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A Tale of Two Cities

1.

San Diego

Journalists in San Diego for the Republican convention circulated their complaints at how dull everything was. It is true that Newt Gingrich deprived us of expected entertainment. The Speaker of the House normally gavels the action along at a convention. Memories of political conventions begin, for many of us older sorts, with Speaker Joe Martin wielding a gavel that looked as big as he was and shouting, “Clear the aisles.” Gingrich was too unpopular to play so prominent a role in San Diego. Like Pat Buchanan, he exercised his power from the periphery. But while Buchanan prowled the edges of the action resentfully, Gingrich discreetly indulged his naturalist’s hobby at the San Diego zoo, his white hair decorating the night, when—as the zoo puts it, advertising late summer hours—“nocturnal animals come out for a night-time prowl.”

No animals were odder in the night than those filling the convention center. Here were millionaires who flew into town in their private jets to hear how miserable Bill Clinton had made their lives. One in five of those delegates makes over a million dollars a year, and another one in five makes over $200,000. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas told her prime-time convention audience on TV that the country had to be rescued from the “business-busting” and “class-baiting” Democrats. Jack Kemp, in his acceptance speech as the vice-presidential nominee, moaned that Bill Clinton’s is “a government that runs our lives, our businesses, our schools.” Earlier, in an address to small-business advocates attending the convention, Kemp said that it takes great courage for a businessman to face up to a government that can “regulate, litigate, and tax away your profits.” Representative John Kasich of Ohio told the convention that “government programs disconnect our souls from one another.” Corporate CEOs nodded in agreement while they worked, at their yacht parties, to knit expensive soul to soul.

Republicans were cowering in fear before a left that does not exist. If there were any kind of left in this country, we would not put up with a situation in which CEOs make 225 times the compensation given to average employees under them, or in which the top 1 percent of the population owns 48 percent of the nation’s financial wealth, while the bottom 80 percent owns only 6 percent.1

Other countries in the industrialized West are more heavily taxed than we are, and the taxes fall more heavily on the rich, since they have a wealth tax as well as an income tax.2 But our pampered class feels that it is taxed to death. No charge was more frequently launched at President Clinton, during the San Diego convention, than that he imposed “the biggest tax increase in American history”—$241 billion over five years. Actually, the greatest increase in history was sponsored by Senator Dole and signed by President Reagan in 1982—$286 billion (allowing for inflation). What’s more, this huge tax increase was followed by five more tax increases in the Reagan administration. San Diego ideologues remember only Reagan’s disastrous first tax cut, and attribute magical results to it; but the deep 1981-1982 recession it brought on had to be fought with a whole series of tax increases, large and small, disguised as “reform” and “equity” and “enhancement” adjustments.3

Republicans acquiesced in Reagan’s tax raises because he cut the percentage paid by the top bracket from 70 percent to 28, shifting the burden to the middle class, in whose name the Republicans now deplore the taxes they imposed. Though Clinton did not produce the middle-class tax cut he promised, he did shift the tax weight back toward the rich. Eighty percent of his supposed “biggest tax raise in history” was taken from those earning over $200,000 a year—which was the real cause of complaint in San Diego. That is why Jack Kemp originally favored a repeal of Clinton’s tax cut rather than the 15 percent across-the-board cut finally adopted by Dole. The flat-tax element in that 15 percent cut works to redistribute the burden from the rich toward the middle class—it gives Steve Forbes only the percentage of loss that his lowliest employee gets. But the effect is indirect, not direct, as it would be in a repeal of Clinton’s higher rates for the rich.

The suffering millionaires of San Diego want even greater exemptions from their trivial outlays for a society that has cosseted them. Capital gains taxes should be cut in half, according to the Republicans’ 1996 platform. This is one part of the platform Dole read and agrees with. Kemp goes along, but reluctantly. He told the small business group in San Diego that he thinks the entire tax on capital gains is unjustifiable and should be repealed tout court.

By the standards of any other society, or of reason itself, the great and growing disparity of wealth in America is a form of successful class warfare waged against the poor and the moderately well-off. But so devoid of a left is this country that even to mention such inequities is branded as “class baiting,” and therefore un-American. We have not had an acceptable rhetoric for expressing social discontent against the rich since President Roosevelt’s mild, meliorist language about “economic royalists” in the depths of the Depression.

America, unlike other industrial countries, has had no real party of the left—not even a labor party (which is at the center of the European political spectrum), much less a serious socialist party. Marxist parties were crippled by the Smith Act prosecutions and other postwar purges (as well as by Khrushchev’s revelations in his 1956 speech), and they are anyway inconceivable in this conservative country. The result is a shadow war in which the “left” is represented on a show like Ted Koppel’s or Jim Lehrer’s by pragmatic post-liberals. Political scientist Theodore Lowi described the absurd situation as it existed earlier in the 1990s:

[Michael] Kinsley refers to himself on his highly rated CNN “Crossfire” as “on the Left” and to his friend Pat Buchanan as “on the Right.” If Kinsley is on the Left, Karl Marx is a monkey’s uncle. Kinsley has been a longtime editor and senior editor of the New Republic, a neoconservative magazine with a good record on civil liberties and a memory trace of support for New Deal domestic policies. He has also been an American editor of the Economist, a brilliant English journal with a distinctive libertarian or free market slant, and a factor at the Washington Monthly, a self-styled “neoliberal” journal whose founders were pushing toward a “New Democratic” party of privatization and deficit reduction even before Bill Clinton joined that position. What Kinsley has done is to contribute to the stigmatization of liberalism by cooperating good-naturedly in the spirit of healthy debate with people who understand exactly what they are doing and are cynically exploiting Kinsley’s naïveté. People like Buchanan, genuinely “on the Right,” operate in an entirely different dimension, not merely a few steps to the Right of Mr. Kinsley’s Left. And they know it. They are through the looking glass, where people like Kinsley appear either as comic figures or just plain fools.4

To complete this farce, Republicans at San Diego presented themselves as carrying on a debate between “the left” and “the right” in their own party. James Pinkerton—the famous aide to Lee Atwater who brought Willie Horton to Atwater’s attention—wrote a newspaper account of the way he presided over a debate in San Diego, he in the center, an anti-abortionist on the right, and a Log Cabin Republican on the left. The left here is defined as any openly gay person masochistic enough to belong to a party whose platform vilifies him or her. The right is the doomsday religious contingent that would placate God by a war against killing babies, loving within one’s own gender, or clasting icons (burning flags). Call them the millennialists. That leaves the millionaires as the “center”—a center dragged far to the right by these same religious activists.

The mutual need of the money people and the morality people can be seen in the dance they did around two documents. The Contract with America was a text which made no mention of abortion, homosexuality, flag incineration, or prayer in school—yet Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition supported it as if its ten items had been traced on stone by God’s finger instead of Newt Gingrich’s. The millionaires and their adherents repaid the favor in San Diego by letting the theologians construct their party’s platform, which was an executioner’s platform for gays, abortionists, and flag burners.

No wonder James Pinkerton rejoiced at the party’s success in keeping these dynamics off the televised convention proceedings, keeping (as he put it) “the sharp ideological points of view muscled off the screen.”5 The result was a parade of “moderates” produced for public consumption, while the religious right, which wrote the party’s platform, was urged not to boo such figures as Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, a woman so clearly of the hunt country social set that she practically neighs, or Representative Susan Molinari, an exuberant ethnic whose principal credentials were her kittenish moue and a baby swiveled continually toward the nearest camera lens. These were the “leftist” forces the party felt nervous about exposing to its own loyalists’ contempt. The fears were well grounded. Conservative writer Laura Ingraham, a former law clerk to Clarence Thomas, mocked the lineup of Whitman and Molinari and Hutchison as a “ladies night” capitulation to feminists.6

Women were certainly more prominent on the podium of the San Diego convention than on the floor. Half of the country’s population, women, made up only a third of the Republican delegates. Blacks, who make up 12 percent of the population, were only 2.6 percent of the Republican delegates at this convention—though they had twice that number at the supposedly less representative Houston convention of 1992.7 Black faces—often of cute kids—came and went on the podium, supplemented by Hispanic and Native American bit players, or people gamely recovering from rape or welfare or illness. To prove they are a caring party, the Republicans created a Lourdes scene, filled with ex votos offered to the miraculous curing powers of the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Pat Buchanan, the candidate who received the most votes after Bob Dole, was denied access to the podium. The Republicans have spent four years claiming they are a more open party than the Democrats because the latter did not let former Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania speak out against abortion at their 1992 convention. But Casey a) was not a candidate who had won a significant bloc of votes, b) had not mustered support for his position at the platform hearings, and c) had not endorsed the party’s candidate. Buchanan did all those things and still was excluded. He had to be, since the wild outburst for him would have revealed where the real sentiment in the gathering lay.

The party got credit for showing “moderation” when it excluded Buchanan, but far more moderates were excluded than Buchananites. Three governors who support women’s choice in abortion were considered too risky, since they would have elicited hearty booing (even the iconic General Powell was booed when he briefly referred to abortion rights). The three governors had been heckled at a press conference they had held on their arrival in San Diego, with bystanders calling them “libertines” and crying “Get out of the Republican Party.” Governor Pete Wilson was not allowed to welcome the convention to the state where he is governor and the city where he was mayor—this despite the fact that Wilson had been a loyal ally of Dole when he was in the Senate, even leaving a sickbed to cast the deciding vote on a Dole tax bill. Governor William Weld of Massachusetts was excluded, though he is waging a close race for the Senate with John Kerry, and conventions traditionally give such candidates an opportunity to advance themselves. Governor George Pataki was made an offer he could not afford not to refuse—to marginalize himself by introducing a film clip on the comically marginal candidate Morry Taylor.

After signaling acquiescence to party stalwarts by muzzling these moderates, Dole slipped two of them back in, after a feel-good spirit had been established on the floor. Wilson was given a few minutes to introduce Elizabeth Dole and Jack Kemp’s popularity as the vice-presidential pick made it safe for Pataki to introduce his fellow New Yorker—though this last-minute decision was hotly contested in Dole’s inner circle.8

The cost the convention managers were willing to pay the millennialists for their TV torpor was a high one. Buchanan was persuaded to accept exclusion since the party turned the platform’s composition over to his people—which is like hiding a crazy passenger on an ocean liner by locking him in the pilot’s control room. It is true that party platforms can be ignored as products. But the process of their formation is important, since it indicates what terms party factions can insist on as conditions of their support.

Those who fought and won the platform battles were unhappy when they saw that this was all the recognition they were to be given. Mere party principles were ceded to them in order to arrange the party’s cosmetics in its prime-time exhibit from San Diego. Having been dragged to the edge of the cliff by the millennialists of the party, the millionaires dangled those crazies below the lip of the precipice, leaning energetically away from them to avoid plunging down with their dead weight.

It was interesting to observe the same dynamics in reverse at the Reform Party “convention” held a hundred miles up the California coast at Long Beach, where the comparatively sane people were silenced by a wild majority. The supporters of Richard Lamm, who was challenging Ross Perot for the nomination, were well-dressed, young, and polite; but their speakers were heckled with cries for Ross, and their nominating presentations lacked the high-tech gloss of Perot’s filmed introductions. The power of cosmetics was on the zealots’ side here, as Perot seemed to confess when he made a typically weird reference to Newt Gingrich as insufficiently made-up when he appeared with the President and Vice-President at this year’s state of the union address: “Old Newt had on his regular skin.”

For all the differences in size and composition of the crowd, the rhetoric of both places was remarkably the same. Over and over we were told that “the people” were being oppressed by “the government.” As if to prove this is a country without a left, Perot’s protest was against taxes and deficits. He dislikes Clinton for raising taxes and Dole for the kind of taxes that will preserve the deficit. Meanwhile, his troops expressed the same misgivings that Buchanan’s people have—over the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Concord Coalition. The “giant sucking sound” heard by Perot’s supporters is not only of dollars going off to Buchanan’s villains in Mexico, but of sovereignty being drained to the UN and of dollars supporting new immigrants. The Perot convention protested the Republicans’ gathering by replicating it in different costume. Perot’s retired folk call themselves “the people,” as do Dole’s millionaires.

2.

Chicago

The Democrats are, in the surreal language of our politics, the party of the left. Clinton is widely said, even by some Democrats, to have run in 1992 “to the right,” praising the Democratic Leadership Council, but to have reverted to party form, “governing to the left” when he took office. What were his leftist moves? He raised taxes on the rich—but not to the level that preceded Reagan’s slashes of the Eighties or that have been our historic norm; not, clearly, to the level supported even by the right-wing parties in other countries. Furthermore, he tried to meet the demographic challenge of an aging populace, and an expensive health insurance industry, with government guarantees of health care that were minimal by the standards of other countries. And he tried to recognize the undoubted existence of gays in the military, bringing appearance into some relation to reality.

Even these moderate measures he compromised by timidity. On taxes, he heeded people in his administration who said he should not make targeting the rich his rhetorical emphasis—with the result that a widespread impression prevails, to this day, that the real victims of his tax bill were those in the middle class.9 Then Clinton made things worse by telling several business groups that he agreed with them that he had raised their taxes too high. To paraphrase Lowi on Kinsley, “If Bill Clinton is a leftist, then Marx is a monkey’s uncle.”

The health plan was as crippled by preemptive yieldings as the tax plan. While opponents painted it as “socialistic,” it was actually made too complex by an attempt, using the vehicle of “managed care,” to let insurance companies in for the maximum amount of action compatible with complete and guaranteed coverage. There was feckless hope that the companies and doctors would prefer part of the action to the free hand they now have. Polemicists like Betsy McCaughey (now Ms. Ross) presented the plan as removing freedoms now available, though choice is already inhibited both by lack of insurance and by the kind of insurance held by most people.10

On gay rights, Clinton signaled capitulation by saying he would let the Joint Chiefs of Staff tell him how and whether the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Services can set executive policy.

For this modest set of initiatives, Clinton was judged “too liberal” in polls. After the 1994 elections, which seemed to endorse Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Clinton panicked and called back the amoral technician, Dick Morris, who had advised him in a former period of funk (after he lost his re-election bid as governor of Arkansas). Morris advised that Clinton veer right and adopt Republican issues, which he did so effectively that Senator Dole called his opponent a born-again Republican.

Yet the American public is so chary of what it perceives to be left-liberal views that some still thought Clinton “too liberal” on the eve of the Chicago convention. Only a quarter of the populace said that of him in August of 1992; but over a third (36 percent) were saying it this August.11 Many believed that Clinton had a wild radical, Hillary, at his left elbow, working to undo the guidance of Morris at his right elbow. These critics were not confined to the slavering talk shows on radio. Richard Nixon expressed to an admiring young aide his almost hysterical fear of Hillary’s hard-left influence on her husband: Bill “can’t go too far left [and win], but if he doesn’t [go left], Hillary will kill him.”12 Nixon believed Hillary was trying to prevent Bill from taking his (Nixon’s) saving advice. Nixon was angling to be Clinton’s Tricky Dick, not aware that Morris had that position sewed up.

It was the Morris line that was being peddled in the Chicago convention. The Democrats tried to out-family the Republicans on “values,” out-tough them on crime, and out-Lourdes them on “caring.” Evan Bayh even out-babied Susan Molinari. The podium in Chicago was so wheelchair accessible that it seemed at times as if only wheelchairs could make it up there, carrying Christopher Reeve, James Brady, or Michela Alioto to lay claim to FDR’s party.

Unions, especially the teachers’ un-ion, were as disproportionately represented in Chicago as millionaires were in San Diego. But this did not mean the Democrats’ platform was as “liberal” as the Republican one was “conservative.” If there were a left party in America, it would care as much for the bottom tenth of the populace as the other party did for the top tenth. There is, after all, more need today to be concerned with people at the bottom of the economic scale. In the decade (1977-1987) when the top tenth saw its income rise by 24.4 percent, the bottom tenth lost 10.5 percent of its income.13 Such disparity is destabilizing in a society. Sheer self-preservation, to say nothing of humane concerns, should make our government wary of such economic deprivation. It creates the breeding conditions for crime, drug exploitation, and broken families. It does not even make economic sense. A forthcoming study for the World Bank argues that a nation’s growth rate is in inverse proportion to the share of national wealth concentrated in the richest fifth of its citizenry.14

It is not surprising that the millionaires’ party would be suicidally insensitive to the plight of the poor, cutting funds for their offspring and most vulnerable members. It was also to be expected that the Democrats would point this out in their platform—as they did in a first draft. Speaking of welfare reform, the draft said, “The plan proposed by Senator Dole and Speaker Gingrich was weak on work and tough on children. That is the wrong approach.” But between the draft and the convention itself, something untoward happened: a Morrisized President signed on to the Dole and Gingrich “wrong approach.” Silent revisions took place on the welfare plank, which now says: “Because of the President’s leadership and with the support of a majority of the Democrats in Congress, national welfare reform is going to make work and responsibility the law of the land.”15 Some felt, on the last day of the convention, that Dick Morris had sabotaged the party because a tabloid printed allegations of his toe-sucking sessions with a call girl. Senator Pat Moynihan and others felt that Morris’s real dirty work was done before the convention even assembled.

The few dissatisfied liberals remaining in the party were in no position to make the kind of protest that the right did in San Diego. When Dole tried to introduce language of toleration in the platform, Bay Buchanan and Gary Baur whipped him back into line. When the platform was quietly subverted in Chicago, it was the whipped liberals who had to give in. They were not excluded from expressing their disagreement, as the three moderate governors had been in San Diego, but Harold Ickes, Clinton’s campaign director, made sure that Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo would endorse Clinton before they were allowed to voice their misgivings before the convention (but not in prime time). And the person Nixon and others consider the real radical in the party, Hillary Clinton, gave a speech advocating measures like one more day in the hospital for women after childbirth. Long an advocate for children’s welfare, an ally of Marian Wright Edelman (who denounced Clinton’s signing of the welfare bill), Ms. Clinton said nothing about the way her husband ended a sixty-year federal responsibility for the poorest segment of society. Her pink-toned address and visiting-nurse delivery at the convention amazed Bob Borosage, the progressive advocate in the party, who said, just after the speech: “How can she do that, after the welfare bill?”

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.

3.

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. 1

    Edward N. Wolff, Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It, an expanded edition of a Twentieth Century Fund report (New Press, 1996), p. 11. Ranked by another category (household wealth), the top 1 percent of the population owned 39 percent of the country’s wealth in 1989, as opposed to 26 percent for the top 1 percent of people in France (1986), 25 percent in Canada (1984), 18 percent in Great Britain (1986), 16 percent in Sweden (1986). See Edward N. Wolff, “How the Pie is Sliced: America’s Growing Concentration of Wealth,” in Ticking Time Bombs: The New Conservative Assaults on Democracy, edited by Robert L. Kuttner (New Press, 1996), p. 76.

  2. 2

    America has the lowest tax rate of any government in the G-7 group, roughly 15 percent below the median government (Germany). See Michael Moynihan, The Coming American Renaissance: How to Benefit from America’s Economic Resurgence (Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 60-61.

  3. 3

    Richard Darman recounts the Reagan administration’s long effort to raise taxes in stealthy ways in order to repair the damage done by the “supply side” tax cut of Reagan’s first term. Darman, Who’s in Control? Polar Politics and the Sensible Center (Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 72-119.

  4. 4

    Theodore J. Lowi, The End of the Republican Era (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), p. 225.

  5. 5

    James Pinkerton, “Dole to Win on Common Ground,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1996, p. B9.

  6. 6

    Laura Ingraham, “How the ‘Gender Gap’ Is Driving Dole Girl Crazy,” The Washington Post, August 4, 1996, pp. C1, C3. Ingraham attacks Dole for addressing “issues that most women outside elite universities do not care about.” She neglects the fact that Dole is forced to compensate for a stand on abortion, foisted on him by the likes of Laura Ingraham, that women outside universities clearly do care about.

  7. 7

    Figures for women from a New York Times/CBS poll of delegates, for blacks from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, reported in Kevin Merida, “Image of Inclusion Doesn’t Tell Party’s Whole Story on Race,” The Washington Post, August 15, 1996, pp. A21, A26.

  8. 8

    Robert Novak, “Saving Pete Wilson,” Chicago Sun-Times, August 18, 1996, p. A39.

  9. 9

    For Clinton’s failure to get credit for shifting the tax burden to the rich, see Bob Woodward’s The Agenda (Simon and Schuster, 1994), which traces the influence of people like Robert Rubin, at that time economic advisor to the President. “Rubin, the multimillionaire, said frankly that he hated it when Clinton used the word ‘rich.’ They should use some other phrase, he suggested, like ‘the well-to-do’ or ‘people who have done well.”’ The language was important. Rubin added that he had not heard a single person who had done well complain that their taxes were going to go up by as much as a third.

  10. 10

    See Ronald Dworkin’s analysis of McCaughey’s misleading arguments in The New York Review of Books, May 26, 1994, pp. 52-53.

  11. 11

    USA Today/CNN polls of 1992 and 1996: USA Today, August 28, 1996, p. 6A.

  12. 12

    Monica Crowley, Nixon Off the Record (Random House, 1996), p. 182. Nixon was obsessed with Ms. Clinton, who gets fifty-eight separate references in this book’s index.

  13. 13

    Congressional Budget Office figures cited in Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath (Random House, 1990), p. 14.

  14. 14

    Report by Michael Bruno, chief economist for the World Bank, cited by William Pfaff in his Los Angeles Times Syndicate column of August 3-4, 1996.

  15. 15

    Mary Ann Akers, “Last-Minute Carpentry on Welfare Plank,” National Journal Convention Daily, August 27, 1996, p. 17.

  16. 16

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

  17. 17

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

  18. 18

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

  19. 19

    Cramer, Bob Dole, p. 129.

  20. 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).

  21. 21

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

  22. 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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