Motel 1600 Revisited

I COMMEND TO your attention two polls that appeared this past Sunday. The Los Angeles Times reported that Bill Clinton is enjoying the highest approval ratings of his presidency; meanwhile the Harris organization released its annual survey of confidence in American institutions, showing that the aggregate faith in those institutions has never been lower in the 30 years of the poll's existence. Fitting, yes? From the Packwood diaries on down to the Bill and Newt scandals and the soft money explosion, the system of barter at the center of national life has never stood more nakedly revealed. From the New York Times, this recent headline: "$250,000 Buys Donors 'Best Access to Congress.'" From the Los Angeles Times: "Up to 900 Donors Stayed Overnight at the White House."

That last headline refers to the abandon with which the Clintons have auctioned off lodgings at the world's most exclusive bed & breakfast. A great many Friends of Bill are put up in the fabled Lincoln Bedroom, which was not actually Lincoln's bedroom but the office from which he prosecuted the Civil War. Here the sixteenth president spent his days holding meetings, poring over maps, meeting office seekers and interested citizens, and concocting the most desperate and provisional schemes to hold together the Union. To this day, no one quite knows why. As a younger man, Lincoln had argued on behalf of the right to secession. And it won't suffice to say that he wanted to do away with slavery, which he found distasteful but more than once proclaimed he would abide if, by doing so, he could preserve the nation intact. "The Union" itself held a mystical status for Lincoln that none of his biographers has been able to explain on the basis of personal creed or political exigency. To preserve it he pursued a war that killed over half a million; set aside key provisions of the Bill of Rights; and made a new country that would become the most formidable, and most oppressive, empire in the world.

How much would you pay for the privilege of sharing a little part of this history? A million dollars? Two million dollars? It could be yours for as little as $250,000! It's hardly a stretch to think of Lincoln's old office as being at or near the seat of another civil war now, this one a more chronic affair with more tawdry ends. Years ago, in The Work of Nations, Robert Reich called it "the secession of the privileged." The phrase was promptly forgotten, but remains apt. The privileged are out to make their own country, in which players play and everyone else lives as an exiled spectator, alone in front of his or her TV.

Clearly, Clinton is a man for times like these. Practically speaking, there is no end to what a right-wing Democrat like Clinton can do under cover of bipartisanship; witness the pending assault on Social Security and Medicare. But there is also an emotional dimension to this betrayal of the polity at which the president excels. It was no surprise to find him at his soppy best before last week's National Prayer Breakfast, where he tacitly admitted ravaging the poor ("We didn't change [welfare]; we tore it down; we threw it away") and then beseeched his listeners to say prayers for--cynical politicians.

The drama he enacts is that of the man who may know better but nonetheless answers to his basest instincts every time. He loves the cheap catharsis of pretending to feel common folks' pain, which he deems ennobling, but he remains unswervingly narcissistic in the end. With Clinton there is a fundamental disconnect between professed values and eventual actions; morality figures as just another kind of sentimentality, to be deployed for effect. "This town is ripped with people who are self-righteous, sanctimonious, and hypocritical," he told the prayer meeting. "I plead guilty from time to time." But only, he might have added, as the occasion demands. Clinton is a resonant image on both sides of America's great divide; he offers symbolic confirmation of the worst habits of the powerful and the worst fears of everyone else. Suffusing it all, and adding to the anesthetic effect, there is the abiding sense of politics as psychotherapy. Everyone is, as a condition of citizenship, entitled to the president's empathy; additional services rendered on a cash basis.

THE AFOREMENTIONED HARRIS poll, in case you're interested, finds the greatest degree of trust in the leaders of these institutions: the military, medicine, the Supreme Court, colleges and universities, and organized religion--though, by the time number five rolls around, only 20 percent say they feel "a great deal of confidence." The five most discredited institutions, proceeding from the bottom: law firms, organized labor, Congress, the press, and the Executive Branch. Safe from view in the very middle of the pack are "major companies" and Wall Street.

LOCAL MEDIA TOOK passing note of The Sentencing Project's recent report on racial disparities in criminal sentencing but failed to point out that Minnesota was the worst state in the entire nation on this score. "For violent offenses," author Marc Mauer notes, "the increase in felony sentences for blacks outpaced that for whites by 287 percent to 40 percent for murder, 316 percent to 68 percent for assault, and 121 percent to -5 percent for robbery between 1984 and 1994. For drug offenses, though, the black rate increased by 1096 percent compared to 71 percent for whites."

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