A Visit with Bill Clinton

The conflict between the "A student" and the "pol"

During the Democratic primary campaign Governor Bill Clinton's verbosity became a strange part of his "character problem." To the average voter, his endlessly detailed answers sounded confusing and therefore deceptive. Among journalists they raised the suspicion that he was trying to placate every interest group--point two will reassure the feminists, point three will appeal to blacks--rather than projecting consistent, principled views. The economic plan that Clinton released in June intensified this problem. It listed a huge variety of positions but did not resolve contradictions among them or say which were the more important. For instance, the plan called for big increases in public investment, which sounds good--but proposed to pay for them mainly through unspecified defense cutbacks and the ever-elusive "administrative reforms."

This was sensible politics--being only as specific as absolutely necessary. The trick during a campaign is to find that narrow zone in which your positions are not so hazy that they're laughable but are still vague enough that most people can agree with them. "We can do better" always fits right in the zone, as do recommendations for "change" and much of the Clinton plan.

In an effort to ask Clinton about what lies behind the six-point checklists with which he answers questions whenever he can, several representatives of The Atlantic went to Little Rock to interview him. We also hoped to see at close range how well he was bearing up under the rigors of the campaign. Part of the "convention bounce" he enjoyed may have been the subliminal recognition of how much sheer wear and tear he had survived. Paul Tsongas could not have withstood the physical demands of a full campaign; George Bush probably couldn't if he didn't have the White House apparatus to prop him up. Ross Perot quit when the press coverage went mildly sour. Bill Clinton kept on plugging.

Clinton has resisted the vindictiveness that comes naturally in political campaigns. As a law of nature, politicians hate the press. Most end up thinking that there's some special reason the press discriminates against them. Mario Cuomo is notably touchy about anti-Italian stereotypes, Lyndon Johnson was ruined by the suspicion that the Ivy Leaguers were looking down on him, Patricia Schroeder thinks she's not taken seriously because she's a woman, Richard Nixon knew that the liberal Jewish media establishment was after him. Clinton has actually been the victim of anti-southern "Bubba" prejudice, especially during the New York primary. But if it bothers him, it doesn't show.

Clinton was affable, though understandably tired-looking, when we met him in the governor's mansion. He is bigger and bulkier than he looks on TV. Before the Democratic convention Clinton's national TV exposure was mainly through call-in shows and televised debates, rather than the rallies and speeches of the general-election campaign. During these early appearances he sometimes seemed to smile too much and too insincerely, like a game-show host. In person he had the natural charm of the born politician, along with a wryness that does not always come through on TV. By this stage in a presidential campaign a candidate has heard almost every question and can rattle off answers automatically. But a number of times Clinton paused for ten or fifteen seconds before answering a question, and he usually made a good-faith effort to address exactly the question we had raised.

Clinton covered a wide variety of topics comfortably and lucidly. In the few areas in which he hadn't yet worked out a policy--for example, immigration--he said so, and in most other areas he clearly laid out his position, listed the supporting arguments, and dealt with the main objections. In most of the interview we didn't lay a glove on him, and we left with no doubt about his intelligence or detailed operating knowledge of government. But we tried to explore the apparent contradictions in two parts of his economic policy: his plan for dealing with the budget deficit, and his strategy for international trade.

When talking about economics, Clinton seemed to be juggling two styles of thought, which was not true when the subject was race or abortion. His economic views, in his policy statements as well as in our discussion, switch between those of the A student and those of the pol. The A student recommends the respectable, well-thought-out policies that will be praised in universities and on editorial pages. The pol is concerned about getting elected and holding coalitions together. For instance: Every A student knows that America should have a much higher gasoline tax. The pol knows that people hate the sound of a gasoline tax, and they'll resist it unless you can tell them that the money will be used for some purpose they approve of, such as repairing roads.

The contrast between the two personalities is not the contrast between good and evil--between doing the right thing and merely "being political." It's a matter of proportion. Someone who is just an A student, like Michael Dukakis or John Anderson, won't become President--and if he slips through, the way Jimmy Carter did, he'll have a hard time getting politicians to do anything for him. Someone who seems to be just a pol, like George Bush, will be concerned only about holding the coalition together and won't care in what direction it goes. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were fundamentally pols, but they had enough interest in policy to keep their coalitions heading in a certain direction. Bill Clinton's answers to us indicated a similar internal balance.

The most pol-like thing Clinton did during the primary campaign was to attack Paul Tsongas, in Florida, as an enemy of Social Security. Tsongas had mentioned in his pamphlet-sized "book" that it might be sensible to hold down the cost-of-living adjustment for entitlement programs. Every A student who has thought about the federal budget knows that if you don't find some way to limit Social Security and Medicare, you will never, ever reduce the budget deficit. Every pol knows that you want your opponent to raise this issue, because no matter how limited and reasonable his proposal may be, you can make it sound like an assault on the entire system. The politics of this issue is maddening to A students, because it has created a welfare mentality in the population at large. Most retirees are now getting much more back from the Social Security system than they have "earned," in actuarial terms. But politicians and the American Association of Retired Persons have encouraged the view that not a penny can be touched--not even if it's for the elderly rich, the Ross Perot of a few years hence who will be fully entitled to his pension and Medicare. As a result, working families pay a regressive and steadily rising Social Security tax to transfer benefits to retirees who are on average richer than their children's generation. One paragraph in Tsongas's book referred to this issue without the usual hedging comments, and the Clinton campaign used it in ads portraying Tsongas as a threat to the elderly in general.

We asked Clinton whether he regretted doing this, and what he intended to do about entitlement costs. Here he was clearly aware of the A-student position, which is that the Social Security problem represents the conflict of two American ideals. Universal-benefit programs, from public schools to Social Security, are better than targeted programs like welfare, because it's not humiliating to take part in them and because all taxpayers get something for their money; but universal benefits can be unfair when poor people pay taxes to support benefits for the rich. One American ideal is to keep everyone in the same boat; the other is to give help only to those who need it. Today's entitlement system tries to do both.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In