Monday, June 16, 2008

Judge Not Lest the Clintons Be Judged

Speaking of friends, a good one recently pressed on me a copy of Christopher Hitchens' No One Left To Lie To, a polemic about the Clintons that he published in 1999. (This was when Hitchens was allowed to lob such grenades and still write for the more respectable journals of the American left, like Harper's and The Nation.)

The relatively brief book (small trim, 150 pages; I read it in a night) is great fun. It will also leave you scratching your head -- if you aren't already -- about the extraordinary mental gymnastics that people must do to believe that supporting the Clintons is somehow a feminist position.

Hitchens notes that Bill Clinton, while governor of Arkansas, had called the first President Bush "anti-woman" for not believing Anita Hill. This is hypocrisy stretched so far that it becomes high comedy. In another section, we're reminded that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., during Clinton's troubles, "instructed Congress that a gentleman was obliged to lie, under any duress, in matters of sex." Hitchens writes:
Gentlemen are indeed supposed to be discreet about affairs, at any hazard to themselves, in order to protect the modesty and honor of the ladies involved. This doesn't quite track with Clinton's policy of maintaining a semi-official staff for the defamation and bullying of inconvenient but truthful former girlfriends: "the politics of personal destruction" elevated into an annex of the state machine. It is not "philandering" -- a term of some dash and gaiety that has been much abused -- to hit on the help and then threaten dire reprisals.
Of course, hitting on and then bullying the help may have been one of Clinton's lesser crimes against women (Hitchens makes a good case for the others, and they are indeed terrible).

But my favorite paragraph in the book was a broader statement about the political landscape. This sums up at least one reason why I think it's necessary to maintain independence from party:
The Establishment injunction -- to focus on "issues" and "concerns" and "agendas" rather than mere "personalities" -- is overripe for the garbage heap. . . . the judgment of "character" is one of the few remaining decisions that an otherwise powerless and unconsulted voter is able to make for himself (or, and here I defer to Ann Lewis, for herself). Simply put, a candidate can change his/her campaign platform when in office, but he/she cannot change his/her nature. Even more simply put, the honest and the powerless have a vested interest in a politician who cannot be bought, whereas the powerful and the dishonest have already begun to haggle over the tab while the acceptance speech is still being written.
Too many people I know take the fact that some Americans, by "character," mean "the ability to attend a barbecue and drink beer," and use it to ignore that there are meaningful definitions of the word. This is the most lasting legacy of the Clintons that I've seen -- their corruption and the ensuing argument that their "enemies" were just out to get them has hastened us to the point where judgment of character is considered a trap rather than an obligation. The (D) or the (R) is all that matters.


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