15 September 1998
Cry Baby Clinton
James Heartfield reflects on the fallout from the Starr report
'I feel like comrade Rubashov in Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon', president Clinton complained at one point during the drama over independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation. The character Rubashov was an old Bolshevik, interrogated for months by Stalin's secret police, whose loyalty to the Soviet state persuades him to denounce himself as a traitor, even though he knows that he is right, and Stalin's policy is a perversion of the revolution. It's a flawed novel, but it does deal with a conflict of world-historical proportions. By contrast, Bill Clinton is being investigated for cheating on his wife. Kenneth's Starr's investigation is as crazy as Stalin's, but Rubashov's cause was heroic, whereas Clinton's whining, and his self-aggrandising, is just embarrassing.
It is extraordinary that the American political system should be paralysed by an investigation into an extra-marital affair. All the subsequent allegations of perjury and lying are just an attempt to lend the salacious fascination with Clinton's private life a semblance of dignity. In fact it would not matter if Clinton had slept with every woman on the White House staff, or none of them for that matter. Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky is supposed to be the crux of the investigation. But in fact the investigation was launched by the Office of the Independent Counsel before anyone had heard of Lewinsky. The real substance of the investigation is nothing to do with Lewinsky herself. Rather, it is a necessary consequence of the way that US politics has less to do with real policy questions, and rests instead on the intangible issue of 'character'.
Many people have noted that the personal morality of well-loved presidents like John F Kennedy was at least as louche as Clinton's. It is presumed that a greater willingness on the part of the press to pry is the reason that we know about Clinton's affairs as they happen, while it took twenty years to find out about Kennedy. It is true that the press is more intrusive, but that is only a symptom of the real reason. The fact is that, in the absence of an ideological contest between politicians, 'character' is the sole basis of Clinton's appeal to the American people. Resting so insistently on the question of 'character', it is inevitable that any leading politician's character should become a point of inquiry and investigation.
No matter how squeaky clean the person was, the independent counsel would dig and dig until something was found. Clinton's behaviour seems reckless, but only because of the prurient interest in his personal behaviour. As the revelations about vice president Al Gore's contributions from Chinese nationals, or even Tony Blair's business links show, even the most colourless of politicians can be shown to have some flaw if you dig deep enough. The truth of the matter is that the flaw is not in the person, but in the process. When the independent counsel is determined to find a fault, a fault will be found. Like Buckminster Fuller's man with a hammer, Kenneth Starr's world is full of nails. A legal process that is preoccupied with character will necessarily find character flaws in any leading politician, regardless of whether they exist or not. And the Office of the Independent Counsel institutionalises the quest for sleaze.
As flawed as the investigation process is, the political reactions that have come in its train are even more destructive. Instead of just telling Starr to take his complaints to the American people, the president has wallowed in the cod-therapeutic clich=E9s of daytime television. His daily apologies are, as Sigmund Freud observed of many expressions of guilt, merely self-indulgence. It might have moved Jesse Jackson, but Clinton's abject self-criticisms only make more discriminating people cringe with embarrassment. Who really cares whether Clinton hurt his wife or his daughter, or lied, or was personally reckless? Such details ought to be as important in a president as they would be in a tailor or a car mechanic. But sadly, emotional sharing is increasingly becoming the substance of the political process in America as it is in Britain.
Clinton's strategy is to side-step the ostensible charges - perjury - and go straight to the emotional content, his character. He hopes to get people on his side by persuading them to identify with his dilemma, and the way to do it is to open himself up. He wants Americans to imagine what it is like to have erred and to seek forgiveness. In that way they can be persuaded to admire his contrition, instead of damning his indiscretion. It is a strategy that appeals to the very worst in people. Instead of inviting them to pass judgement on his government, he is flattering them, by acting the part of a naughty boy who is saying sorry. His body language - a vital part now of the American political process - is to look up wistfully from under his mop of hair, as if every television viewer were a stern grandparent or schoolteacher, their heart melting under the rays of his winsome charm.
If the record of the Clinton presidency proves anything, it proves that the more you say sorry the more that they come back for more. And with every apology the president makes, the process of political debate is degraded a bit more. 'Sorry'. What kind of answer is that? How can you make a serious decision about anything if even the president wants to take it back the minute he says or does it? It is not responsibility, but a failure of responsibility to seek to evade the consequences of your actions. Imagine if the disgraced president Richard Nixon had said he was sorry over the Watergate burglaries. Would he have been forgiven? Of course not. The very idea that the president should say sorry is absurd. If there is any job where you ought to stand by your actions, for good or ill, then it is the presidency of the United States. Clinton should save his apologies for his wife, personal contrition ought to be no part of political debate.
When the emotional give and take of a marriage becomes the model for the political order, the consequences are disastrous. How can anyone be sure that the president will not just say 'sorry' and take back real political decisions, decisions that are the basis for everybody else's actions. With Nixon, it was at least possible to hold him to account. But with Slick Willie it is impossible to judge the man. On his character? But haven't you heard: he's sorry. On his record? How do you know that he will not take it all back tomorrow?
Despite the feeding frenzy in the press and congress, the American people have been unmoved by Starr's demand for impeachment. It would be nice to think that this was straightforward revulsion at the semen-stained outpourings of the Starr report. The president's spin-doctors say that the American people are too sensible to be taken in by this witch-hunt. Doubtless the average Middle American is a bit more grounded than the average Washington commentator. But unfortunately the disinterested mood of the American public is not that positive. In the first instance, the cynical and anti-political mood that has gripped America since the Bush presidency is just as easily turned against the independent counsel as it is against the president. The underlying suspicion of all official institutions that is the rationale of the independent counsel's office has now rebounded upon Starr.
But more importantly the American people's unwillingness to pass judgement on the president one way or another is the natural outcome of the therapeutic style of political debate. Even an old-fashioned moralistic condemnation of the president would be preferable to the 'live and let live' attitude that informs the opinion polls. Sadly, the attitude that the president's personal life has nothing to do with his politics is crumbling in the face of the media preoccupation. Rather the public's willingness to forgive is a compliment to his own contrition. The feeling is much more one of 'who are we to judge, everyone has personal flaws'. It is a lowering of public expectation that sustains the idea that the president should be forgiven. The idea that the American people are precisely those who should judge the president's actions, one way or another, is precisely what is missing in the current climate of apology and forgiveness.
The most absurd consequence of these lowered public expectations is the spin that Clinton is a great president who is personally flawed. Clinton is a useless president, whose two terms have been marked by drift and indecision. Repressive social policies have coincided with an equivocal attitude towards the Republican-dominated congress and Wall Street. American society is increasingly dominated by lawyers and the courts, who profit by the failure of coherent policy, fostering a culture of recrimination and court-administered compensation. In the wider world, his presidency has been marked by more and more demotic attempts to politicise international relations by targeting the very weakest states for vicious military assaults. But that is the record that the American people will never be asked to judge.
Join a discussion on this commentary