Our Monica, Ourselves : The Clinton Affair and the National Interest

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  • Copyright: 2001-02-01
  • Publisher: New York University Press

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This set of 18 essays offers a variety of interesting commentaries a 'progressive forum' on the Clinton sex scandal.... The collection includes (in part) ruminations on body imagery, the idea of 'the Jewess,' the association of sexual recklessness with notions of race and class, the peculiarities of Clinton's politics (as well as his personal behavior) that made him vulnerable to such an attack, and the implications for Clinton's (reluctant) feminist supporters.--Library JournalThe book contains more than its share of smart writing--Salon.comAlongside the O.J. Simpson trial, the affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky now stands as the seminal cultural event of the 90s. Alternatively transfixed and repelled by this sexual scandal, confusion still reigns over its meanings and implications. How are we to make sense of a tale that is often wild and bizarre, yet replete with serious political and cultural implications?Our Monica, Ourselves provides a forum for thinking through the cultural, political, and public policy issues raised by the investigation, publicity, and Congressional impeachment proceedings surrounding the affair. It pulls this spectacle out of the framework provided by the conventions of the corporate news media, with its particular notions of what constitutes a newsworthy event. Drawing from a broad range of scholars, Our Monica, Ourselves considers Monica Lewinsky's Jewishness, Linda Tripp's face, the President's penis, the role of shame in public discourse, and what it's like to have sex as the president, as well as specific legal and historical issues at stake in the impeachment of Bill Clinton.Thoughtful but accessible, immediate yet far reaching, Our Monica, Ourselves will change the way we think about the Clinton affair, while helping us reimagine culture and politics writ large.Contributors include: Lauren Berlant, Eric O. Clarke, Ann Cvetkovich, Simone Weil Davis, Lisa Duggan, Jane Gallop, Marjorie Garber, Janet R. Jakobsen, James R. Kincaid, Laura Kipnis, Tomasz Kitlinski, Pawel Leszkowicz, Joe Lockard, Catharine Lumby, Toby Miller, Dana D. Nelson, Anna Marie Smith, Ellen Willis, and Eli Zaretsky.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1(8)
Lauren Berlant
Lisa Duggan
The Culture Wars of the 1960s and the Assualt on the Presidency: The Meaning of the Clinton Impeachment
Eli Zaretsky
The Symbolic of Presidentialism: Sex and Democratic Identification
Dana D. Nelson
Tyler Curtain
The Face That Launched a Thousand Jokes
Laura Kipnis
It's Not about Sex
James R. Kincaid
The Door Ajar: The Erotics of Hypocrisy in the White House Scandal
Simone Weil Davis
Sex of a Kind: On Graphic Language and the Modesty of Television News
Sasha Torres
The First Penis Impeached
Toby Miller
The Return of the Oppressed
Frederick C. Moten
B Jenkins
Trashing the Presidency: Race, Class, and the Clinton/Lewinsky Affair
Micki McElya
Marjorie Garber
Monica Dreyfus
Tomasz Kitlinski
Pawel Leszkowicz
Joe Lockard
The President's Penis: Entertaining Sex and Power
Catharine Lumby
`Tis Pity He's a Whore
Ellen Willis
Loose Lips
Jane Gallop
Lauren Berlant
Sexuality's Archive: The Evidence of the Starr Report
Ann Cvetkovich
Sex and Civility
Eric O. Clarke
``He Has Wronged America and Women'': Clinton's Sexual Conservatism
Janet R. Jakobsen
Sexual Risk Management in the Clinton White House
Anna Marie Smith
Contributors 337


Chapter One

The Culture Wars of the 1960s and

the Assault on the Presidency

The Meaning of the Clinton Impeachment

Eli Zaretsky

The impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton was one of those extraordinary historical events whose nature historians will debate for centuries. Among the problems they will have to address are the Republicans' motivations, the chasm between the electorate and the normally dominant media elites, and the Republicans' remarkable achievement--if we can call it that--in turning Clinton's Paula Jones deposition into a protracted national emergency. The problem of the Republicans' motivations is particularly vexed since, while it was unfolding, impeachment blatantly contradicted political calculations and, afterward, resulted in the collapse of the conservative movement's pretense to hegemony. Of course, any explanation will be preliminary. But in my view, it will be easier to solve these problems if we situate the impeachment in at least two overlapping historical contexts: the long-term reaction to the cultural revolutions launched in the sixties (feminism, gay liberation, multiculturalism, etc.), and a discrete series of attacks, dating from the thirties, on the presidency as the democratic moment in modern politics.

††† Stephen Greenblatt, Anthony Lewis, John Judis, Michael Ignatieff, and many other commentators have noted the similarities between the impeachment and the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century. The appeal of this analogy lies in its attempt to explain the irrationality of the Republican actions. As Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum demonstrated in their 1974 Salem Possessed , those who supported the persecution of witches lived in the poorer and more remote precincts of Salem Village. While their initial targets were social outcasts they later turned to their more prosperous fellow villagers who had ties to commerce and the sea. Witches were scapegoats; the trials were an irrational, persecutory response to anxieties unleashed by late seventeenth century commercialization and individuation.

††† Similarly, it is plausible to argue, the Republicans spoke for white, male, rural, suburban, and southern constituencies threatened by the social and cultural changes unleashed since the 1960s. Their real targets, never far from their words, but also never directly acknowledged, were women's emancipation, sexual emancipation, cultural "relativism," secularization, and pluralism. Clinton, the out-of-control dope-and-sex fiend, was their scapegoat. If they could have gotten rid of him, a whole reign of persecutions in such areas as abortion, education, and government would have followed.

††† While this explanation certainly has merit, there was a second current to the impeachment drive that received less attention. This lies in the specific history of the United States right wing, whose origins date to the late 1930s opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. To understand this opposition requires a perspective on the history of the presidency. It is one of the most powerful institutions ever created--and not only because the United States is powerful. Those who wrote the Constitution put the president in place of the king, as a symbol of national unity and moral identity. Whereas in parliamentary systems such as England the monarch or president divides authority with a prime minister, in the United States the president is simultaneously the chief executive officer and the symbol of the nation. Over time, due to the uniquely pluralist--multiethnic, multireligious, and multicultural--character of American society, the president emerged, along with the Constitution and the Supreme Court, as one of the few loci of centripetal authority.

††† The intentions of those who wrote the Constitution were conservative. Contrary to those intentions, however, the presidency became the center of democratic aspirations. This shift began during the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1828-1836), but its true origins lie in the Civil War. Then, as Abraham Lincoln argued against Stephen Douglas, the nation had to take a stand on a fundamental moral issue, namely slavery. The end of the war saw the creation of national citizenship, by virtue of which the executive branch of government can and must intervene to guarantee due process against local or state practices. In the late nineteenth century, the mass politics that developed with industrialization increasingly focused on the presidency. The political scientist Gwendolyn Mink tells of an Italian stowaway captured while trying to enter the United States in the 1890s, who knew only one word of English: "McKinley." But the most fundamental transformation of the American presidency into the vehicle of democratic strivings occurred during the New Deal.

††† The New Deal launched a genuine and continuing social and cultural revolution, at first centered on the working class and the immigrants. While there were nineteenth-century predecessors for the American right wing, notably in "states' rights," secession, and the Confederacy, as well as in the legal profession, the American right active in the impeachment episode was born in opposition to the New Deal and, specifically, to the enhanced role of the president that it fostered. Thus, the Republican attempt to roll back the cultural changes initiated in the sixties was part of a longer history, one aimed at retarding democratic change in general.

††† Republican actions, situated within this context, have also been subjected to depth psychological analysis. Following Freud's well-known argument in Totem and Taboo , Jonathan Lear argued that Clinton, as the first member of his generation to become president, needed to reassure his followers that he was leading from "within the group"--in other words, as one "brother" among many. Instead, many took Clinton to be foolishly flaunting his ability to transgress the rules--to avoid the draft, to smoke grass, and to possess every woman who caught his eye. Childishly brandishing "the presidential penis"--this is Lear's characterization--Clinton awakened infantile, unconscious fears of a powerful father figure who lives outside norms. Even more disturbing, he awakened omnipresent and ubiquitous desires to be that figure. Writing amid the furor of the impeachment hearings, Lear pointed to the Christian iconography that haunted it--for example, the intense anger at Clinton for failing to apologize properly, an act that would turn his antisocial exhibitionism and public soiling into a reaffirmation of the group's collective self-suppression. Only through proper contrition could Clinton bring about the ritual cleansing of what the New York Times obsessively called the "hallowed rooms" at the White House.

††† In one sense, Lear's stress on paternal authority deepened the meaning of the ritual sacrifice, cleansing, and rebirth that the impeachment enacted. The scapegoating of the witches, as described by Boyer and Nissenbaum, is actually a subcase of the scenario put forth in Totem and Taboo . Freud's view in that work was that the murder of the primal father--the founding moment of human society and the one that institutes the incest taboo---initiated a series of ritual reenactments aimed at preserving the social contract. Accordingly, symbolic fathers or father substitutes--for example, sons such as Jesus--were sacrificed to affirm the rule of the church or monarch. The mass, or other rituals, reenacted the founding moment. Similarly, in Salem, the witches were scapegoated to affirm the authority of ministers. One particularity of the New England example, which explains its special resonance with the impeachment, lies in the weakness of the ministers and their cause. A fuller study would have had to explain why the vast majority of increasingly secular and commercial New Englanders allowed a handful of religious bigots to have their way, just as we will have to address a similar problem in the case of the impeachment. Totem and Taboo provides the necessary clue. The sacrifice is tolerated because it promises to expiate a collective guilt.

††† In another sense, however, Lear lost a critical subtext of the witchcraft analogy. Following Freud, who portrayed the origins of society as the banding of the brothers against the father, Lear described impeachment as an all-male event. In contrast, female scholars such as Lynn Hunt, Joan Landes, and Carol Pateman have demonstrated the central role of gender difference in founding historical moments such as the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English and French revolutions, and of the importance of misogyny in sparking the counterrevolution. In my view, the 1960s were a period of revolutionary social and cultural transgression, akin to that of the great democratic revolutions and undertaken by women along with men. The conservative counter reaction to the 1960s, such as the impeachment, was importantly aimed at women and at Clinton as a man who had aligned himself with women. As in the past, the ultimate if unconscious aim of the counterrevolution was to reestablish the father's role as enforcer of the incest taboo, the task Clinton was perceived as abrogating in his affair with Lewinsky.

††† In general, then, it is worth situating the impeachment in the context of the changing meaning of presidential--and paternal--authority. In Roosevelt's time, the president led the way against a set of sacred shibboleths: the "free" market, the Social Darwinian "laws of nature," the right of the rich to their riches. Though a patrician, Roosevelt led from "within the group"--industrial workers, blacks, women, ethnics, southern whites, union members, Jews, enlightened businessmen, and the like. In doing so he helped his followers overcome feelings of deference, fears of authority, and systematically weakened self-esteem. The results were the almost revolutionary changes brought about by the New Deal. In the 1960s, the executive branch of government became the focal point for a new series of struggles--against racism, sexism, and homophobia--which both continued and diverged from the economic struggles of the previous epoch. A new leadership had to preserve the gains made in the New Deal era as well as repudiate additional shibboleths, for example the naturalness of a particular family norm. However, this task was complicated by a basic difference between the 1930s and the 1960s. Whereas the New Deal was the democratic response to a unifying national project, namely Fordist industrialization, democratic leaders since the 1960s have had to seek support among globalized social forces that often pushed against one another. Globalization actually intensified the focus on a symbolic private sphere in which the struggle between social forces seemed to be enacted. As a result, the attack against presidential authority--to which Clinton irresponsibly opened himself--and the scapegoating of Clinton as a symbol of sixties' culture converged. Or so I shall argue in what follows.

Before Roosevelt's inauguration as president in 1933, the national government, as V. O. Key later noted, "had been a remote authority with a limited range of activity. It operated the postal system, improved rivers and harbors, [and] maintained armed forces on a scale fearsome only to banana republics [ sic ]." The New Deal transformed it into an active and powerful collection of offices, comprising about one-third of the national economy, able to intervene in unparalleled ways in institutions that were defined as private, but which were actually organized through tradition, the market, and the corporations. The presidency was the pivot of this change. Three aspects of the transformed presidency were particularly important for understanding the Republican drive against Clinton.

†††† First, the New Deal freed the presidency from party control, by basing the president's new powers on direct (i.e., charismatic) communication with the masses, and on command of a vast bureaucracy. Early twentieth century presidents, notably Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, certainly enhanced presidential authority, especially in the sphere of foreign affairs. But only with the New Deal, did the president, the focus of mass aspirations, replace Congress, the seat of party organization, in initiating and framing legislation. The budget became the instrument of national planning, and the party system began to decline. Franklin Roosevelt actually ran against his own party members when they opposed his program, thus trying to turn the national Democratic party into an ideological party--the "party of liberalism," as he called it. By the time he left office the presidency had been transformed into a unique synthesis of popular rule and administrative power.

††† Second, the president's new authority helped legitimate an enormously expanded sense of entitlement. In 1935, a recent immigrant, Mrs. Olga Ferk, wrote to President Roosevelt complaining that she had been mistreated at her relief station, was only $19 behind in her government H.O.L.C. mortgage payments, not three months as accused, and that her son's Civilian Conservation Corps check was always late in arriving. "How long is this rotten condition going to last?" Mrs. Ferk demanded. "I am at the end of the rope. The rich get richer and the poor can go to -H- that is what it looks like to me.... Let's have some results." Mrs. Ferk's assumption that the national government owed her family relief, a mortgage, and employment was as unprecedented as her letter, which reflected a new, personal relation to the president. In fact, before 1933, one person handled all the White House mail. By 1945 there were fifty. Of course, the presidency empowered groups as well as individuals. The great mass-production union organizing drives of the 1930s--steel, rubber, oil, electricity, autos--proceeded under the slogan "the President wants you to join a union."

††† Finally, the New Deal tended to promote a pluralist and secular presidency. Before the New Deal, American politics, culture, and especially reform were deeply Protestant. Even the progressive reformers of the early twentieth century were preoccupied with individual virtue and vice. The New Deal, by contrast, substantially based on Catholic and Jewish ethnic voters, was essentially secular in its orientation. Often misdescribed as technocratic or "pragmatic," it elevated universal, secular ideals, such as freedom from want or (later) international justice, over moralizing, quasi-Protestant slogans, such as the progressive era's "beloved community." Among Roosevelt's first acts was the repeal of the quintessential progressive moral reform, namely prohibition. The Republican attack on the presidency and on the sense of popular entitlement was also an attack on freedom of religion, the original source of all liberalism.

††† In spite of the New Deal's universalist, secular character, however, it was conservative in regard to gender. Roosevelt was a great father figure because he could appeal to the traditional, working-class family and community, then a source of refuge and strength for women as well as men. That option was no longer available to democratic presidents who served in the wake of the 1960s. It is true that against the background of a societywide rebellion against authority in general, Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" sought to give new meaning to the democratizing changes of the New Deal by reaching out to blacks and by creating a third vast universalist continent of entitlements alongside education and social security, namely Medicare and Medicaid. Beginning with his 1964 speech at the University of Michigan, Johnson followed his mentor, Franklin Roosevelt, in seeking to place the executive in the forefront of the new forces of democratic change: civil rights, women's rights, consumer and environmental groups.

††† But in spite of good intentions, Johnson failed. The essential reason, as I have suggested, was the change in the social basis for democratic reform. The New Deal brought its supporters together around the goal of subjecting mass-production capitalism to limited forms of democratic control. The goal of using federal authority to regulate capitalism did not disappear in the 1960s, but the sixties witnessed the beginnings of a globalized and computerized economy, then figured as the "multinational corporations," "cybernetics," and "automation." By the seventies, the nation-state's role as the framework for collective agreements, entitlements, and redistributive policies, or what was broadly termed Keynesianism, began to weaken. Simultaneously, the traditional family, centered on paternal authority, gave way to forms of personal life that could no longer be defined by the traditional family or the economy. The New Deal strategy of turning identity conflicts into economic compromises became less and less viable. The Rooseveltian coalition began to divide: white southerners from northern liberals; blacks from Jews; women from men. Toward the second half of his presidency, Johnson found himself deeply saddened by the "disconnection" that ghetto blacks felt with the rest of society, as if they "weren't part of the world as we know it." The night of March 31, 1968, when Johnson announced his decision not to seek reelection, has been described as "the moment when the old coalition gave way to the new fragmentation, when the old politics gave way to the new."

††† One other change set in motion during the 1960s is important to understanding the impeachment. The importance of coalition politics was largely replaced by the media. Much earlier, Woodrow Wilson described the "extraordinary isolation" of the presidency, reflecting the degree to which presidential power depended on the shifting foundations of public opinion and on the play of interest groups. Beginning in the sixties, a vast extension of television, talk radio, direct mail, telecommunications, pollsters, media consultants, focus groups, along with the burgeoning of a culture of personal revelation, increased that dependence. This was the situation when William Clinton was sworn into office in 1993, the first president since the sixties to articulate even a modest democratic agenda.

Just as the New Deal presidency provides the inevitable start for understanding Clinton, so it provides the starting point for understanding his opponents on the right. Before the New Deal, there was no right-wing movement in the United States. "Conservatism," as exemplified by such a figure as Joseph Cannon, Speaker of the House during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, or by the "neanderthal" businessmen whom Theodore Roosevelt castigated, upheld the status quo against reform, but it was more a climate of opinion than a movement. The contemporary American right, by contrast, emerged as an oppositional movement. It was born when southern Democrats deserted the New Deal coalition during the congressional elections of 1938 over such issues as Roosevelt's toleration of the sit-down strikes, northern support for antilynching legislation, and "Wages and Hours" legislation (the immediate precipitant). Even though later figures such as Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich sometimes paid lip service to the New Deal, a core feature of the American right has been its attack on the presidency and on the executive branch of government.

††† Originally, this stance was the reason for the right's minority status. Herbert Hoover's insistence in the midst of the Depression that the New Deal was a form of "national regimentation" akin to fascism was too absurd to garner much support. Although there was considerable interest in such works as Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (1944), which defended the market against planning, and Russell Kirk's Burkean The Conservative Mind (1953), they were essentially regarded as curiosities. After all, the vast expansion of the middle classes after World War II depended primarily on government programs such as the G.I. Bill, federal mortgage insurance, the interstate highway system (which subsidized the suburbs), and the building of state and community colleges. For most Americans, to support the right's antigovernment agenda would be to saw off the branch on which they had just recently and uncertainly perched.

†††† The first step in the right's evolution toward hegemonic aspirations was the anti-Communism of the 1950s. To be sure, the Dies Committee, the immediate predecessor to the House Un-American Activities Committee, was founded in 1938 by anti-Roosevelt Democrats. But Cold War ideology, emblematized in Whittaker Chambers's Witness (1952), gave the attack on the New Deal a religious basis, as well as affirming its paranoid view of government. How, other than by invoking the specter of an external enemy, could poor southern whites or working-class ethnics, desperately in need of government support, be brought into an antigovernment coalition with right-wing oil interests and Sunbelt entrepreneurs? The McCarthy period also witnessed the first twentieth-century turn toward the use of impeachment as a political weapon in the right wing's campaign to impeach Earl Warren, an action aimed less at the Supreme Court than at the federal government's support for school integration and civil liberties. As an antigovernment coalition, McCarthyism also encouraged extralegal forces such as the John Birch Society and the White Citizens Councils.

††† Even given the power of anti-Communism, the right remained a minority in American politics until the same processes of deindustrialization and globalization that destroyed the New Deal coalition created an opening for it. Richard Nixon, president from 1968 to 1974, was unusual among conservatives in that he advocated old-fashioned, Disraeli-style governmental reforms. Nonetheless, he and his advisers grasped the significance of the breakup of the New Deal. In 1972, his speech writer, Pat Buchanan, reminded him that he had to "make permanent the New Majority" that had elected him, one that combined the "Nixon South" with the "ethnic, blue collar, Catholic, working class Americans of the North, Midwest and West." Equally blatant appeals to white people characterized Kevin Phillips The Emerging Republican Majority (1970), which attributed the collapse of the New Deal coalition to "the Negro socio-economic revolution." In addition, many of those set adrift by the breakup of the New Deal were attracted to a revived and politicized Christian evangelism. Superchurches, which often competed with government in providing social services such as day care, counseling and education, electronic ministries, and grassroots political lobbying, ensconced the Christian right in the Republican party. It is well known that right-wing sentiment grew in reaction to the civil rights movement, to feminism and gay liberation, and to what came to be called secular humanism, but it is not as often recognized how much the idea that the federal government was imposing these changes contributed to that growth.

††† Finally, globalization created not only an opening for antigovernment sentiment, but a dominant capitalist interest in the same. Of all the groups deserting the New Deal coalition, the most important was not the white South but rather business, which, led by the Business Roundtable, used the threat of global competition and "decreasing productivity" to renegotiate the relations between business, labor, and government. All three strains--anti-Communism, evangelical antisecularism, and neoliberalism--converged in the Reagan presidency, the only presidency recognized by the right as its own. Its central motif was the attack on presidential power, literally incarnated in the vacuous non-person who occupied the office. In his 1981 inaugural address, no less, Reagan proclaimed "in the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." In order to eliminate that problem, his administration saddled the nation with a $4 trillion budget deficit, a deficit that stretched "as far as the eye can see," in the words of his budget director, David Stockman.

††† In spite of Reagan's popularity, the right's attack on the federal government never attained majority status. The defeat of the nomination of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court in 1987 signaled the surprising weakness of the right. During the presidency of George Bush, free-market conservatives pushed aside social conservatives who responded by repudiating Bush for breaking his "no new taxes" pledge, supposedly a "character" issue. The ending of the Cold War eliminated the right's main raison d'Ítre. Its marginality was dramatically apparent in the broad, popular revulsion at the "pro-family," culturally conservative posturing of Pat Buchanan and the Quayles at the 1992 Republican convention. In retrospect, neither the election of a liberal/centrist Democrat as the first post-Cold War president in 1992, nor the intensely focused and deeply irrational minority assault against him, should have been a surprise.

Clinton's problem, then, was to "reinvent" the presidency in a context of massive cultural change, Democratic party factionalization, an overwhelming media presence in American life, and a resentful and angry minority. As a product of the sixties, he brought particular attributes to this task. For one thing, he had a deep, personal need for politics and for the public sphere. Ever since the sixties, the right's onslaught had been directed not only against the presidency but against politics and collective activity in general. Outside religion, everything was being privatized. Clinton's deep hunger for human contact, for deliberation, and for action in the Arendtian sense corresponded to a felt deprivation among large numbers of Americans and was a major source of his appeal, as well as a target for sarcasm and contempt.

††† A second attribute lay in his attitude toward morality. Clinton behaved as if morality was one consideration that must be weighed along with others such as compassion, realism, prudence, respect for difference, and so forth; it was not always and necessarily the most important. Of course, this occasionally allowed for trimming. Nonetheless, in a country that sometimes seemed polarized between left-wing political rectitude and right-wing Christianity, both of which minimized the difference between the private and the political, Clinton embodied a progressive alternative. The public's wish to have done with a politics of personality and moralism--the politics that ended Gary Hart's candidacy in 1988--had been dramatically demonstrated during the 1992 presidential campaign when against all the pundit's predictions, it backed Clinton after the Gennifer Flowers episode, and again after his waffling over the draft. Clinton's support actually rose after the Flowers revelations. These incidents anticipated the public's ability to resist rightwing attempts to stampede it in the Monica Lewinsky affair. At the same time, both his need for public life and his sometimes confused explanations for his actions drew attention to his vulnerability. Clinton's enemies sensed his weakness and it aroused them.

††† The conventional wisdom, as summarized recently by Lars-Erik Nelson, is that Clinton had "no large vision." In fact, he entered Washington with far more of a vision than Franklin Roosevelt had when he was elected in 1933 on a promise to balance the budget by cutting government expenses. What Clinton lacked was not a vision, but the support of a social movement and some breathing space from the Reagan-Bush budget deficit. Clinton's view, repeatedly asserted to the Democratic Leadership Council, was that the Democratic party had been reduced to a collection of interest groups such as labor, blacks, women, and gays. Clinton claimed that the party could gain broader support if it distinguished government investment, such as health, education, and research, from government spending, especially for military purposes. Situated in the context of the account of globalization laid out in Robert Reich's The Work of Nations (1991), and supported by many business leaders such as Democrat Felix Rohatyn and Republican John Young, Clinton proposed to attract globally mobile capital by government investment in "human capital": education, children's programs, infrastructure, worker training, health care. The ending of welfare "as we know it" was originally situated in that context, and as such had genuine support from many African Americans.

††† Accordingly, Clinton's presidency began by proposing the most extensive social program since the sixties, including family leave (albeit unpaid), economic stimulus, and national health care. But the factionalization of his core constituencies, along with his own inexperience, impulsivity, and disorganization, got him off to a weak start. He had more obligations than supporters. Much of his first year was taken up by what George Stephanopolous called "an overactive desire to appease our liberal base with appointments because we couldn't deliver on policy." Clinton's desire to symbolically support the two-career family also harmed him. He campaigned on the slogan "get two for one" and promised "an unprecedented partnership, far more than Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor." However, the Roosevelts' collaboration depended on keeping Eleanor in the sphere of extragovernmental advocacy, thus allowing Franklin to use her to test the waters on "dangerous" issues such as support for Negro sharecroppers. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, was at first practically a copresident, and thus Bill Clinton could not dissociate himself from her failures. This, in turn, weakened his ability to protect her from right-wing attacks which, in turn, weakened him.

††† Immediately upon Clinton's arrival in Washington, all the major power groups--the military, Congress, the bureaucracy, and the press--tested him and decided he was weak. The most convincing demonstration of "weakness" came from the military and its congressional allies after a New York Times article provoked Clinton into making gays in the military almost his first prominent issue. (Gay groups advising the Clinton campaign had been divided over the best timing and form for action on this front, whether through Congress or by executive order.) Simultaneously, Senate minority leader Robert Dole promised to filibuster any significant new Democratic legislation, forcing the president to obtain sixty votes for passage. Dole's disingenuous reason was that Clinton had been put in office by a minority of the electorate. In February, 1993, a month after Clinton took office, Democratic senator David Boren characterized the environment surrounding Clinton as "very disturbing." Referring to a meeting with senators and House members, he noted "they were patronizing to the President. They didn't show enough deference.... This is popping up in other areas--in the case of the Joint Chiefs, the image that they thumbed their nose at him." Furthermore, Clinton owed much of his victory to extra-Washington media such as The Larry King Show , MTV, and Hollywood. From the moment he arrived in Washington, the political pundits and the White House press corps regarded him as an interloper. As Everett Dennis, director of the Media Center at Columbia University, noted with surprise, "there's open contempt for the Presidency with T.V. reporters saying on the air what they like and don't like--as if their opinion mattered."

††† Clinton should have expected this kind of opposition, but the mushrooming of intense extrapolitical anti-Clintonism was less predictable. I was at a research library in 1993 and watched with growing horror as a wealthy donor to the library and a right-wing employee met each morning in the coffee room to chew over the previous day's supposed misdeeds. The source of their information was generally the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal , which attained a national audience during the Reagan years and routinely purveyed rumors of drug use, corruption and even murder (after Vincent Foster's suicide). Talk radio, notably Rush Limbaugh's show and Floyd Brown's Clintonwatch , kept survivalists, private militias, patriot groups, tax resisters, homicidal abortion-clinic activists, Paul Revere newsletter writers, Christian fundamentalists, and home schoolers roiled. The tragically mishandled Waco Raid of April 1993 further fed anti-Clinton and antigovernment paranoia. Above all, Whitewater, aimed at Hillary Clinton, provided an unending source of news opportunities, leading eventually to a congressional investigation and to the appointment of an independent prosecutor, Robert Fiske. When Fiske found nothing, the right orchestrated his replacement by Kenneth Starr. Clinton failed to understand how deep the crisis of his presidency was. Heading into the 1994 congressional elections, he touted his achievements to anyone who would listen and was "certain that `we'd beat their ass' if he could tell everyone ... what big changes he had made."

††† In the absence of a Republican president, Newt Gingrich, the central figure among the Republicans in the House of Representatives, became the effective leader of the right. Combining extremist rhetoric with an overstated "vision of a technologically oriented, individualist society where government would recede and private institutions would bear the burden of philanthropy and moral uplift," Gingrich sought majority status for a "party and a movement that is based on ideas." His "Contract with America," prepared for the 1994 elections, was subtitled "A Program for Responsibility" and attempted to make the Republicans an ideological party, as the Democrats had been earlier. Leaving out abortion and school prayer, it emphasized deficit reduction, term limits, and shrinking government. The key idea was to neutralize the executive branch of government by gaining control of the House. The House, Gingrich and his associates believed, "was where the political realignment of the country in favor of the Republicans would be nailed down or lost." As his close adviser, Grover Norquist, explained, "Ultimately, the House sets the pace and limits on what a President can do. Even if you have fifty-one percent of the votes in the Senate you can't control it. You need sixty votes to stop a filibuster. You rarely have that."

††† In the 1994 elections the Democrats lost eight Senate seats and fifty-two House seats amid peace and economic growth; this loss apparently confirmed Gingrich's strategy. In the first hundred days of the new Congress, Gingrich brought all ten items of the Contract with America to a vote, losing only one of them: term limits. He celebrated with a national televised address, claiming a role for himself equal to that of the president. According to Elizabeth Drew, "The House Republicans' assault on the executive branch was to be total, on every front, and without precedent." Clinton acknowledged Gingrich's newfound authority by agreeing to his proposal that they produce a balanced budget within a fixed number of years--a decision from which a great deal followed. As Drew summarized, "Clinton and the Senate were working within Gingrich's frame of reference. The direction of the government had been turned around."

††† In fact, the 1994 defeat created the conditions for Clinton's first attempt to consolidate his presidency. While support for a transformative presidency such as Franklin Roosevelt's was never strong, support for a defensive action against the right wing was. Clinton's turn toward Dick Morris, polls and "triangulation" (i.e., cooptation of Republican issues) after 1994 was widely described as opportunism. Russell Baker wrote that "since we are being followed, not led, our followers--whom we call `leaders'--stagger along like blind drunks, trying not to bump headfirst into the lampposts." But while Clinton coopted right-wing themes, he changed their meaning by linking them to centralized, democratizing power. Balancing the budget was the central example. For Gingrich it meant the limitation of governmental power; for Clinton it meant governmental authority could be used again, since it was freed from the Reagan-imposed straightjacket. Clinton agreed to the most egregious Republican programs on crime, such as the limitation on the ability of death row inmates to appeal, but he tied crime legislation to gun control. Even the abolition of welfare helped legitimate government.

††† Clinton also benefited enormously from the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. So powerful were the resonances between Gingrichian bombast and the explosion that Gingrich had to deny the connection. As a White House aide commented: "We tried all year to say we're the mainstream and they're the extreme. Now we can show that. Until this tragedy the Republicans felt comfortable pandering to the militia types in their rhetoric." Increasingly, Clinton stressed the links between support for the federal government and the revitalization of the public sphere. In the summer of 1995, in a speech at Georgetown University, he said that politics has become "just like the rest of us, pluralized. It's exciting in some ways, but as we divide into more and more and more sharply defined organized groups around more and more and more stratified issues [we do not produce] the sort of discussion that will give us the kinds of results we need." His press secretary, Mike McCurry, noted: "The President has given more and more thought about what the fundamental disconnect is between him and the public right now. People tell him that much of the public is anguished about their future, and is angry about crime, decline in moral standards, and politics. They say the Democrats have shut themselves off from the subject of values, and that he'd better get in the discussion. He wants to show that the Republicans are way off to the right on values. He's setting up the argument he wants to take into next year: what is the government's role?"

††† As early as May 1995, Gingrich had warned of a "train wreck," meaning a government shutdown, the following fall if the budget negotiations did not proceed correctly. The battle over the shutdown began in November and ended the following January. The fiscal differences were small, and economic indicators already suggested that the problem had been greatly overestimated. In December, the Washington Post wrote "on policy matters, congressional Republicans have utterly dominated. They have set the agenda, and President Clinton has been a bit player. By contrast, the President has completely dominated the public relations struggle. He has constantly made the Republicans look mean, petty and silly." But this makes it seem that what was at stake was Clinton's status in the polls. In fact, the right had tried for years to erode the collective achievements of the New Deal by encouraging the desertion of wealthier individuals and by supporting the capitalist predators who roam under the banner "privatization." In resisting a budget deal that cut social security, Medicare, education, and job training, Clinton, one of his aides commented, "discovered his center of gravity, which was pretty close to the center of gravity of the country, and that's where he stayed." The resulting reversal of Gingrich's fortunes was stunning. According to Bob Woodward, "The President's greatest strength ... emerged from having the Republican Congress go haywire before his eyes." The following November, Clinton convincingly won a second term as president.


Copyright © 2001 New York University. All rights reserved.

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