AN AMERICAN VIEW

How Bill Clinton learned his lessons

Our view of political complexity is that there isn’t any—everything is simple. No plots or subplots, just car chases and bedroom scenes.

FRED BRUNING November 23 1992
AN AMERICAN VIEW

How Bill Clinton learned his lessons

Our view of political complexity is that there isn’t any—everything is simple. No plots or subplots, just car chases and bedroom scenes.

FRED BRUNING November 23 1992

How Bill Clinton learned his lessons

Our view of political complexity is that there isn’t any—everything is simple. No plots or subplots, just car chases and bedroom scenes.

FRED BRUNING

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Bill Clinton is a tough customer with a ton of political savvy. Early on, he got blitzed by the Gennifer Flowers deal and didn’t flinch. It might be argued, in fact, that the clever fellow from Arkansas knew all along that those flaming tabloid headlines worked to his advantage. If an obscure candidate struggling to capture his party’s presidential nomination suddenly rates national attention because of an alleged affair several years ago— well, maybe that guy is more important than anyone thought. Why else make such a big deal? Does Madonna care when Indian and -Japanese officials make a fuss about her sexy coffee-table book? You say rosaries for that kind of trouble.

Throughout the campaign and straight through election day, Clinton turned deficit to asset—just as he promises to do with the American economy. Meanwhile, George Bush flailed away absurdly. He concentrated on Clinton’s modest history as a Vietnam War protester and on the great issue of whether his opponent once inhaled a joint. Bush even allowed surrogates to suggest Clinton was invited to the Soviet Union by sinister forces. 'Very presidential.

Worse than being trivial, this stuff was 20 years out of date. In the here and now, college graduates can’t find jobs, hotshot executives see careers vanish, cities crumble and a general feeling abounds that the only thing America can do half right is trot off to some stupid little war, rearrange the other guy’s terrain and toot home to parades and an orgy of self-congratulation. Desert Storm? An impetuous act that accomplished nothing—not even the presumed ancillary effect of securing for George Bush a second term. Too late, the President learned that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. It’s a lesson Clinton never forgot.

So you had Bush whining in his petulant way about the “trust thing,” and you had Clinton maintaining his focus, rarely taking the bait.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

Bush wanted to talk about peaceniks, Clinton had on his agenda jobs and foreign trade. Bush bears down on Clinton’s draft record. Clinton says, fine, let us now discuss national health care. Bush calls the Democratic vice-presidential candidate Al Gore “Ozone Man” because Gore is big on environmental protection, and Clinton smiles that sly grin of his and pounds away on plans for a new educational loan program.

Why didn’t someone tell Bush he was doing the Gennifer Flowers routine all over again? Spend all your time insisting we ought to be worried about Clinton’s habits as a 25-year-old, pretty soon we are going to get the idea that this Clinton must be a hot ticket. At the same time, if that’s all you manage to say, we are going to think that you are a severely limited individual who hasn’t much idea of what to do next and who stands for very little. Vietnam? The draft? Marijuana? You have to be very rich, or very out of touch, or maybe both, to believe Americans still worry about rubbish like that.

American elections are impressionistic exercises, anyway. A checkout clerk at the supermarket says, “Who you voting for?” One aisle over, another says: “I don’t like any of them, the politicians. But things are bad. My kid’s out of work. We need a change. Bush had his chance. I’m go-

ing for the other one, Clinton.” Ours is not a café society. We do not sit around with strong coffee and bottles of anisette and discuss the consequences of the decline of world socialism. We do not argue our own history or the history of anyone else. Our view of political complexity is that there isn’t any—everything is simple, on the surface. No plots or subplots, just car chases and bedroom scenes. Most of us live only in the present. The future and past have no bearing on our lives.

Thank television for this, or an overloaded, outmoded educational system, or the distractions that devour modem life. Who’s going to spend Saturday night debating protectionism and the trade deficit if he can just as well go down to the multi-screen and see The Mighty Ducks? At 46, Bill Clinton may intuitively realize that the culture is in massive transition and that people are frightened because there doesn’t seem much to believe in any more. Maybe he knows that we are prisoners of technology and of a plenteousness we no longer can afford— that no one can afford. Give them a little hope, a whiff of substance, a sign that Washington can make a difference. Tell them federalism is a machine designed to serve their needs and banish the notion that the apparatus is out of control. Remind them that their heritage was built on faith, not fear.

Of course, Republicans trotted out the big government threat but that, too, was the wrong horse. Sure you get a response. You get people shaking their heads and saying the feds have no business in their lives and that they’re sick of all the bureaucrats. So what? People talk like that because, for 12 years, and, really, ever since Franklin Roosevelt, they have been told government is the enemy. Ronald Reagan got himself eight years of free room and board harping on the idea and this time around you had Bush saying the same thing, only less convincingly. The President tells America abortion should be outlawed; at the same time he says that government should let Americans do as they please. Make sense?

Clinton had a better angle. He hustled all over the country in buses, telling Americans that government and the people are a powerful partnership. Abortion? Well, he’s not happy about abortion, but doesn’t think that Washington should get involved in so private a matter. Government has better things to do with its time, says Clinton. Crime, sickness, urban decay—let’s get the show on the road.

But here is something the president-elect better get straight You can be bright and you can be good-looking and you can master that staccato hand gesture reminiscent of Jack Kennedy. You can make Americans feel something grand is about to happen after years of retrenchment and division. Inspirational leadership takes more than just the right moves, though. When Clinton talks about a new breed of Democrat, you have to wonder what he really means. What does it mean to minority Americans and to the cities—to the spirit of community and liberalism? Somewhere along the line George Bush forgot what he stood for. Here’s hoping Bill Clinton remembers.