A Visit with Bill Clinton

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

Its successful rivals--first in Japan, then in Korea--were coordinated by their respective governments. Without exception, countries that now have semiconductor industries got their start with government guidance and help. When the American semiconductor industry began, in the 1950s, the U.S. government--specifically the Defense Department and the space program--was for several crucial years the major and sometimes the only customer for its products. When the industry revived in the late 1980s, it did so, yes, because of its own efforts--plus government intervention, in the form of new trade treaties and research consortia.

The conflict between the two views is built into Clinton's campaign. Robert Reich, a prominent exponent of the Field of Dreams concept, is one of his close advisers. But another is Ira Magaziner, a champion of the real-world view. (Lester Thurow, another prominent academic in the real-world camp, is not connected with the Clinton campaign.) The first camp is the A-student position; the second is for pols. In most of his campaign statements Clinton has sounded like an A student, emphasizing the mobility of capital in a borderless age. We asked Clinton which side he was on. He said that his policy would depend on where he was sitting --in the governor's mansion of a small state or in the White House.

"As a governor, I have to deal with the realities of the global economy--factories moving to Mexico, the acquisition of foreign investment as well as domestic investment. Having lived through this, the conclusion I have drawn is as follows: Money, management, and production are by and large mobile and will become increasingly so. What they can't take away from you are the skills of your people, the quality of your infrastructure, the care and feeding of your natural resources, the work that you do in your own country on research and development and turning your ideas into jobs at home. Those are the core things.

"Nonetheless, it is still true that it matters who owns significant chunks of your economy. You need a manufacturing base in your own country. That requires domestic policies which reward the companies that are here in research and development and don't subsidize the flight of those jobs overseas.

"I'll give you an example, a good-news bad-news thing. Bridgestone Tires in Japan buys Firestone in America. For Arkansas it's a blessing, because Firestone had two plants here; they were in some trouble. Bridgestone had plenty of money. They came in here, spent thirty million dollars modernizing these plants, retrained the workers, gave them the benefit of modern management, and expanded the work force. It's a good thing. On the other hand, over the long run there will be relatively more upscale R&D work done by that company in Japan than would be the case if it were an American company."

Clinton didn't say how he would resolve the issue, but he showed that he clearly understands the arguments on both sides. (Imagine discussing this with George Bush.) The pol side of this issue probably reflects his true instinct. When Clinton talks about the "middle class," it seems that what he really means is something fairly close to a post-industrial working class (whose members, he knows, would hate being labeled in that way). Several times in our interview he mentioned the working poor, although we didn't ask him about that group; he had just rearranged his economic plan to direct its tax benefits downward on the economic scale. If it's fair to say that every President governs with the welfare of one group particularly in mind, for Clinton that group would be middle-class suburbanites--but from suburbs like Mount Vernon and Torrance, not Greenwich and Beverly Hills, with jobs like secretary and deliveryman, not doctor and stockbroker. Because these people don't consider themselves to be part of a permanent "class" in the Marxian sense, what they would look for from government would be opportunity more than equality: jobs for themselves, and education--especially college--for their kids, much more than tax relief. Presumably that would fit with an expanded and aggressive domestic role for government, rather than the (mostly theoretical) grand scaling-back of the federal government which we've had since 1981.

When he discussed subjects other than economics, Clinton displayed much less of the A-student-pol division. He spoke at length about race, and his positions seemed for the most part to coincide with what he had learned firsthand.

We began by asking him what, in his view, were the most dishonest things that blacks and whites say and think about each other.

"I think whites tend to be, on the subconscious level, too willing to believe that there are inherent racial differences, which does not take account of some of the terrible conditions in which blacks and other minorities live in this country. I think that too many whites have underestimated the crushing impact of economic decline and family decline that a lot of black families have been subject to, that would have produced similar results had they occurred among people of any race. And on the other hand, others, including [white] liberals, tend to have expectations that are too low for people, based on their race, so they feel uncomfortable challenging people to do better and disagreeing with them on the basis of ideas.

"It is difficult to generalize about blacks and how they feel, but I think there are too many blacks who blame other people for problems that people can only solve themselves--on occasion. But that is difficult to generalize, because the black church and black community leaders are more and more adopting a kind of dual strategy, which I think is very good. [They say,] 'You know, we've got to make this system work for us. But we've also got to do our part. We've got to change ourselves.'"

And what about whites' understanding of their own racial views? How honest and accurate is it?

"I think at one level most whites think they are free of prejudice. But I don't think that most people have thought through the enormity of the dimensions of the problem, and what kind of action ought to be taken by us as a nation to deal with it. And so I think that a lot of whites have sort of let themselves off the hook--you know, 'I don't wake up every morning consumed with racial hatred. I am, therefore, not prejudiced. Therefore there's nothing for me to do or feel or say.'"

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