HITCHENS: Is he the most crooked President in history?
Sunday April 18, 1999 Christopher Hitchens
Is he the most crooked President in history?
In this searing indictment, Christopher Hitchens argues that the Clinton years have been marked by conservatism, cowardice and corruption
Sunday April 18,
In his hot youth in the 1960s, Bill Clinton had been, on his own account, a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement. Recalling these brave days during the April 1997 anniversary celebrations of Jackie Robinson's victory over Jim Crow in baseball, he said:
When I was a young person, both I and my family thought that the segregation which dominated our part of the country was wrong… So he was like - he was fabulous evidence for people in the South, when we were all arguing over the integration of the schools, the integration of all public facilities, basically the integration of our national life. Whenever some bigot would say something, you could always cite Jackie Robinson… You know, if you were arguing the integration side of the argument, you could always play the Jackie Robinson card and watch the big husky redneck shut up [here the transcript shows a chuckle] because there was nothing they could say.
Actually, there would have been something the big husky redneck could have said. 'Huh?' would have about covered it. Or perhaps: 'Run along, kid.' Jackie Robinson - a lifelong Republican - broke the colour line in baseball when Clinton was six. He retired from the game in 1956, when Clinton was nine. The Supreme Court had decided in favor of school integration a year before that. Perhaps the eight-year-old boy wonder did confront the hefty and the white-sheeted with his piping treble, but not even the fond memoirs of his doting mama record the fact.
As against that, at the close of Clinton's tenure as governor, Arkansas was the only state in the union that did not have a Civil Rights statute. Let us consult the most sympathetic biography of Clinton, The President They Deserve, by Martin Walker, the Guardian's US correspondent. Described as 'truly sensational' by Sidney Blumenthal in the New Yorker, Walker's book includes an account of Clinton's electoral defeat in Arkansas in 1980. Clinton had begun his two years at the State House by inviting the venomous old segregationist Orval Faubus, former governor of Arkansas, to a place of honour at the inaugural ceremony (a step that might have caused Jackie Robinson to raise an eyebrow) but not even this was enough to protect him against vulgar local accusations of 'nigger-loving'. The crunch moment came in the dying days of the Carter administration, when Cuban refugees were stuffed into an emergency holding pen at Fort Chafee, and protested against their confinement. As Walker phrases it: 'The ominous black-and-white shots of dark-skinned Cuban rioters against white-faced police and Arkansans had carried a powerful subliminal message.' The boyish governor vowed to prevent any more Cubans from landing on Arkansas soil, and declared loudly that he would defy the federal government 'even if they bring the whole US army down here'. This echo of the rebel yell was correctly described by Paul Greenberg, columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, as 'a credible imitation of Orval E. Faubus'. Walker omits that revealing moment, but describes the conclusion Bill and Hillary drew from the ensuing reverse at the polls: 'The lessons were plain: never be outnegatived again.'
Perhaps this dictum only occurs to Walker in the 'subliminal' sense. But its provenance is well-established. George Wallace, defeated by a less polished racist in an electoral tussle in long-ago Alabama, swore in public 'never to be out-niggered again'. This slogan was well known, and well understood, in all the former states of the Old Confederacy. And after 1980, Clinton clearly began to evolve a 'southern strategy' of his own.
In the 1992 run for the Democratic nomination, that strategy became plain for anyone willing to see it. Clinton took care to be photographed at an all-white golf club, and also standing at a prison-farm photo-op, wearing his shades while a crowd of black convicts broke rocks in the sun. Taxed with long-time membership in the 'exclusive' golf club - 'inclusiveness' being only a buzz-word away - Clinton calmly replied that the club's 'staff and facilities' were integrated - a 'legally accurate' means of stating the obvious fact that the help was coloured.
In January 1992 Clinton quit the thick of the New Hampshire primary to fly to Arkansas and give personal supervision to the execution of Rickey Ray Rector. Rector was a black lumpen failure, convicted of a double murder, who had shot himself in the head on arrest and achieved the same result as a frontal lobotomy would have done. He understood his charge and trial and sentence not at all. After a decade on Death Row his execution number came up in a week when Clinton, according to one report of the polls, had lost 12 points as a result of the Gennifer Flowers disclosures. These two 'numbers' were made to intersect. In 1988, Clinton had backed the ludicrous presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, who had suffered from a sleazy 'subliminal' campaign about a dusky parole-breaking rapist named Willie Horton. In the week of the Flowers revelations, Time magazine helpfully inquired: 'Suppose Clinton does sew up the nomination by mid-March and the Republicans discover a Willie Horton in his background?' Rickey Ray Rector was the perfect rebuttal to such annoying speculations.
A few columnists commented with disgust on this human sacrifice, but the press pack preferred to use Clinton's successful lying about Gennifer Flowers as the test of his fitness for high office.
It was not until more than a year later that the whole story of Rector's last days was recounted by Marshall Frady in the New Yorker. Served his traditional last meal, Rector had left the pecan pie on the side of the tray, as he explained to his queasy guards, 'for later'. Strapped to a gurney, he had tried to help his executioners find a viable vein (his blood vessels were impaired by an anti-psychotic drug) before they inflicted a 'cut-down' and slashed the crook of his arm with a scalpel to insert a catheter. It seems he thought they were physicians trying to help him. For many poor Americans, jail is the only place where doctors, lawyers, teachers and chaplains are, however grudgingly, made available to them. An hour was spent on the cut-down process, before the death-giving chemicals could kick in. Warden Willis Sargent, a tough former army non-com, was assailed by misgiving as the deadline approached. 'Rickey's a harmless guy,' he said. 'This is not something I want to do.' The chaplain, Dennis Pigman, resigned from the prison system shortly afterwards, saying: 'I hate murder. I hate murderers. But to execute children? What was done to Rickey Ray Rector was in itself, absolutely, a crime. A horrible crime. We're not supposed to execute children.'
Well, that of course depends on the needs of the hour, and the requirements of a 'New Democrat'. Most nauseating, in Frady's account, was the Pharisaic conduct of Governor Clinton himself. At all times, he pretended - to Rector's lawyer Jeff Rosenzweig and to others who managed to reach him in the closing moments - that this was a very painful moment for him personally. But that same affectation exposed itself when he received a telephone call from his friend Carolyn Staley, director of the Governor's Commission on Adult Literacy. Hearing on the radio that Rector's execution was stalled by the snag of finding a usable vein, she telephoned her friend Bill and he called her back and - well, I'll let Marshall Frady tell it:
She told him: 'I just wanted to let you know that I'm praying for you about the execution tonight,' and he replied in a groan: 'It's just awful. Just terrible, terrible.' As she recalls it now, 'I heard in his voice a self - a depth of anguish - I'd never, never heard in him before.' She then told him: 'You know, he's not even dead yet.' 'What?'she remembers him exclaiming. 'What?' From his startlement, it was obvious to her that the conference in which he had been absorbed had not exactly been a 'blow by blow' account of Rector's fate… Staley then told him: 'Bill, I'm so sorry. We've had two executions this week, haven't we.' She meant the Flowers allegations. 'He just groaned,' she remembers, and they moved on to discussing that topic. Ultimately, she says, the conversation wound up 'much more about the Gennifer Flowers matter' than about what was happening to Rector at that moment down at Cummins.
Easy to believe. One is compelled to acknowledge the versatility, and the quick change between ostentatious pain-feeling and everyday political instinct. This moment deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons: first, it introduces a Clintonian mannerism of faux 'concern' that has since become tediously familiar; second, it illuminates his later attitude towards matters racial, and penal; and third, it marks the first of many times that Clinton would deliberately opt for death as a means of distraction from sex.
I followed Clinton from New Hampshire to Arkansas to California to New York that season, noticing with subdued admiration the ways in which his fans and staffers would recommend him in private. Most amazing was the frequently heard observation that Clinton, as a Southerner, 'understood black people'. This extraordinary piece of condescension was convertible currency, as it turned out, because of the jolt delivered by the disorders in Los Angeles. Nervous voters found Bush's response to be insufficiently fuzzy. Clinton, it was widely assumed, would be more 'caring' and 'healing'. Clinton gave the City of the Angels a wide berth, and limited his comments to some platitudes, taken from the playbook of neo-conservatism, about the 'culture of poverty' in South Central.
That very idiom - naturally concerned yet none the less strict - was to become the substratum of his 'comfort level' with black Americans while in office. Obviously on good personal terms with Vernon Jordan and Ron Brown and Mike Espy, Clinton also rocked to Aretha Franklin on the Mall during his inauguration and invited Maya Angelou to deliver a piece of doggerel poetry at the ceremony itself. Well versed in the cant of Southern Baptist rhetorical uplift, the new President was capable of working the crowd at black church services just as, infinitely protean in devotional matters, he never looked out of place standing next to Billy Graham or Mother Teresa. However, there were certain occasions when push, to employ an old political cliché, came to shove.
One test of Clinton's loyalty to his black friends and colleagues involved his surgeon-general, Dr Joycelyn Elders. She asked whether it might be wise to lift the prohibition, not of soft narcotics, but on any debate about decriminalising them. The striking thing about Clinton's rapid response was not his stony opposition to decriminalisation but his vehement opposition to the merest mention of the topic. It was a debate, not a proposal, that he forbade. In effect, he told his surgeon-general to shut up. At another public forum, where the subject was sexual wellbeing among teenagers, Dr Elders proposed an open discussion of masturbation, as well as of the existing choice between latex sheaths and abstinence. The presidential firing that followed was peremptory. It was as if the good doctor had publicly defiled the temple of her own body. One feels almost laughably heavy-footed in pointing out that Mrs Clinton's prim little book, It Takes A Village, proposes sexual abstinence for the young, and that the President was earnestly seconding this very proposal while using an impressionable intern as the physical rather than moral equivalent of a visual aid.
By late 1998 it was being openly said in Democratic quarters that Clinton was being lynched by a posse of big and husky rednecks. On the floor of the House, with the evident approval of the Democratic leadership, Maxine Waters said the defence of this wronged man was the moral equivalent of the fight against slavery and segregation. During the Senate trial, the White House fielded a young black woman attorney, Cheryl Mills, to make essentially the same point. And when the trial managers failed to call the President's secretary Betty Currie, the race card was played yet again. Clinton's spinners successfully spread the word that the senators feared to question a shy and dignified black lady (whose life, incidentally, had been made a hell of lawyer's bills by the actions of her boss) lest she break down and cry. There was something brilliantly sordid about this last innuendo: nobody knew better than the White House that a private deal had been made by senators to restrict the number of witnesses to three. And these potentates had decided Sidney Blumenthal was a better test of Clinton's human shield than a fragile secretary.
This sort of tactic works well enough for the daily news cycle. But it may not be enough to satisfy the high-minded. The niche market of intellectuals - once described by Harold Rosenberg as 'the herd of independent minds' - was to be served by its own hero, Arthur Miller. Writing in the New York Times on 15 October 1998, the author of The Crucible shared the following thoughts:
Witch-hunts are always spooked by women's horrifying sexuality awakened by the superstud Devil. In Europe, where tens of thousands perished in the hunts, broadsides showed the Devil with two phalluses. And of course mankind's original downfall came about when the Filthy One corrupted the mother of mankind. In Salem, witch-hunting ministers had the solemn duty to examine women's bodies for signs of the 'Devil's Marks' - a suggestion of webbing, perhaps, between the toes, a mole behind an ear or between the legs, or a bite mark somewhere. I thought of this wonderfully holy exercise when Congress went pawing through Kenneth Starr's fiercely exact report on the President's intimate meetings with Monica Lewinsky. I guess nothing changes all that much.
Oh but surely, Mr Miller, some things have changed? Paula Jones - the witch or bitch in this case - did not accuse the President of flaunting two phalluses. Indeed, she implied it would have taken two of his phalluses to make one normal one, which could even be part of the reason why he paid her $840,000 to keep quiet. (This payment involved dipping into the 'blind trust' maintained by his wife after her success in the cattle-futures and other markets.) No woman's body was probed by the Starr team. Rather, they examined the body of the world's most powerful man, as a result of a legal process initiated by one of the world's least powerful women. And the evidence there discovered - necessarily a bit grungy - consisted not of 'Devil's Marks' but of matching DNA.
The above does not prove that Clinton is The Evil One, but it does prove that Arthur Miller is The Stupid One. Would he let it go at that? He would not. Digging a deeper ditch for himself, and handing up the shovel, he continued:
Then there is the colour element. Mr Clinton, according to Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, is our first black President, the first to come from the broken home, the alcoholic mother, the under-the-bridge shadows of our ranking systems.
Thus, we may have lost the mystical power to divine diabolism, but we can still divine blackness by the following symptoms: broken homes, alcoholic mothers, under-the-bridge habits and (presumable from the rest of Miller's senescent musings) the tendency to sexual predation and to shameless perjury about same. I remember when Ronald Reagan's genial caricature of the vodka-soaked welfare mother was considered 'offensive' by all those with OK opinions, if only because half the white children in America had been brought up by caring nannies - sober and decent black ladies - who had to tend to their own children when they had finished with their day jobs. But in Reagan's day, the children of the most shiftless white or black mother were still guaranteed a Federal minimum. And Reagan would never have dared to stage a Primary Colors photo-op execution - if only for fear of the fulminant liberal response that Clinton avoided. In the asinine remarks of Miller, the Left's hero of the 1950s, political correctness has achieved its own negation.
In July 1998, during the third and last televised forum of his national 'dialogue' on race, Clinton was confronted by the Native American poet and novelist Sherman Alexie, who complained that many of his fellows were still living in the US version of the Third World. Responding, Clinton announced that his grandmother had been one-quarter Cherokee. This claim, never advanced before, would if true have made him the first Native American President. It didn't wash with Alexie, who later observed that people 'are always talking about race in coded language. What they will do is come up to me and say they're Cherokee'. Clinton did his best to be the first to laugh. Within weeks, his symbolic pandering brought him a balance of black sympathy in the polls. He had hired Jesse Jackson as minister of choice, and he had closed his 'atonement' appeal for the 1998 elections at a fund-raiser in a black church in Baltimore - an unconstitutional action for which he was later sued by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. By these last-minute improvisations, he had become the first President to play the race card both ways - once traditionally and once, so to speak, in reverse.
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