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No One Left to Lie to The Values of the Worst Family
By Christopher Hitchens
Verso Copyright © 2000 Christopher Hitchens
All right reserved.
To have the pleasure and the praise of electioneering ingenuity, and also to get paid for it, without too much anxiety whether the ingenuity will achieve its ultimate end, perhaps gives to some select persons a sort of satisfaction in their superiority to their more agitated fellow-men that is worthy to be classed with those generous enjoyments--of having the truth chiefly to yourself, and of seeing others in danger of drowning while you are high and dry.
--George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical
It is told of Huey Long that, contemplating a run for high office, he summoned the big wads and donors of his great state and enlightened them thus: "Those of you who come in with me now will receive a big piece of the pie. Those of you who delay, and commit yourselves later, will receive a smaller piece of pie. Those of you who don't come in at all will receive--Good Government!" A touch earthy and plebeian for modern tastes, perhaps, but there is no doubt that the Kingfish had a primal understanding of the essence of American politics. This essence, when distilled, consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most "in touch" with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently "elitist." It's no great distance from Huey Long's robust cry of "Every man a king!" to the insipid "inclusiveness" of "Putting People First," but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a "reserve" tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers. They have also learned that it can be imprudent to promise the voters too much.
Unless, that is, the voters should decide that they don't deserve or expect anything. On December 10, 1998, the majority counsel of the House Judiciary Committee, David Schippers, delivered one of the most remarkable speeches ever heard in the precincts. A leathery Chicago law 'n' order Democrat, Mr. Schippers represented the old-style, big-city, blue-collar sensibility which, in the age of Democrats Lite, it had been a priority for Mr. Clinton and his Sunbelt Dixiecrats to discard. The spirit of an earlier time, of a time before "smoking materials" had been banned from the White House, rasped from his delivery. After pedantically walking his hearers through a traditional prosecutor's review of an incorrigible perp (his address could be used in any civics class in the nation, if there were still such things as civics classes), Mr. Schippers paused and said:
The President, then, has lied under oath in a civil deposition, lied under oath in a criminal grand jury. He lied to the people, he lied to his Cabinet, he lied to his top aides, and now he's lied under oath to the Congress of the United States. There's no one left to lie to.
Poor sap, I thought, as I watched this (alone in an unfazed crowd) on a screen at Miami airport. On what wheezing mule did he ride into town? So sincere and so annihilating, and so free from distressing sexual graphics, was his forensic presentation that, when it was over, Congressman John Conyers of the Democratic caucus silkily begged leave of the chair to compliment Mr. Schippers for his efforts. And that was that. Mr. Conyers went back to saying, as he'd said from the first, that the only person entitled to be affronted by the lie was--Mrs. Clinton. Eight days later, the Democratic leadership was telling the whole House that impeachment should not be discussed while the president and commander in chief was engaged in the weighty task of bombing Iraq.
Reluctant though many people still are to accept this conclusion, the two excuses offered by the Democrats are in fact one and the same. Excuse number one, endlessly repeated by liberals throughout 1998, holds that the matter is so private that it can only be arbitrated by the president's chief political ally and closest confidante (who can also avail herself, in case of need, of a presidential pardon). Excuse number two, taken up by the Democratic leadership and the White House as the missiles were striking Baghdad--as they had earlier struck Sudan and Afghanistan--was that the matter was so public as to impose a patriotic duty on every citizen to close ranks and keep silent. (Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, nephew of JFK and RFK and son of "Teddy," no doubt had Judith Exner, Sam Giancana, the Bay of Pigs, and Chappaquiddick in mind when he said that any insinuation of a connection between bombing and impeachment "bordered on treason.")
The task of reviewing the Clinton regime, then, involves the retracing of a frontier between "private" and "public," over a period when "privatization" was the most public slogan of the administration, at home and abroad. It also involves the humbler and more journalistic task of tracing and nailing a series of public lies about secret--not private--matters. Just as the necessary qualification for a good liar is a good memory, so the essential equipment of a would-be lie detector is a good timeline, and a decent archive.
Mr. Schippers was mistaken when he said that there was "no one left to lie to." He was wrong, not in the naive way that we teach children to distinguish truth from falsehood (and what a year it was for "what shall we tell the children?"). In that original, literal sense, he would have been wrong in leaving out Mr. Clinton's family, all of Mr. Clinton's foreign political visitors, and all viewers on the planet within reach of CNN. No, he was in error in that he failed to account for those who wanted to be lied to, and those who wished at all costs to believe. He also failed to account for Dick Morris--the sole human being to whom the mendacious president at once confided the truth. (Before, that is, he embarked on a seven-month exploitation of state power and high office to conceal such a "personal" question from others.)
The choice of Mr. Morris as confidante was suggestive, even significant. A cousin of Jules Feiffer and the late Roy Cohn (the Cohn genes were obviously dominant), Mr. Morris served for a long spell as Bill Clinton's pimp. He and Mr. Clinton shared some pretty foul evenings together, bloating and sating themselves at public expense while consigning the poor and defenseless to yet more misery. The kinds of grossness and greed in which they indulged are perfectly cognate with one another--selfish and fleshy and hypocritical and exploitive. "The Monster," Morris called Clinton when in private congress with his whore. "The creep," she called Morris when she could get away and have a decent bath. "The lesser evil" is the title that exalted liberalism has invented to describe this beautiful relationship and all that has flowed from it.
Mr. Morris's most valued gift to the president was his invention--perhaps I should say "coinage"--of the lucrative business known as "triangulation." And this same business has put a new spin on an old ball. The traditional handling of the relation between populism and elitism involves achieving a point of balance between those who support you, and those whom you support. Its classic pitfalls are the accusations that fall between flip and flop, or zig and zag. Its classic advantage is the straight plea for the benefit of the "lesser evil" calculus, which in most modern elections means a straight and preconditioned choice between one and another, or A and B, or Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The most apparently sophisticated and wised-up person, who is well accustomed to saying that "there's nothing to choose between them," can also be heard, under pressure, denouncing abstainers and waverers for doing the work of the extreme right. In contrast, a potential Perot voter could be identified, in 1992, by his or her tendency to believe simultaneously that (a) the two main parties were too much alike, resembling two cosily fused buttocks of the same giant derriere, and (b) that the two matching hemispheres spent too much time in fratricidal strife. (Mr. Perot went his supporters one better, by demanding that the United States be run like a corporation--which it already is.) But thus is the corporatist attitude to politics inculcated, and thus failed a movement for a "Third Party" which, in its turn, had failed to recognize that there were not yet two. The same ethos can be imbibed from any edition of the New York Times, which invariably uses "partisan" as a pejorative and "bipartisan" as a compliment--and this, by the way, in its "objective" and "detached" news columns--but would indignantly repudiate the corollary: namely, that it views favorably the idea of a one-party system.
Let me give respective examples of the practice and theory of triangulation. The practice was captured vividly in a 1999 essay by Robert Reich, Clinton's first-term secretary of labor and one of the small core of liberal policy makers to have been a "Friend of Bill" or FOB since the halcyon Rhodes Scholarship days of 1969. Mr. Reich here reminisces on the Cabinet discussions he attended in 1996, when the Clinton administration decided to remove many millions of mothers and children from the welfare rolls:
When, during his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton vowed to "end welfare as we know it" by moving people "from welfare to work," he presumably did not have in mind the legislation that he signed into law in August 1996. The original idea had been to smooth the passage from welfare to work with guaranteed health care, child care, job training and a job paying enough to live on. The 1996 legislation contained none of these supports--no health care or child care for people coming off welfare, no job training, no assurance of a job paying a living wage, nor, for that matter, of a job at any wage. In effect, what was dubbed welfare "reform" merely ended the promise of help to the indigent and their children which Franklin D. Roosevelt had initiated more than sixty years before.
That is indeed how many of us remember the betrayal of the poor that year. Now here's Reich again, detailing the triangulation aspect of the decision:
In short, being "tough" on welfare was more important than being correct about welfare. The pledge Clinton had made in 1992, to "end welfare as we know it," and "move people from welfare to work," had fudged the issue. Was this toughness or compassion? It depended on how the words were interpreted. Once elected, Clinton had two years in office with a Congress controlled by Democrats, but, revealingly, did not, during those years, forward to Congress a bill to move people from welfare to work with all the necessary supports, because he feared he could not justify a reform that would, in fact, cost more than the welfare system it was intended to replace.
So, as Mr. Reich goes on to relate in excruciating detail, Mr. Clinton--who was at that stage twenty points ahead in the opinion polls--signed legislation that was more hasty, callous, short-term, and ill-considered than anything the Republicans could have hoped to carry on their own. He thus made sure that he had robbed them of an electoral issue, and gained new access to the very donors who customarily sent money to the other party. (Mr. Reich has good reason to remember this episode with pain. His own wife said to him, when he got home after the vote: "You know, your President is a real asshole.") Yet, perhaps because of old loyalties and his Harvard training in circumlocution, he lacks the brisk ability to synthesize that is possessed by his spouse and also by the conservative theorist David Frum. Writing in Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard of February 1999, Mr. Frum saw through Clintonism and its triangulations with an almost world-weary ease:
Since 1994, Clinton has offered the Democratic party a devilish bargain: Accept and defend policies you hate (welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act), condone and excuse crimes (perjury, campaign finance abuses) and I'll deliver you the executive branch of government ... Again since 1994, Clinton has survived and even thrived by deftly balancing between right and left. He has assuaged the Left by continually proposing bold new programs--the expansion of Medicare to 55 year olds, a national day-care program, the reversal of welfare reform, the hooking up to the Internet of every classroom, and now the socialization of the means of production via Social Security. And he has placated the Right by dropping every one of these programs as soon as he proposed it. Clinton makes speeches, Rubin and Greenspan make policy; the Left gets words, the Right gets deeds; and everybody is content.
I wouldn't describe myself as "content" with the above, or with those so easily satisfied and so credulous that they hailed the welfare bill as a "tough decision" one year, and then gave standing ovations to a cornucopia of vote-purchasing proposals in the "Lewinsky" budget that confirmed Frum's analysis so neatly a week after it was written. He is right, also, to remind people of the Defense of Marriage Act, a straight piece of gaybaiting demagogy and opportunism which Clinton rushed to sign, afterwards purchasing seventy separate "spots" on Christian radio stations in order to brag about the fact. Nobody on the Left has noticed, with Frum's clarity, that it is the Left which swallows the soft promises of Clinton and the Right that demands, and gets, hard guarantees.
Clinton is the first modern politician to have assimilated the whole theory and practice of "triangulation," to have internalized it, and to have deployed it against both his own party and the Republicans, as well as against the democratic process itself. As the political waters dried out and sank around him, the president was able to maintain an edifice of personal power, and to appeal to the credibility of the office as a means of maintaining his own. It is no cause for astonishment that in this "project" he retained the warm support of Arthur Schlesinger, author of The Imperial Presidency. However, it might alarm the liberal-left to discover that the most acute depiction of presidential imperialism was penned by another clever young neoconservative during the 1996 election. Neatly pointing out that Clinton had been liberated by the eclipse of his congressional party in 1994 to raise his own funds and select his own "private" reelection program, Daniel Casse wrote in the July 1996 Commentary:
Today, far from trying to rebuild the party, Clinton is trying to decouple the presidential engine from the Congressional train. He has learned how the Republicans can be, at once, a steady source of new ideas and a perfect foil. Having seen where majorities took his party over the past two decades, and what little benefit they brought him in his first months in office, he may even be quietly hoping that the Democrats remain a Congressional minority, and hence that much less likely to interfere with his second term.
Not since Walter Karp analyzed the antagonism between the Carter-era "Congressional Democrats" and "White House Democrats" had anyone so deftly touched on the open secret of party politics. At the close of the 1970s, Tio O'Neill's Hill managers had coldly decided they would rather deal with Reagan than Carter. Their Republican counterparts in the mid-1990s made clear their preference for Clinton over Dole, if not quite over Bush. A flattering profile of Gore, written by the author of Primary Colors in the New Yorker of October 26, 1998, stated without equivocation that he and Clinton, sure of their commanding lead in the 1996 presidential race, had consciously decided not to spend any of their surplus money or time in campaigning for congressional Democrats. This was partly because Mr. Gore did not want to see Mr. Gephardt become Speaker again, and thus perhaps spoil his own chances in 2000. But the decision also revealed the privatization of politics, as did the annexation of the fund-raising function by a president who kept his essential alliance with Dick Morris (a conservative Republican and former advisor to Jesse Helms) a secret even from his own staff.
Of course, for unanticipated reasons also having to do with presidential privacy, by the summer of 1998 Mr. Clinton found that he suddenly did need partisan support on the Hill. So Casse was, if anything, too subtle. (For Washington reasons that might one day be worth analyzing more minutely, both he and David Frum form part of a conservative subculture that originates in Canada). He was certainly too flattering to those who had not required anything so subtle in the way of their own seduction. Even as the three-dimensional evidence of "triangulation" was all about them, many of the "core" Democratic constituencies would still settle for the traditional two-dimensional "lesser evil" cajolery: a quick flute of warm and flat champagne before the trousers were torn open ("Liar, liar--pants on fire") and the anxious, turgid member taken out and waved. Two vignettes introduce this "New Covenant":
On February 19, 1996--President's Day--Miss Monica Lewirsky was paying one of her off-the-record visits to the Oval Office. She testified ruefully that no romance, however perfunctory, occurred on this occasion. The president was compelled to take a long telephone call from a sugar grower in Florida named, she thought, "something like Fanuli." In the flat, decidedly nonerotic tones of the Kenneth Starr referral to Congress:
Ms. Lewinsky's account is corroborated.... Concerning Ms. Lewinsky's recollection of a call from a sugar-grower named "Fanuli," the President talked with Alfonso Fanjul of Palm Beach, Florida, from 12.42 to 1.04 pm. Mr. Fanjul had telephoned a few minutes earlier, at 12.24 pm. The Fanjuls are prominent sugar growers in Florida.
Indeed, "the Fanjuls are prominent sugar growers in Florida." Heirs of a leading Batista-supporting dynasty in their native Cuba, they are the most prominent sugar growers in the United States. They also possess the distinction of having dumped the greatest quantity of phosphorus waste into the Everglades, and of having paid the heaviest fines for maltreating black stoop laborers from the Dominican Republic ($375,000) and for making illegal campaign contributions ($439,000). Often posing as friends of "affirmative action" for minorities, Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul have dined long and well on "minority set-aside" contracts for the new Miami airport, and receive an annual taxpayer subvention of $65 million in sugar "price supports," which currently run at $1.4 billion yearly. The brothers also understand the division of labor. In 1992, Alfonso was Florida's financial co-chairman for the Clinton presidential campaign. Having been a vice-chairman for Bush/Quayle in 1988, in 1996 Jose was national vice-chairman of the Dole for President Finance Committee. Alfonso came out better: having arranged a funding soiree for Clinton at which a large check was handed over personally by the late gangster Jorge Mas Canosa, he found himself invited to the Little Rock "Economic Summit" immediately after Clinton's election, and seated next to Lloyd Bentsen. In their Everglades consortium, the Fanjuls also relied extensively on the aforementioned Peter Knight, Gore operative and crony of Nathan Landow.
The Fanjul brothers, along with their business and political "interface," appear in light disguise in Carl Hiaasen's novel of Florida skullduggery. (It's distasteful and regrettable that this novel is entitled Striptease, but there you are.) They personify the tight, indeed intimate, connection between public subsidy to an inefficient and exploitive industry, and the private, tax-deductible tit on which they nurse. And their patriarch can call Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, on President's Day (birthday of Washington and Lincoln), and expect to be put straight through and to get, if not half an hour of face time, at least half an hour of pretty good ear time, even as the president's on-staff comfort-woman du jour is kept waiting. This is the reward for "working hard and playing by the rules."
Rightly is the Starr referral termed "pornographic," for its exposure of such private intimacies to public view. Even more lasciviously, Starr went on to detail the lipstick traces of the Revlon corporation in finding a well-cushioned post for a minx who was (in the only "exculpatory" statement that Clinton's hacks could seize upon) quoted as saying that "No one ever told me to lie; no one ever promised me a job." How correct the liberals are in adjudging these privy topics to be prurient and obscene. And how apt it is, in such a crisis, that a Puritan instinct for decent reticence should come to Clinton's aid.
My second anecdote concerns a moment in the White House, which was innocently related to me by George Stephanopoulos. It took place shortly after the State of the Union speech in 1996 when the president, having already apologized to the "business community" for burdening it with too much penal taxation, had gone further and declared that "the era of big government is over." There was every reason, in the White House at that stage, to adopt such a "triangulation" position and thereby deprive the Republicans of an old electoral mantra. But Stephanopoulos, prompted by electoral considerations as much as by any nostalgia for the despised New Deal, proposed a rider to the statement. Ought we not to add, he ventured, that we do not propose a policy of "Every Man For Himself"? To this, Ann Lewis, Clinton's director of communications, at once riposted scornfully that she could not approve any presidential utterance that used "man" to mean mankind. Ms. Lewis, the sister of Congressman Barney Frank and a loudly self-proclaimed feminist in her own right, was later to swallow, or better say retract, many of her own brave words about how "sex is sex," small print or no small print, and to come out forthrightly for the libidinous autonomy (and of course, "privacy") of the Big Banana. And thus we have the introduction of another theme that is critical to our story. At all times, Clinton's retreat from egalitarian or even from "progressive" positions has been hedged by a bodyguard of political correctness.
In his awful $2.5 million Random House turkey, artlessly entitled Behind the Oval Office, Dick Morris complains all the way to the till. "Triangulation," he writes, "is much misunderstood. It is not merely splitting the difference between left and right." This accurate objection--we are talking about a three-card monte and not an even split--must be read in the context of its preceding sentence: "Polls are not the instrument of the mob; they offer the prospect of leadership wedded to a finely-calibrated measurement of opinion."
By no means--let us agree once more with Mr. Morris--are polls the instrument of the mob. The mob would not know how to poll itself, nor could it afford the enormous outlay that modern polling requires. (Have you ever seen a poll asking whether or not the Federal Reserve is too secretive? Who would pay to ask such a question? Who would know how to answer it?) Instead, the polling business gives the patricians an idea of what the mob is thinking, and of how that thinking might be changed or, shall we say, "shaped." It is the essential weapon in the mastery of populism by the elite. It also allows for "fine calibration," and for capsules of "message" to be prescribed for variant constituencies.
In the 1992 election, Mr. Clinton raised discrete fortunes from a gorgeous mosiac of diversity and correctness. From David Mixner and the gays he wrung immense sums on the promise of lifting the ban on homosexual service in "the military"--a promise he betrayed with his repellent "don't ask, don't tell" policy. From a variety of feminist circles he took even larger totals for what was dubbed "The Year of the Woman," while he and his wife applauded Anita Hill for her bravery in "speaking out" about funny business behind the file cabinets. Some Jews--the more conservative and religious ones, to be precise were massaged by Clinton's attack on George Bush's policy of withholding loan guarantees from the ultra-chauvinist Yitzhak Shamir. For the first time since Kennedy's day, Cuban-American extremists were brought into the Democratic tent by another attack on Bush from the right--this time a promise to extend the embargo on Cuba to third countries. Each of these initiatives yielded showers of fruit from the money tree. At the same time, Clinton also came to office seeming to promise universal health care, a post-Cold War sensitivity to human rights, a decent outrage about the Bush/Baker/Eagleburger cynicism in Bosnia, China, and Haiti, and on top of all that, "a government that looked more like America." It would have seemed ungracious to point out that, in Florida at least, Clinton had turned to The Mob rather than the mob. To the former constituency, at least, he kept his promise. Within weeks of the "Peoples' Inaugural" in January 1993, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt arranged a sweetheart deal on the Everglades with the Fanjul family, leaving Al Gore's famous "environmentalist" fans seething and impotent at the first of many, many disappointments.
Excerpted from No One Left to Lie to by Christopher Hitchens Copyright © 2000 by Christopher Hitchens. Excerpted by permission.
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