Bill Clinton's politics of meaning.

Bill Clinton's politics of meaning.
Four More Years
THERE IS NO more damning comment on the state of politics and public life than the fortunes of Bill Clinton. No one likes him, and everyone takes for granted that he is going to be re-elected. This is the average American's view of government in a nutshell, and not without reason, but the president is an ideal type. "Clinton's people are very encouraged by his rising approval rating," a senator from his own party is said to have remarked a few months back. "When it hits 60, they say he can start dating again." Conjure with that for a moment, because it gets to the heart of what distinguishes Bill Clinton in mid-1996: a remarkably bald cynicism coupled with an apparent imperviousness to public accountability.

This is quite a reversal. It's hard even to remember that a year ago Clinton was everybody's lame duck in waiting. And harder still to remember that a lot of people once expected him to stand for something larger than the ingrained prerogatives of power and his own self-seeking. Not long after he took office, someone published a book that consisted of people's dreams about Bill Clinton; it was an odd thing to do--can you imagine Bush Dreams?--and it said something, however oblique, about the extent of the psychic energy invested in him. For reasons I have never pretended to understand, a lot of people convinced themselves that Clinton's election would mean something recent elections hadn't, that it would somehow help restore a public dimension to their lives.

How did Bill Clinton betray their every hope and emerge from the process seemingly stronger than ever? The typically prosaic answer is that Clinton has co-opted the great middle while leaving liberals with no place else to go; the New York Times made an obligatory announcement to that effect on Monday. There is also the terrifically unpopular Republican Congress, which started Clinton on his uptick. But part of me suspects the truth about Clinton's resiliency is even more dispiriting.

Start by considering the impressive store of evidence against the Clintons now resting in the public record: the White House's obvious efforts to impede the Whitewater investigation, most egregiously in the matter of Hillary's billing records and in the disposition of Vince Foster's files in the hours following his suicide; Hillary's windfall commodities trades, which turned $1,000 into $100,000 with the help of present and former Tyson Foods officials privy to insider information that, according to scrupulously neutral Blood Sport author James Stewart, "came precariously close to collusion to manipulate the market"; Bill's attempt to buy off Arkansas state troopers who knew of his many affairs with a promise of federal jobs; and so on.

Some of these matters involve apparent crimes or improprieties while Clinton was president; many are merely unflattering snapshots of a pair of bright young hustlers snatching up every conceivable perk en route to grander things. As Stewart writes in the epilogue to his book, "For reasons that seem rooted in their personalities, especially Hillary's, and in the dynamic of their marriage at the time, the Clintons seized what seemed to be opportunities to make easy money, even when that meant accepting favors or special treatment from people in businesses regulated by the state.... While lack of knowledge about the [Whitewater] investment has often been asserted by the Clintons as an excuse or defense, their ignorance seems willful.... Surely the Clintons could indulge in such a laissez-faire approach to what was their single largest financial asset only because they expected others to take care of them because of their power and prestige as the governor and his wife."

This is the abiding stench of Whitewater, and the striking thing is that the public seems not the least bit worked up about it. But then how could they be? It's tough to damage Clinton with the implication that he is just another chum of the powerful, bereft of principle and in it for himself alone, when his administration proudly evinces as much every day. A bill expressly outlawing gay marriage? He'll be waiting with pen in hand. Clinton apologists face a hard time squaring that pledge, or his applause for Wisconsin's punitive welfare plan, with the distasteful demands of politics; at this point he obviously has more prerogatives than he has ever had. The fact is, he's siding with Wall Street and the Fortune 500 on social spending because he wants to, and with the cultural right on gay issues because it's expedient. If the Republicans who cooked up the gay marriage bill thought they could trick Clinton into a costly stand on principle, they just weren't paying attention.

There's something profoundly nihilistic at the heart of Clintonism that's hard to pin down. I don't know how to explain it briefly except by reference to something Dave Marsh wrote in these pages a few years ago regarding the situationist credo nothing is true and everything is permitted. When you accept that premise, Marsh wrote, what you end up with is not the paradise of endless possibility that the situationists dreamed of, but nihilism: Nothing means anything. That's Clinton through and through. Why, after all, are we to support him as the lesser of two evils? Because he is less harsh in matters of social welfare--though he bashes children and the poor mercilessly. Because he is less inclined to pack the courts with enemies of civil liberties and constitutional protections such as the right to due process--though the terrorism bill he finally succeeded in ramming through Congress does more damage in those areas than the Reagan and Bush administrations and the Supreme Court combined had yet managed to do.

These very public contradictions usually go unremarked, but that doesn't mean they go unnoticed. Yet he so far looks to escape unscathed, and it's hard to believe that the unpopularity of Dole and Gingrich is the only reason why. At a deeper level Clinton seems to have taken the hopes invested in him four years ago and dissolved whatever meaning people still believed politics could hold. Sure he's a bastard, they seem to figure; of course he believes in nothing higher than his own re-election. What did we expect?

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