MEN OF PRINCIPLE, MEN OF POLLS
The Buffalo News, page B-3
December 26, 1998 Richard Reeves
This is one way to look at the impeachment of President Clinton: Sincere men and women of principle defeated a man without principles, a man of polls. At last, justice, right. Good and true belief triumphed over a communications-age demagogue who believed in nothing but giving people what they say they want.
Unfortunately, self-government and representative democracy are not that pure. One man's principle can be another man's tyranny. The puritan standards imposed on a sinful nation by conservative Republicans -- the principles that brought down both the president and their own leader, Robert Livingston -- are, by my personal principles, the imposition of religious totalitarianism on what is meant to be political pluralism.
That does not exonerate or even excuse the impeached president. Whatever one thinks of his personal and legal sinning, his political wrongdoing has been an addiction to polling, focus groups and the other paraphernalia of survey research.
Clinton is a man of numbers who has been less a principled leader than a facilitator of public opinion. That point was emphasized once again by his amoral friend, Dick Morris, who has perked up the paperback edition of his tell-almost-all book about his private public service. This time Morris publishes the notes of weekly White House meetings to set the president's agenda by polls on everything from what to do about Iraq to how to feel about terrorism in Oklahoma City.
So Clinton and his tormentors acted out their roles as the polar demons of government of the people: the pure democrat channeling majority opinion, and the pure tyrants of the minority chasing down heretics and hypocrites.
They are actors playing out the cliché that history repeats itself, first as drama, than as farce. This was the farce. The setting of the play is the South, the old and the new. In the first production, which ran for most of the century, the people's representatives of the old South were Democrats, and they destroyed the Democratic Party by refusing to abandon segregation. The representatives of the new South are Republicans of old puritan definition, righteous folk afraid that someone, somewhere, is having fun. And they will destroy the Republican Party over issues of personal morality.
More than almost anything, the new Southerners and old conservative allies in the North despise Clinton for his lying and for what they see as his blasphemy and hypocrisy. My own perception is that what these puritan tyrants hate most is photographs of Clinton coming out of church, wife, daughter and Bible in hand -- looking for all the world like one of them, a Baptist image of the perfect and devout Christian family.
It doesn't bother me. Forced to choose between these aliens, I would choose the hypocrite. In fact, I lean toward the view that mannered hypocrisy is absolutely essential to the practice of civilization. Who can live with the truth all the time, when people ask such things as, "How do I look?" The truth may make us free, but we would not have any friends.
One of the ways America became great in our own eyes was by refusing to acknowledge obvious and evil excesses involving men and women created equal except for their skin color and the greedy thieving of Bible-toters from what we now call the investing classes. (Fortunately, the nation has regularly redeemed itself when the hypocrisy reveals itself, a pattern that led Martin Luther King Jr., for one, to force Americans to defend their rhetoric with great deeds.)
So much for men of principle. You have to judge such things by whether or not you agree with the principle. And so much for men of polls, too.
Having said that, I grew very concerned about the future of the country the other day, when I bumped into the aforementioned Dick Morris. He is trying to expand his constituency to include other men who would be king, beginning with Vice President Al Gore.
"I've got some great ideas for Gore," Morris told me. "I think there is something going on in the environment and global-warming and all that. There have been just enough incidents of crazy weather around the world to make people think maybe the environmental nuts and tree-huggers are right. I'm going to check it out with a poll and show Gore the numbers."
Oh, great! More Morris numbers are just what Al Gore and the nation need right now
Universal Press Syndicate