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The Politics Of Opportunism
The perception of Bill Clinton as an OK guy with weaknesses is far removed from reality, writes EAMONN McCANN.
Eamonn McCann, 17 Feb 1999
In New York City a few weeks ago, as the bombs rained down on Iraq, Carly Simon led a celebrity-stuffed audience in a rousing rendition of We Shall Overcome .
It wasn t victory over Saddam they had in mind, but an enemy closer to home. Impeachment proceedings were under way in the Senate, and Ms. Simon and her pals were anxious to signal solidarity with the Commander-in-Chief. They d obviously reckoned that the defining dirge-anthem of the 60s would harmonise with the mood of their meeting.
What the desperate and terrified people of Iraq might have made of it all, who s to say? But we don t have to search far for the significance of the song.
It s become commonplace, both on the Right and on what passes in the mainstream media as the Left, to represent the pursuit of Clinton by Republican zealots as a re-enactment of political battles from times past.
On this reading, US conservatives have been simmering with resentment for the last 30 years at the straggle-haired peaceniks who marched against the war in Vietnam, and contrived the humiliation of America abroad even as they trampled down decency at home.
The final outrage occurred when one of that free-loving, flag-burning generation of no-goods sauntered up to Washington and took over the White House. The fact that Clinton by now was a sleaze-bag and a shyster with no fixed or firm beliefs in anything at all served only to raise their hackles even higher.
In the end, the wrath of the Righteous was scarcely containable.
And then the pudgy degenerate gave them their chance.
Naturally, they seized with alacrity on the Lewinsky affair, and tried with irrational determination to drag him down, even when the polls proclaimed that the people had had enough.
Thus the fashionable conclusion that what s now unfolding is a scenario drawn from Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Some, like Ms. Simon, have psyched themselves back to the future they once almost believed in, reprising a half-remembered radical youth.
Bill s one of us, they aver. Whatever you say about his weaknesses, the gargoyles out to get him are a hell of a lot worse. You don t have to endorse everything he s done, personally or politically, to understand it s important he s not overthrown from the Right.
This is the dominant view of media commentators, in Ireland as elsewhere, which isn t to be wondered at. People of the relevant age and outlook are heavily represented at senior levels in the press, radio and TV.
There is an alternative, less fashionable, harder-Left view, which argues that Clinton shouldn t be seen as an OK guy with a number of weaknesses , but as an unprincipled opportunist driven by venal ambition.
He was never a dope-smoking alternative life-stylist in the first place, but a dork in a suit who once took a toke, and whinged ever afterwards that he hadn t inhaled. He wasn t a genuine campaigner against the Vietnam War either, but a draft-dodger who skedaddled to London where he steered well clear of demos.
Contrary to what s claimed on his behalf in some circles, he has never in his political career taken on the racist Right, but made his most defining move when he sent a brain-damaged black man to the electric chair in Arkansas in 1992 for no reason other than to garner the votes of bigots in the presidential primaries.
He s been up to his oxters in business corruption ever since his moll, Hillary, stitched up the Whitewater land deal, back in the days they were grubbing together for advancement in Little Rock. Norman Mailer had it right, what s scary about Clinton is that the man knows no limits. There are no moral boundaries he won t cross, no depths of depravity he won t sink to.
A few weeks ago, Francis Wheen in The Guardian revealed the identity of the caller Clinton talked to in the Oval Office while Ms. Lewinsky, on her knees beneath the desk, unzipped his trousers and sucked him off. He was a Florida millionaire and major Democratic Party contributor who wanted an upcoming piece of environmental legislation changed so it wouldn t damage the profitability of his citrus fruit plantation. On the spot, in these circumstances, Clinton agreed.
Wheen spoke for many in arguing that it doesn t matter on what charges or by whom Clinton is finally cornered. He should be impeached and driven from office, anyway. The only crime they could pin on Capone was tax-evasion. If all they can get Clinton on is perjury about sex, so be it.
This, too, is a view to which sensible people can adhere. But it s still not the full story.
The details fall into a different pattern if we try to see the picture through the eyes of the American people.
Usually, the people figure only as an amorphous mass. The people are angry. The people are entertained. The people are bored. The people say they are bored but really they are not.
What we know is that the people ensured that the Republicans attempt to use the Lewinsky affair in the November elections backfired with a vengeance. Their iconic leader, Newt Gingrich, humiliated, resigned as leader of the House of Representatives.
So the people backed Bill?
Fewer than 80 percent are registered to vote. Of these, 36% turned out in November. Of these in turn, barely 30% agreed in exit polls that the US system offered an acceptable range of parties and policy options.
This suggests a truly remarkable level of alienation from the system of politics generally. It is this which, presumably, explains the election of the former wrestler Jesse The Body Ventura as Governor of Minnesota, on the slogan, Retaliate in 98!
It helps explain, too, the seemingly astonishing shifts in US political opinion in the nineties.
In November 1994, the US, it seemed, swung decisively to the Right. For the first time in 40 years, the Republicans won control of both Houses of Congress, with the vocal support of the Christian Right and much talk of family values . Gingrich stood on Capitol Hill and, with considerable ceremony, unveiled his Contract with America . Many concluded that the US was in the grip of fundamentalist fervour.
But two years later Clinton won re-election in a landslide, and the Contract with America was formally abandoned. How come?
The majority of Americans hadn t rushed to the Right. Sure, voters had gone along with the pro-life campaigners for nuking Iraq in big enough numbers to give Gingrich his triumph. But they blanched when he then began to outline ideas, such as the removal of children from mothers who d been thrown off welfare.
Meanwhile, Clinton moved across to cover much of Gingrich s ground just as Blair was to take over territory long held by the Tories. Clinton cut taxes on the rich, betrayed promises to defend Medicare, supported longer jail sentences and greater use of the death-penalty.
The Gingrich revolution ran into the ground, and disillusion with mainstream politics deepened.
Meanwhile, the rich got richer as the stock-market roared ahead, while, down at the bottom of the pile, the poor have grown ever more desperate. Economically, the US is now more divided than at any time since World War Two.
Under Clinton, six million people have so far lost health care entitlement. A total of 44 million Americans now have no health cover whatever.
Even so, the basic decency of the vast majority comes through when supposedly difficult issues are posed in clear terms.
The murder of a gay college lecturer Matthew Shepard on October 7 sparked demonstrations against anti-gay bigotry across the country. The New York Times was in no doubt that horror at what had happened was a factor in a series of votes in November to strike down local anti-gay ordinances.
The vote reflects a national change in attitude. Americans have become increasingly tolerant of equal rights for gays and lesbians.
The country has lurched to the Left, lamented James Dobsen, leader of Focus on Family. There has been a radical change in the moral tone of America.
These are some of the factors underlying reaction to the saga of the president s zipper.
People of a certain age pine for politics to stay as simple as they were in the sixties.
In fact, they weren t as simple even then as Carly Simon imagined.
To depict the American people today as divided into pro- and anti-Clinton camps is to do them a considerable disservice.
What would be the point of overthrowing Bill Clinton if his enemies weren t overthrown, too?
Clinton survives. But this doesn t betoken the triumph of good over evil. The long march continues. n