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A Tale of Two Cities

The endorsement of Clinton by Jackson and Cuomo was sincere, if regretful. Clinton has the great advantage of having been elected in the first place, after twelve years of Reagan-Bush, and of having survived the onslaught of Gingrichism in the stunning 1994 elections. Facing the religious millennialists, the superpatriot right, and the millionaires, he is the only alternative in play. His very slipperiness is a survival skill on which much could depend. American politics, especially now, does not offer us a choice between a party that favors the rich and one that favors the poor. Clinton cannot be called to account by an electorally nonexistent left. We must choose between a party that neglects the poor and one that savages them, between a party that defers to the rich and one that deifies them, between a party that abjectly apologizes for government and one that demonizes it. One party signs a Faustian contract with the devil. The other party offers the contract. Better Faustus than Mephistopheles.


The Candidates

Those who admire Dole for his gruff and unpretentious ways decided, nonetheless, that he needed a new voice for the San Diego convention, a bit of borrowed poetry. With the assistance of the novelist Mark Helprin, Dole imagined himself, in the buzz of light and crowds in San Diego, hovering alone in the night, his voice reaching distant people by radio (even television is too “hot” and pressing for the distant romance he meant to call up):

And as my voice echoes across darkness and desert, as it is heard over car radios on coastal roads, and as it travels above farmland and suburb, deep into the heart of cities that, from space, look tonight like strings of sparkling diamonds…

How did Dole suddenly launch himself away from that bombinating podium into lonely space? How did he stop looking out at the Punch-and-Judy faces under bright elephant hats, to stare down at the distant light of cities?

The truth is that Helprin not only gave Dole a new prose but a new identity, that of Wallich, the hero of Helprin’s story “The Schreuderspitze,” published in 1981. It is easy to see why Helprin thought this soul transplant might take. Wallich loses wife and son in an accident; toys with the idea of suicide; and goes into a deep state of withdrawal, in which he drives his body toward a mountain climb he proposes as his sole purpose in life. Then, just when his withdrawal is complete, his interior purified, his soul hardened to the steel he will wield against ice, he climbs the mountain in a dream, going up its peak—the Schreuderspitze of the title—in darkness, to stare down at “cities lit by sparkling lamps in their millions,…light which reverberated as in crystals.”16

Having climbed the dark inner heights of his soul, having gone off a surreal distance from the world, Wallich can look back on it and fall in love with it again. He returns to a glittering world that was all ashes when he left it. The Wallich of the last paragraph, far from the beaten, despondent man of the first pages, could actually make the somewhat fatuous claim, voiced by Dole: “I stand before you…the most optimistic man in America.”

Helprin obviously admires Dole for the way he Walliched himself out of the depths of his war wound. There is a trimmed-down ascetic minimalism about Dole’s determined rise from that disaster. He, too, gave up worldly joys and distractions, and sharpened every energy for the drive toward one forbidding height—in this case the pinnacle of politics.

Even in the depths of his seclusion, Wallich allowed himself two distractions—music and solitary chess. Dole has forgone even those. He plays no games. He reads no books. He attends the rare movie under duress. His friends—using the term loosely—are almost all in Congress, and resemble business associates more than what most of us call friends. Asked by Elizabeth Kolbert, of The New York Times, why he had trouble coming up with names of friends, he explained it as a function of his political vocation:

I mean, it’s unfortunate that politics has reached a point…that were I to go out to dinner with you or somebody in the private sector, somebody out there, maybe some-body in the press, would try to put two and two together and say, “Oh, there’s something happening out there. They’re not just having dinner, they’re making some kind of a deal.” And the cynicism has reached that level. It’s pretty bad.17

The response is typically fortified on many fronts. It blames the press. It steels Dole against others’ cynicism. It presents his friendlessness as a sacrifice he makes for holding office with honor. President Ronald Reagan blamed the security procedures of the presidency for his failure to attend church (he did not want to inconvenience other worshippers). Dole says that the political demands of his office preclude friendships “in the private sector.”

Helprin clearly admires the Dole ordeal and what it inspired in him. He lets him speak with contempt for those who have not climbed the dark mountain within themselves:

It is demeaning to the nation that within the Clinton administration a corps of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered, and never learned, should have the power to fund with your earnings their dubious and self-serving schemes.

It is easy enough to agree with Dole that the Clintons have had a soft time of it compared with him (most of us have, including Dole’s running mate). But the laws that are called “dubious and self-serving” were mainly passed, over the last thirty years, with Dole’s approval, even at his initiative—and that includes almost every tax raise.

Part of Dole’s dark mystery is the way he punishes himself when he stoops to electoral gimmicks. No wonder he admires Richard Nixon, that other damaged and self-ravaging man. Despite his absurd claim to be the most optimistic man in America, Dole is a person who feels he has given enough of himself away and resents each new demand. Helprin got closer to his spirit in this rush of almost incoherent words (watch for the antecedent to “this” and “it”):

We have had a leadership that has been unwilling to risk the truth, to speak without calculation, to sacrifice itself, an administration that in its very existence communicates this day by day until it flows down like rain. And the rain becomes a river, and the river becomes a flood.

What is “communicated every day” is presumably the being “unwilling to risk the truth,” etc.—and unwillingness somehow flows down, runs as a river, crests as a flood. It is a nihilistic vision appropriate to Wallich before he receives his dark mountain epiphany of love.

That is the trouble with Helprin’s grafting of Wallich onto Dole. The real man only fits the first part of the story—the ascetic renouncing, the fanatical striving, the healing withdrawal from the world. To complete the tale, Dole should give up his narrow concentration on one thing and turn back to everything with a new acceptance. That is hardly what has happened with Dole. His losses are followed with bitterness; his close wins lead him to low tactics; he radiates resentment at being wronged. I first saw him up close when he was excluded from the primary debate in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1980. I followed him across the vestibule toward the street, amazed at the fury shaking his body, the black insults he was voicing. He had earlier been caught by a microphone telling George Bush that he (Bush) was “Hitlerian.”

Richard Ben Cramer, in his admirable and generally admiring biography of Dole, notes that when Dole gets behind he gets dirty, as if the unfairness of his losing must be counterbalanced with retributive meanness (the Nixon pattern).18 In his 1970 race for Congress, mailings on his behalf called his foe an alcoholic; in his close 1984 effort to keep his Senate seat, the foe became an abortion-on-demand doctor; in this year’s New Hampshire primary, which Dole lost for a third time, his “push polls” pretended to solicit information while traducing opponents. Dole claimed not to know of any of these dirty tricks, though he keeps a famously close watch on all his staff’s doings (and fires those not doing what he wants). As Cramer concludes, “Politics was the only part of his life that meant anything”—and he will not let this last thing be wrested from him without the concentrated fierceness of his whole life of struggle.19 He is a Wallich still battling toward the mountain peak, with no shining cities in sight. No wonder long-term Dole watchers are predicting that this race may set a record for scurrility. If Dole angered his Republican opponents in the primary with his negative ads, what can we expect as he goes against the hated Democrats?

Dole’s dark side emerged in the very address which was meant to unveil a sunny and hopeful man. In the first part of his acceptance speech in San Diego, Dole said, “I will betray nothing.” In the later parts of the speech, he betrayed many things. Dole betrayed Russell, Kansas, the village that made him, by saying villages do not make people (this said to get in a cheap shot at Ms. Clinton). He betrayed the Tenth Amendment, which he likes to recite as a charter for states’ rights, when he said, “If I win, the lives of violent criminals are going to be hell.” Law enforcement is mainly a state and local preserve. As president, Dole could make life hell for criminals only by a vast usurpation of state powers. He betrayed the same amendment when he advocated federal laws for school vouchers—schools, too, are governed and financed at the local and state levels.

Finally he betrayed himself, his whole life as a man of the Senate, when he adopted the funny-money, supposedly self-financing tax cuts he has opposed and ridiculed for years. This self-betrayal was part of a wrench that radically displaced Dole, the professional politician, the Washington insider, the deal-maker with a proud record in the Senate. In order to please the anti-government forces in his own party, Dole spoke Helprin-drafted words about his liberation from the job he excelled in and loved. His filmed biography at the convention went back to his roots in rural Kansas and neglected his entire adult life of government service. His supporters say he is running on his biography—but it is a truncated biography that he presents, one that stops in his twenties. He acquiesced in the effacement of all that he had been and done for the last three decades. It is a stiff price to pay for the support of those who despise governmental accomplishments.

While Republicans hoped that Mark Helprin could perform a soul implant for Bob Dole, some Democrats feared that Dick Morris had given a soulectomy to Bill Clinton. Others wondered if there was any soul there to be extracted. Dole lives deep inside a cavern of self-communings—even his wife must sometimes reach him by leaving notes at the cave’s edge. Clinton is so extroverted that he may not have any interior to withdraw to. He projects himself with great sympathy into companies so disparate that it is hard to trace the continuity between Clinton pleasing A and Clinton pleasing B,C, D, and so on. Saint Augustine said he could not meet God in his distracted earlier life because “I was outward from me, You within.”20 Bill Clinton looks like a person so external to himself as not to have met himself.

This explains some of his strength as well as his weakness. Martin Walker, the author of The President We Deserve, argued to a meeting of foreign journalists at the Chicago convention that Clinton’s ability to survive brutal onslaughts in the 1992 primaries showed a stamina, resilience, and unstoppable determination that is its own sign of character. But perhaps it is easier to start all over again every morning if one can jettison past selves with ease.

Clinton’s comeback after the 1994 Republican sweep was even more impressive than his survival of blows in 1992 (the draft, the bimbos, the noninhaling). In 1994, he was already fuddled with “Whitewater” (that insect-cloud of buzzing suspicions) when the Republicans hit him with their electoral victories in both federal chambers and in statehouses and legislatures. Dick Morris, trying to keep Clinton afloat in the wake of disaster, resorted to a sailing metaphor—of triangular tacking toward a goal. Jesse Jackson, at the convention, used a different metaphor, of bank shots in pool (hit one bank to have an indirect effect).

Sports metaphors multiply when politics is seen mainly as a game. Some talked of Clinton’s using Muhammed Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy, swaying on the ropes to deflect blows. Or he was a scrambling quarterback who, after a play is broken, must dodge linemen looming at him from all directions.

At such living in the moment for the moment, Clinton is superb. It is just what his past has prepared him for. Dole was careful enough to say he had not read his party’s platform—as if a credential for the Republican candidate were ignorance of Republican doctrine. The Democrats’ platform, by contrast, is so inconsistent with itself that Clinton can be entirely true to it. People mistake the matter when they say that he runs left and governs right. He simultaneously campaigns and runs to the left and right—what Stephen Leacock called “riding madly off in all directions.”

Clinton’s wife also has a chameleon quality. She even looks different from day to day. Martin Walker comments on the blur of images she created after her arrival in the White House—slinky in black for Vogue, angelic in white for The New York Times Magazine, professional in a business suit for Working Woman.21 Some critics, like Nixon, see these as shifting masks over a ruthless core. But she seems more a bewildered child of her changing times, sincerely trying to live up to conflicting demands, internal and external, shopping as desperately for new gurus as for new hairdos. She has not been shrewd and calculating but naive and clumsy—the only flaws, it seems, that her critics cannot find in her.

Ms. Dole, on the other hand, has crafted her soft image with hard intelligence. A career woman whose whole life has been government, she married late, has no children, and lives with a unidimensionally political man. She maintains a practiced Southern girlishness into her sixties. She is a fierce competitor, a demanding boss (with high staff turnover), and a manipulative politician (trying to use her husband to change the FDA’s rules for the Red Cross’s blood testing, beleaguering the Pentagon for a monopoly on military blood donations).22 In San Diego, she played Ralph Edwards of the old This Is Your Life show, where various figures from a celebrity’s past were conjured up. Ms. Dole, looking about for testimonials to the Senator’s human side, was forced to bring in a Senate employee to whom he said pleasant things as he passed her in the corridor. It all worked beautifully. She is so deeply political that she can play the role asked of her by the anti-politics of her party.

The matching of running mates with presidential candidates suggests a criss-cross (chiastic) pairing—Dole and Gore in a dour staredown, Clinton and Kemp in a gush-off. Speaking to the small-business advocates in San Diego, Kemp chortled at the prospect of debating the wooden Gore. But in Gore’s own address to a union group in Chicago, he displayed a previously concealed gift for mimicry and comic timing. Kemp’s tongue works faster than his mind, as one could see in his excited appearances just after being chosen by Dole. Expressing admiration for his benefactor, he blurted out of nowhere that “he cannot even throw a football.” When a startled audience, not knowing how to take this, half-tittered at the inconsequence, Kemp gave a minatory shake of his head and got choked up at the sadness of it all. His vision of hell is a quarterback’s nightmare. Kemp got teary three different times in a single speech. Yet he was cool enough to reverse himself overnight on two of his own issues—affirmative action and immigrants’ rights—to lower himself to his party’s level. If the Democrats suffer from a deficit of principles, the Republicans have a surplus of principles they prove ready to betray.

Many now tell us that conventions have outlived their usefulness. But they still have an important function. They ease us across a great credibility gap. Deprived of the opportunity, at stated intervals, to meet and move among members of our so-called-left and right-of-right parties, who could believe that such persons exist?

September 5, 1996

  1. 16

    Mark Helprin, “The Schreuderspitze,” in Ellis Island and Other Stories (Delacorte Press, 1981), pp. 30-31.

  2. 17

    Elizabeth Kolbert, “Public Figure, Private Person: The Nominee Is Ever Reserved,” The New York Times, August 16, 1996, p. A28.

  3. 18

    Richard Ben Cramer, Bob Dole (Vintage Books, 1995), pp. 93-94, 132-135.

  4. 19

    Cramer, Bob Dole, p. 129.

  5. 20

    Saint Augustine, Confessions 10.27. Clinton gave me an amazing answer when I asked him, in 1992, what book had most profoundly influenced him. He said it was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a book that turns its readers continually inward and warns against frittering oneself away in externals. This is not an influence easy to trace in Clinton’s career. Marcus boasts of his chastity and dismisses sexual intercourse as “a rubbing of innards and spasmic extrusion of slime” (Meditations 6.13).

  6. 21

    Martin Walker, The President We Deserve: Bill Clinton, His Rise, Falls, and Comebacks (Crown, 1996), p. 217.

  7. 22

    See Linda Heller, “Blood on the Campaign Trail: Elizabeth Dole, Presidential Politics, the Red Cross and the Christian Right,” The Nation, July 1, 1996, pp. 11-23. Ms. Dole has promised that she will return to the Red Cross if her husband becomes President. But recent reports on that agency’s political acts make that unlikely.

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