaign.
On October 3, 1995, I too watched "live" the reading of the jury's verdict. I was looking at O.J.'s face, and a medley of very complicated emotions was playing across it, however he was trying to suppress them. When the first not guilty was read out, after the split second it took to absorb it, he turned to his left and, fleetingly, the expression on his face seemed to be one of embarrassment.
He quickly recovered, turned back, and mouthed "Thank you" to the jury, end Johnnie Cochran did his Sammy Davis clutching Nixon imitation, hugging Simpson's back, banging it with love pats.
That second of embarrassment will probably be as close as the public will get to a show of contrition on O.J.'s part. If any lesson of the late twentieth century has generally sunk in, it is just say no, just stonewall, just say I didn't do it, and some people will be persuaded.
That there was an instantaneous verdict in the Simpson case pointed out a number of things, but indisputably it showed the jury couldn't wait to get out of there.
During the trial, there was always the great white hope analysis, that the lone white woman on the jury would somehow persuade the majority that O.J. should be convicted. She had turned one jury earlier, we were told often. But what became clear is that she had become a minority figure in many ways and was treated to the same forces O.J. was during his famous life (or life as a famous person). After so many months of being in the intimate company of so many nonwhites, she became an honorary African American, in the same way that O.J. had turned himself into an honorary Caucasian.
One reason why Colin Powell has become white America's most popular African American is that O.J. abdicated the throne that bloody night in Brentwood. And our culture is a bifurcated Noah's ark—there's only room for one of each species.
So I wasn't overly surprised, watching CNN, that when Powell was asked out on his book tour for his reaction to the O.J. verdict, he said, hurrying to a waiting car, that since the jury had found Simpson "innocent," we should respect the jury's verdict. Innocent is not what O.J. was found, of course: not guilty was the verdict, beyond a reasonable doubt, etc. "Not guilty" is a long way from innocent. But it is hard to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and always be a stickler for the finer points of law.
During a variety of protests at the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, the Pentagon would often send out an African American officer to deal with the crowd. The public-relations aspects of that were not to be overlooked. How many African American officers were running around the Pentagon in the late sixties and early seventies? But, however few, they were put out in the front lines of publicity. I'm not sure Powell ever got called for that duty, but I'm sure he wouldn't have refused (he was in Washington during that period).
"Will Powell succumb to the call of duty and take the vice presidential spot on the GOP ticket?" is already, in early January, the $64,000 question. But given the usual amnesia that affects the population every four years, one should recall (as does a Powell biography, Sacred Honor) that the first time the vice presidency and Powell came up nationally was on the weekend CBS News with Bob Schieffer on June 23, 1992, when Bruce Morton offered up the notion of a Clinton-Powell ticket. Evidently, the Bush camp gave it some thought at the time, too, according to Mary Matalin's part of All's Fair (see page 205).
So the Powell factor abides. There are many reasons to think he might run. The chief one is that is how he has advanced his entire career: a more powerful man taps him for a job, he complies. It would be easy to see the deal worked out. Dole would be the best match: the age problem becomes less of a problem and also is the carrot for Powell. Dole agrees to be a one-term president (the fact of this is already beginning to dawn on people, the unlikelihood of Dole charging into a second term, much less first), which would leave Powell on the top of the ticket for Campaign 2000.
Powell would have finally been elected to something, would acquire yet more Oval Office experience, and might stand a chance to be elected on the top of a ticket (though that might seem a part of millennium madness). But this is how Powell has conducted his whole career, pleasing men and moving up.
Campaigning for a couple of months, from late August to the end of October, would not be too arduous and not that exposing. It is easier to say Dole-Powell than, say, Forbes-Powell, Gramm-Powell, Buchanan-Powell, etc.
But the second most likely veep (according to conventional wisdom) would he the governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, rich-person buddy of Steve Forbes. It's hard to see Forbes Whitman. Can the country take two silver spoons out of its mouth at the same time? I doubt it. (Though it did with Bush-Quayle and it made the '88 race against Dukakis-Bentsen closer than it might have been, but Quayle never seemed patrician the way Whitman does.) The Republicans not only have a problem of who might be the standard bearer, but they also have a ticket problem.
Copyright © 1997 May-lee Chai. All rights reserved.
|A Note to the Reader||1|
|PROLOGUE: The Prologue Is the Past||11|
|One: The State of the Union||19|
|Two: "It's Not the Deficit, Stupid"||30|
|Three: A Season of Snow Jobs||42|
|Four: February Blues (and Reds and Whites)||62|
|Five: The Shortest Month||74|
|Six: The Longest March||108|
|Seven: The Cruelest Month||135|
|Eight: May Flowers||166|
|Ten: Independence Month||217|
|Eleven: The Conventions of August (Life on Mars, Parts 1 & 2)||252|
|Twelve: The Conventions of August II (Life on Venus, Parts 1 & 2)||314|
|Thirteen: September, September||379|
|Fourteen: It's Debatable||410|
|Fifteen: The Verdict||472|