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Comment -- September 4, 1996

The Era of Serious Public Policy Is Over

by Jack Beatty

Chicago '68 was the inevitable convention comparison to Chicago '96. But what about Miami '72? Then as now a party was about to renominate a President, Richard Nixon, the only threat to whose reelection was an obscure scandal left over from his first term. For Nixon the scandal became a crisis shortly after his inauguration; he spent the eighteen months of his truncated second term dealing with the legal, political, and ultimately constitutional issues raised by his actions in his first term. Whitewater may not
Gore's lachrymose exploitation of his sister's death from lung cancer was so grotesque that it made me want to go and have a good smoke.
compare with Watergate in the seriousness of the alleged offenses involved in each scandal -- entering into a profitless land deal or firing a few White House clerks is not the same as sabotaging a presidential election. But dealing with Whitewater, Paula Jones, "Travelgate," and "Filegate" will likely preoccupy Clinton during his second term as Watergate did Nixon. Moreover, Patricia Nixon did not face indictment as Hillary Rodham Clinton may do. Listening to the prolonged applause that Mrs. Clinton received when she addressed the delegates on Tuesday night (it went on and on) I wondered how much of it was not only to solace her for past Whitewater-caused criticism but to brace her for troubles to come.

Nevertheless, the motto of Chicago '96 could have come right out of the era of Chicago '68 -- the personal was relentlessly the political this year. Night after night, speaker after speaker, the delegates were treated to anecdotes, narratives, recitatives, tableaux vivants of personal or familial suffering. Emotional manipulation was the signature of the convention. Political argument was nonexistent. In this respect Al Gore's Wednesday-night speech was the worst. This lachrymose exploitation of his sister's death from lung cancer was so grotesque that it made me want to go and have a good smoke. How could Gore have made his elderly parents, whom we could see breaking up with everybody else in the hall, go through it? Gore's sister died in 1984, yet during the Democratic presidential primaries in 1988, when his campaign was turning south, Gore posed as a friend of southern tobacco, saying that he had grown tobacco on his own farm and was familiar with the botany of the plant. Perhaps it took the intervening eight years for Gore's fervent opposition to the tobacco industry to ripen. Alternatively, one can observe how Gore's sincerity keeps pace with his political need; his shamelessly manipulative oration showed that he has what it takes to be President. There is nothing he will not do to win.

If bathos took the place of argument in Gore's speech, enumeration did duty for eloquence in Clinton's. In sixty-plus minutes he said nothing worth remembering, all the while building a metaphorical bridge to the twenty-first century across which he summoned every conceivable group of voters. Clinton's bridge was to remind us (and remind us) of Bob Dole's offer during his convention acceptance speech to be a bridge to the past. Clinton's speech reportedly owed much to Dick Morris, who needs no introduction. The President's spirits must have been lowered by the sordid circumstances -- call girl, dog collar, toe sucking -- surrounding Morris's resignation that morning. But he hid his embarrassment beneath page after page of promises. They sounded ambitious until NPR reported their total cost: less than $10 billion spread over five years -- the budgetary equivalent of small change. No major problem confronting our government can be set right by that trifling sum. The time not absorbed by Whitewater in Clinton's second term will be spent on telegenic stunts like having volunteers read to third graders. The era of big government is over, and so, apparently, is the era of serious public policy. Richard Nixon at least wanted to be President to do big things. Bill Clinton wants to be President so that mothers can spend an extra day in the hospital after giving birth and volunteers can read to third graders.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All Rights Reserved.
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