Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bill Clinton's Gaffes: Gulliver in Lilliput

The conventional wisdom attests that Bill Clinton has been more trouble than help for his wife’s presidential campaign. Primary after primary, the Hillary Clinton campaign fumbled for an optimal way of utilizing the man who campaigned so well for himself just 16 years ago, but who now appears to be a liability at every turn. Could it be that Clinton has gone old and senile, that he has lost his magic? Is this an attention-seeking personality that just does not know when to step away from the spotlight and give others their turn?

These extant answers, which turn on Bill’s foibles, do not explain the coincidental timing of the sudden and precipitous loss of Bill’s personal touch. Bill Clinton is Hillary’s millstone, her permanent campaign faux pas because he is running to be the country’s first First Gentleman, a feat only a handful of men, and certainly no former president, has attempted. All his political skills matter little in this new arena: where once he applied his savvy in the arts of self-promotion, he now faces the subtler challenge of other-promotion. This is a Gulliver thrashing about trying to be a Lilliputian.

This isn’t just a personal transition Bill is experiencing. There are deeper institutional and cultural forces afoot that say as much about us as it does of Bill. Ours is not a culture used to cutting a president down to size because for all our republican ideals we always end up mythologizing them. (Certainly, the media is not used to covering former presidents as just another political spouse. That is why Bill gets so much attention, and why everything he says is magnified.) If my argument is persuasive, the conventional wisdom is absolutely right that Bill Clinton has turned out to be Hillary’s biggest asset and liability, but this seeming contradiction has not yet been explained. It is precisely because Bill has become such an iconic figure in the Democratic party that our political culture (and indeed the man himself) is still searching for what to make of the humbling of Gulliver. From this perspective, Bill Clinton’s verbal gaffes are only incidental to the social tectonic tremors his role transition has inevitably engendered. Bill has become a unique problem for his wife because the country had to watch him negotiate the transformation from erstwhile commander-in-chief to the spouse of an aspiring one. There was no way that this transition was going to be a smooth one, and if so it is a phenomenon in which we are complicit.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Wright Con Text

Why is it that every time a public figure gets in trouble for something s/he said in the past, the modal excuse is, “taken out of context?” Let’s parse that.

If I were deploying the context excuse, I would be saying some or all of these things:

1. Were it not for journalistic knavery or ineptitude, I would not have been so sorely misunderstood. Ergo A: the media is always to be blamed.
2. Had my words been properly placed in context, what I said would have been utterly unobjectionable. Ergo B: I am always right.
3. Any string of words, with enough words restored before and after it can have its meaning altered and even reversed. Ergo C: Words can mean everything, and therefore nothing.

Propositions A, B, and C evidence the worse kind of rhetorical relativism to which our political culture stridently trends. Public figures do not take responsibility for their words (and those who defend them argue that they have been woefully “taken out of context”). They are contemptuous of their interlocutors’ ability to perceive their disingenuousness. (“Depends on what the meaning of ‘is,’ is”) Most toxically, the perennial recourse to “context” perpetuates a culture that permits and rewards rhetorical stunts calculated to deceive. Anything can mean anything, with just enough verbal trickery. Rev Jeremiah Wright is the latest disciple of this well-trodden path. For someone who purports to teach the Word, he is mighty versed in its elaborate and variable meanings.

All too often today, context is sought not to clarify but to throw a smokescreen over what was previously said. Only in politics and public life are we so frequently invited to read between and across the lines so that we may be confounded by them.

Update of May 6: See a piece I submitted to the Wesleyan Argus on Wright's impact on Obama's campaign.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Obama's "Bitter" Remark

"So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

And thus Obama made his first major, even fatal campaign flaw of this election cycle. Nothing thus has far has pierced his Teflon hide; except perhaps the gnawing irritation of the Reverend Wright controversy for which he has failed to put away. But this “bitter” gaffe was solely his in the making, and it hit a historical nerve.

It did so because it is beginning to fit a damning narrative that has for too many election cycles consigned the Democrats to electoral defeat: the social crusader ostensibly championing the cause of minorities and labor out of noblesse oblige but exposed as an out-of-touch cultural and intellectual elite. Democratic party leaders and super-delegates remember all too well the noble intentions but foiled ambitions of Dukakis and Gore and the campaign ad featuring John Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket in 2004. Watch for the "bitter" problem, now temporarily drowned out because of the Wright noises, to resurface should Obama win the nomination.

Others may think that Obama will easily weather this storm, but his campaign decided to err on the side of caution. Revealingly, Obama finally relented and interviewed with FoxNews’s Chris Wallace, after 772 days of desisting, two weeks after Obama’s "bitter" comments, and a week after his primary defeat in Pennsylvania to Hillary Clinton. His campaign decided that he had to deal with his white working class problem, and where else to better reach this constituency than on FoxNews. There are resilient patterns in American politics: just about the surest way to lose an election is to allow oneself to be painted as an out-of-touch elite. And so the former law professor dutifully learned to enjoy waffles and to bowl.

Super-delegates thinking about Hillary Clinton’s “eligibility” argument will have to wrestle with the changing profile of the Democratic party’s base and whether they are content with appeasing core supporters among the latte-drinking college-educated liberal crowd. In 1988, 2000, and 2004, these supporters were not sufficient to deliver their champions into the White House. If 2008 is to prove to be a Democratic year, a litmus test I propose is whether Obama succeeds in unapologetically reconfiguring the Democratic party so that in effect, it takes the White House without the white blue-collar vote. Now that would be the audacity of hope.