The Anti-Elvis

WHERE ELECTORAL POLITICS is concerned, one is bound to be a cynic or a fool these days. There is very little chance to be anything else. The rare opportunity to vote for a Paul Wellstone, for a voice that chooses to depart from the great gray consensus and still manages to make itself heard, only underscores the fact. To wake up each day to a contest between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole--well, I don't mean to belabor the obvious, but it's a parody of democratic forms and a joke on everyone who's watching. In its own grinding way, it further cheapens our public life. And that includes the conversations we can have with friends.

          A case in point: I recently got a note from the critic Greil Marcus about City Pages' coverage of the presidential race, in particular our proclivity for saying unkind things about Bill Clinton. I haven't responded because I haven't known how to. I should say that Marcus is one of the best writers and brightest people I've met; that whether he knows it or not--and I don't think I ever told him--there is one particular piece he wrote in 1978 that went a long way toward impelling me to try my hand as a journalist and a critic in the first place. What I mean to say is that I feel a sense of debt and, usually anyway, a sense of kinship.

          I'm sitting here with his letter right now, and I have no idea what it means. Early on, Marcus mentions something I wrote a while back about Clinton's betrayal of the hope that he would help to add back a public dimension to people's lives. "That he may have failed this hope--or even that he may have raised it, or that it may have been raised around him--is a rich subject, and a complex subject. But one thing I learned long ago, when self-starting political movements were disrupting the country, to a great degree setting the terms of its discussion, to the point that official politics was often reduced to conspiracy--is that electoral politics is not the place to look for self-definition, self-realization, or happiness."

          This much I do understand, and he's right. But the larger point of Marcus's note is that it's a mistake to single out Bill Clinton as an enemy. And here I begin to suspect that we not only disagree, but that we are somehow speaking different languages. Leaving aside matters of left and right, of policy, of the million-plus children Clinton would sooner starve than jeopardize a few points of his double-digit lead, I really cannot fathom how anyone of a small-d democratic persuasion manages to stand up for the president at this point, even half-heartedly.

          As far as I'm concerned, to say that Bill Clinton is not a bona fide enemy of sane politics and sane discourse is to ignore not only his record but the very spirit of Clintonism. No public figure in my lifetime has done more to disintegrate political language--to create a disjunction between rhetoric and deed. It transcends hypocrisy. The so-called neoliberalism of Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council amounts to one essential stratagem in the end: coopting liberal language in the service of policies that turn liberal values on their head. The defining insight of the Clintonites is not that liberal social values are passe, but that they remain perilously vital and therefore need defusing. Some tribute must be paid, and thus we get the utter disconnect that's evident between Clinton's vaguely humanistic rhetoric and his actions--regarding kids, welfare, the environment, you name it. Criticize Clinton's policies and chances are you will find yourself saying things he has already said.

          In this regard, the president bears ironic resemblance to a figure Greil Marcus happens to have written about at great length. Clinton is the anti-Elvis. Like Elvis, that is, he has taken up the strands of a tradition and created a new language from them. But it's a language of negation, of denial, a language whose triumph is that one cannot possibly say anything by speaking it. To the extent that a lot of people took Clinton seriously in the first place--his claims to empathy, his supposed aspiration to a kind of civic renewal after 12 years of Reagan and Bush--what he has done is more profound than promoting cynicism. His presidency has been a vivid enactment of people's worst fears about politics: that the word of politicians means nothing at all, that public life is bottomlessly corrupting, that there is nothing one can do to interfere with the entrenched prerogatives of power.

          In short, Clinton has done his utmost to help scuttle precisely the kind of public energies Marcus refers to in his letter. The most concise expression of the Clinton ethos that I've heard was uttered at a talk I attended last weekend. The speaker's subject was Berlin dada, and he quoted a passage from George Grosz to the effect that times characterized by protracted public defeat always engender a reaction akin to dada. Afterward I asked where that reaction could be seen today. That's a hard question, the speaker said, because "we're living in a time where defeat is very hard to see--when betrayal is often made to look like compromise."

          There is the cardinal sin of the Clintonites in a nutshell. The speaker was Greil Marcus. I would submit that either he is missing something rather fundamental here, or I am. I'd like to pursue the discussion further, but I really don't know how. It is a sign of the times to find oneself increasingly in this position not only with enemies but with friends as well.

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