A Hard Dog to Keep on the Porch

Christopher Hitchens on Bill Clinton

Oxford 1968-9. In the evenings, after dinner in hall, groups would take shape informally in the quad. There was Richard Cobb’s lot, making for the buttery and another round of worldly banter. There was this or that sodality, taking a cigarette break or killing time before revision. There was my own cohort, usually divided between the opposing tasks of selling the factional newspaper, or distributing the latest leaflet, or procuring another drink. And there were the Americans. I remember James Fenton noticing how they would cluster a little closer together and talk in a fashion slightly more intense. Mainly Rhodes or Fulbright scholars, they had come from every state of the union with what amounted to a free pass. The Yanks of Oxford were accustomed to going home and taking up a lot of available space in the American academy, in the American media and in American politics or diplomacy. Yet for this contingent, the whole experience had become deeply and abruptly fraught. They were far from home and they were deeply patriotic. You could tell that they had been told by their selection committees, before embarking on the Atlantic crossing, that they should comport themselves as ambassadors and emissaries. But those local lawyers and Rotarians and Chambers of Commerce had not prepared them to hurry up, finish their studies and take ship to Vietnam.

It’s often been said since that these young men would not have been bothered by the war if it were not for their own impending draft notices, and that they were quite prepared to let the underclass be conscripted in their stead. This is quite simply a slander. The arguments and conversations of those years disclosed a group of very serious and principled people. They did not like to criticise their own country while overseas, but they could not bear to see it befouled by warmongers and racists. All of them could see the self-evident connection between the rise of the war party in Washington and the defeat of civil rights and the ‘Great Society’. Many of them came from families where military service was a proud axiom. All of them felt guilty and indebted for their luck. At 46 Leckford Road, in a scruffy house where many of them hung out, there were debates of a high quality. (There were also biscuits and brownies made out of marijuana, which meant that you didn’t have to inhale if you didn’t desire.) Frank Aller, the brilliant scholar of China who was one of the chief ornaments of that address, later took his despair and disillusion to the length of self-slaughter. Most were more sanguine. I don’t especially remember Bill Clinton, perhaps because he was one of the more moderate and conciliatory types. But I remember several of his girlfriends and I remember being impressed at a house that boasted its own duplicator for the production of Vietnam Moratorium leaflets. And now I live in Washington and I see the old Rhodes Class of those years going about its business: Robert Reich running the Labour Department and Strobe Talbott managing US-Russian relations from Foggy Bottom and Ira Magaziner trying to recover from his moment as person-in-charge of Bill and Hillary’s health care ‘reform’.

When I want to recall those Leckford Road days, I can turn up a letter that William Jefferson Clinton wrote, on 3 December 1969, to a certain Colonel Holmes of the University of Arkansas Reserve Officers Training Corps. Clinton wanted to clarify his attitude to the military draft:

Let me try to explain. As you know, I worked for two years in a very minor position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I did it for the experience and the salary but also for the opportunity, however small, of working every day against a war I opposed and despised with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America before Vietnam ... Because of my opposition to the draft and the war, I am in great sympathy with those who are not willing to fight, kill and maybe die for their country (i.e. the particular policy of a particular government) right or wrong.

(My friend Todd Gitlin, author of the best book on this period, points out the ranking of ‘fight, kill and maybe die’ as the correct order in which anti-war people listed their objections.) But towards the close of this telling letter, Clinton explains to Holmes why it is that, after all, he does not propose to become a full-blown refusenik:

The decision not to be a resister and related subsequent decisions were the most difficult of my life. I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterised by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress. (Emphasis mine.)

Since Clinton went on both to dodge the actual draft and to be something of an anti-war activist, this missive from an old head on young shoulders has been adduced as the early indication of a desire, if not a need, to have everything both ways. In the 1992 Presidential elections the letter surfaced, not as the confirmation of an early stand on principle, but as proof of an ingrained tendency towards excuse-making and evasion. And it set people remembering. When had they first noticed Clinton’s talent for being all things to all men? Even as Cecil Rhodes’s legatees were taking the liner across to Southampton in October 1968, and viewing their own destiny with a high seriousness and purity, they found themselves sharing a ship with Bobby Baker. Mr Baker, who was Lyndon Johnson’s bag-man and fixer within the Democratic Party and throughout the capital city, had been convicted in a sensational trial of tax fraud and conspiracy. His attorney, the no less legendary Edward Bennett Williams (known as ‘the man to see’), was in effect sending him off on a cruise while he played out the appeals procedure. Confronted with this gargoyle of the old gang, many of the Rhodes boys kept a fastidious distance. ‘But Clinton was there,’ in one account, ‘standing at Baker’s side, soaking in tales of power and intrigue ... It was while watching his performance with Bobby Baker that Strobe Talbott said he first understood Clinton’s “raw political talent”.’

New Hampshire, January 1992. Before a single vote has been cast, the prestige press has announced that the Democrats have their ‘front runner’. This is Bill Clinton, ‘New Democrat’ and Governor of Arkansas. In the two invisible primaries, which are the press primary and the fund-raising or ‘money’ primary, he has passed every test with aplomb. Tough on welfare and crime, ‘flexible’ on defence and foreign policy, solid for Israel, reputedly ‘good’ with black people, he is moreover young and once shook hands with John F. Kennedy. At the bar of the Sheraton Wayfarer in Manchester, the HQ of the travelling press corps, most correspondents report that their editors only want good news about the new consensus candidate. And, generally, that’s what they have been getting and transmitting. A flap has, however, broken out. A classic blonde troublemaker named Gennifer Flowers has gone public. Damage control is in progress, but things look a touch wobbly. (This is the best-rendered chapter in Primary Colors.)

Outside a stricken factory somewhere downstate, Clinton is confronted by a host of questions about his Little Rock love-nest. He looks like a dog being washed. Since I don’t care about Flowers, I attempt to change the subject – never an easy thing to do at a pack-job press conference. I want to know about the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Rector was a black cop-killer in Arkansas, lobotomised by a gunshot wound. He no longer knew his own name, and met most of the standard conditions for clemency. But Clinton left New Hampshire specifically to return to Arkansas and have him put to death. He did so in order to demonstrate, or ‘signal’, that he was not soft on crime. Rector’s condition was such that, as he left his cell for the last time, he saved the dessert from his last meal ‘for later’. Strapped to a trolley for a lethal injection, he actually assisted the executioners in their hour-long search for a viable vein in which to place the lethal catheter. (He thought they were doctors trying to cure him.)

This, coupled with Clinton’s ostentatious membership of an all-white golf-club, strikes me as a more pressing issue of morals and ‘character’ than l’affaire Flowers. But Clinton, who at first looks as if he welcomes a change of subject, doesn’t care for this one. He turns his back and marches away. Later on television, his flack says that everything else is a diversion from the Governor’s real programme, which is ‘a tax cut for the middle class’. Rector is never mentioned again in the entire course of the campaign. There is a brief subsequent flap, when a few questions are asked about land-deals in Arkansas, and a bankrupt savings-and-loan concern, and the role played in both by a law firm associated with Hillary Clinton. There’s also something about a shady airport in Arkansas, said to have been used for murky transactions with Central America. But since these questions come from the Nation magazine, and from Ralph Nader and Jerry Brown, they can be, and are, easily shrugged off as ‘marginal’. Understandably, the Republicans display little relish for dragging up the savings-and-loan scandal, or for raising the question of campaign donations, or for investigating property speculation. And as for reopening the Iran-Contra scandal ... forget it. A sort of Mutual Assured Destruction guarantees that neither party will breach protocol on these questions. Instead, the Bush campaign concentrates on the old ‘draft-dodging’ issue, and enlists the help of John Major’s mediocre Central Office in rummaging through old passport files. They fail to gauge the extent to which the New Democrat has left all that behind him. Now, what would have happened if Bush or Reagan had executed a retarded black man in order to win a primary? Consensus politics has an interior logic of its very own.

Washington DC, January 1993. On the Mall, there is what they call ‘A People’s Inaugural’. Before a huge, informal and mainly young crowd, Aretha Franklin sings ‘Respect’ and Bob Dylan makes a surprise appearance to perform ‘Chimes of Freedom’. Clinton and his young family appear to sing along with both. There is much heady talk about the end of the Eighties, that decade of greed and self-delusion and secret government. But if the atmosphere on the Mall is populist, the tone of the real Inaugural is anything but. Pamela Harriman gives a welcome-to-Washington party in Georgetown, which features wall-to-wall lobbyists and power-brokers of the most traditional stripe. Campaign contributors are received and rewarded in proportion to the timeliness, and the size, of their subscriptions. The first harvest of cabinet appointments shows Georgetown beating the Mall every time. Lloyd Bentsen, the prince of Capitol influence-peddlers, gets the Treasury. Alan Greenspan, the reactionary fan of Ayn Rand, who has roosted at the Federal Reserve these many years, is beseeched to ‘stay on’. Winston Lord, an old Kissinger hand, gets the Asia desk at State. Les Aspin, a plaything of the military contractors, is awarded to the Pentagon. And so it goes. Within a very few months, according to Bob Woodward’s book, The Agenda, Clinton is exploding with rage at the way that Washington is running him, rather than the other way about. He has been told that the bond market will not permit some marginal adjustment on which he had staked ‘credibility’. This means, he advises his team, that they are all ‘Eisenhower Republicans’ now. Have a care, Mr President. Eisenhower was quite an activist chief executive. He built the interstate highway system and warned about the growth of the ‘military-industrial complex’. It may be rash to invite such bold comparisons.

The jokes about Clinton are always the same joke. ‘When he comes to a fork in the road,’ writes Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, ‘he takes it.’ He wants to have his dozen Big Macs and eat them too. And so forth. (I myself have contributed a one-liner: ‘Why did Bill Clinton cross the road? Because he wanted to get to the middle.’) In earnest sessions with interviewers, the most overtly therapeutic of which was given to Good Housekeeping, Clinton himself has mused aloud about his dysfunctional childhood and his hunger and thirst for approval. Is there a connection between the essence of Clinton and the essence of Clintonism? Does either of them possess an essence?

The answer is yes, if you make the simple assumption that Clinton’s consistent aim has been a national shift to the centre-right. This of course is the very assumption that the consensus press and the Republican opposition are incapable of making. It is also an assumption that the liberal mainstream – and its Clintonoid centrepiece – is reluctant to see spelled out too starkly. But if it is sound, it explains Clinton’s past and present, and also clarifies his strategy for gaining a second term. As I write, the President has the GOP more or less punching air. Instead of worrying about being an Eisenhower or Rockefeller Republican, he has embraced the idea. He has even hired a Republican political strategist, Dick Morris, to guide his campaign. And Mr Morris has been sharing poll data with Robert Dole, who was until recently Clinton’s complicit partner in the management of the Hill. Only the other week, speaking in Delaware, Dole repeated his call: ‘One reason to elect me in November’96 is to keep the promises President Clinton made to you in 1992.’ The gap between New Democrat and Moderate Republican could not be narrower, and probably never has been. So all those jokes, about Bill being adamant for drift, are to some extent at the expense of those who make them. When it came to a choice – between Sixties idealism and Bobby Baker; between Ricky Ray Rector and the opinion polls; between the crowd on the Mall and the crowd in Georgetown – Clinton was never anything but swift and decisive.

The origins of his protean and malleable politics can be traced partly to his upbringing, and partly to the morphology of his home state. Arkansas is a bizarre polity which on a single night in 1968 cast its vote like this: Winthrop Rockefeller for governor, William Fulbright for senator and George Wallace for President. It has correctly been described as one of the richest little poor states in the union. Today’s Little Rock has a skyline of modern corporatism, housing numerous local monopolies such as Tyson Foods, the Worthen Bank, the Stephens Corporation and Wal-Mart. In the Quapaw district of town, the Flaming Arrow Club is the meeting point for lobbyists and legislators. (Gennifer Flowers used to be a lounge-singer at this joint, but more to the point is its role as the site of Governor Clinton’s off-the-record ‘budget breakfast’ meetings.) Go south into the Delta, however, and you are in what H.L. Mencken once termed ‘the hookworm and incest belt’. Here, sharecropper poverty and indebtedness are endemic, and the racial pattern is almost cartoonish. Prison farms are policed by armed men on horseback. Arkansas is a ‘right-to-work’ state, which means union-busting and a Third World minimum wage. It is also the only state of the union without a civil rights statute. Elected by the lower-income voters, Clinton soon became the favourite son of the high-rolling stakeholders. The contradiction is best expressed by the white lie he often tells about coming from ‘a little place called Hope’. No politician could reasonably be expected to pass up such a line, but though Clinton was technically born in the dull hamlet of Hope, Arkansas, he properly hails from the town of Hot Springs. And if Hope is a place of tin-roof piety and stagnation, Hot Springs is a wide-boy’s town full of hustlers and whores and easy money. I once went to a Labour Day rally there; Bill and Hillary both spoke. The future First Lady was breathless with enthusiasm. ‘When Bill first brought me here, I said to him: “Just look at all these small businesses.”’ Yes indeedy, ma’am. Ready cash preferred. Bill’s mother, Virginia Kelley, was a doyenne of the beauty-parlours, bars and race-tracks of this open city. His father, William Jefferson Blyth, was a smaller-time player in the travelling salesman line. Before his death in a roadside drainage ditch, he put flesh on the bones of every Dogpatch cliché about the region. (‘You know you’re from Arkansas if you find that you attend family reunions in search of a date.’) He formed sexual alliances with two sisters of the same family at the same time, while married to yet another woman, and fathered progeny with unusual casualness. His death left Virginia at the mercy of an alcoholic wife-beating successor.

They say that in the boyhood of Judas, Jesus was betrayed. The saying itself shows the treacherous ground on which psycho-history is based. But in the closing days of his campaign for the Presidency, Clinton began to tell the story of how he stood up to the brutal stepfather. Which makes it the odder that he then went to the registry and asked to take this man’s surname. If you read the Clinton family profile ‘in neutral’, so to speak, you would imagine yourself studying a problem kid from a ghetto, where it is a wise child who knows his own father. Yet Clinton’s great contribution to American domestic politics has been his stress on the deplorable lack of moral continence among the underclass. His mantra, as a leader of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, was ‘to end welfare as we know it’. In pursuit of this goal, he has advanced a spending bill which removes perhaps some millions of American children from the welfare rolls. Even Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who first opened the argument about the cultural pathology of poverty when he was working for the Nixon Administration, has professed himself appalled at the callousness and want of discrimination which characterise the new dispensation. Marion Wright Edelman, one of Washington’s best-loved advocates of civil rights, chairs the Children’s Defence Fund. Hillary Clinton used to be the honorary president of this organisation, and drew on the experience for her sentimental book It Takes a Village ... And Other Lessons Children Teach Us. (This book, inter alia, recommends abstinence from sex until those troubled teen years are behind us.) Now, Ms Edelman complains that she cannot get her phone-calls to the White House returned. It is important, therefore, to bear in mind that the Clintons do not seek everybody’s approval. Below a certain threshold of power and income, they can be quite choosey.

It seems to me that they acquired this principle of selectivity while operating in Arkansas. There are, currently, three Clintonoid scandals still in play from that period. The first, which goes under the generic title of ‘Whitewater’, has to do with real-estate speculation. The second, which is vulgarly called ‘Troopergate’, has to do with Clinton’s sexual appetite as recalled by his former bodyguards. The third concerns Mena airport. Taking these in random order, we find that no member of the Clinton entourage doubts the essence of the trooper testimony. The Governor was, in the words of a local saying, a hard dog to keep on the porch. This would scarcely be worth mentioning if the leaders of official American feminism had not rallied to his defence and rallied, furthermore, by pointing to the relative trashiness of some of the women who have complained. Excuse me, but it is surely uneducated and impressionable girls like Paula Jones – vulnerable to predatory superiors and working on short-term contracts – for whose protection the sexual harassment laws were specifically designed. As ever, it is the class element in this dismal narrative that bears watching.

On Whitewater, it has become quite the liberal fashion to say that no laws were broken and that the investigation has been allowed to draw out its length for an unconscionable period of time. It may be too early to say that no laws were broken, but it’s not by any means too early to say that this defence has a Reagan-era ring to it. And so do some of the business deals involved. ‘If Reaganomics works at all,’ wrote Hillary Rodham in a 1981 letter to the ill-starred speculator Jim McDougal, ‘Whitewater could become the Western hemisphere’s Mecca.’ The proven record of the Whitewater partnerships is one of revolving doors, influence-brokering and greasy palms; that all this is legal in American politics is itself the scandal. As for the protraction of the hearings, these could have been wound up in a matter of weeks if it were not for skilful lawyering by the White House, and the seemingly endless outbreaks of amnesia that overcame its normally needle-sharp witnesses. The fact that the case has become an adventure-playground for right-wing paranoids is not conclusive in itself, as some fastidious commentators affect to believe. Several senior White House Arkansans have already had to make hasty departures from politics, some of them clutching Go To Jail cards, and I would not expect these to be the last. Moreover, people with spin skills like the Clintons do not act as if there is something to hide if there is actually nothing to hide. Mrs Clinton in one private missive expressed alarm that an investigation might involve the disclosure of ten years’ worth of campaign financing in Arkansas. That’s probably the thing to keep your eye on. In Little Rock and its gamey Hot Springs counterpart, the Clintons learned the dirty rudiments of retail politics – and how to wholesale them. And it seems pretty obvious that they brought these talents, and these operators, to Washington. For an example of how the small-time connects to the big-time, one need look no further than a recently leaked memo, the disclosure of which moved the Oval Office to a paroxysm of fury and mole-hunting.

At the ‘anti-terrorism’ summit in Cairo last March, Clinton had a private meeting with Boris Yeltsin. An undertaking was given to provide American support for Mr Yeltsin’s re-election, and to accept his repeatedly-broken word that the filthy war in Chechnya was being brought to a close. This aspect of business concluded, Clinton raised another outstanding matter. Russia had been threatening to prohibit imports of frozen poultry. ‘This is a big issue,’ says Clinton according to the notes of the meeting, ‘especially since 40 per cent of US poultry is produced in Arkansas.’ When Tyson Foods first bankrolled a governor’s depleted campaign chest, the company can barely have hoped for representation at this level: chickens for Chechens as you might say. (The whole finger-lickin’ subject died within a few days, since Don Tyson is also a major benefactor of Bob Dole’s. Mr Tyson’s executive suite is an exact scale-model of the Oval Office, except that the door handles are sculpted in the shape of hens’ eggs. Recall what I wrote earlier about Mutual Assured Destruction.)

The third and most suggestive delayed-reaction charge from Arkansas receives the least attention. It also gives the right-wing paranoids the most trouble, since it is in essence a tale of depredation by right-wing paranoids. Reduced to its rudiments, the allegation is this. During the scoundrel time of the Central American war, an off-the-record airport in the Ouachita mountains of Arkansas was used to fly illegal weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras. The returning planes were stuffed with cocaine, partly to finance the gun-running and partly to pay off (and also to implicate and silence) those who took part in it. The least you can say for this story is that there is a lot to be said for it. I have myself interviewed Trooper L.D. Brown of Governor Clinton’s police équipe, who claims to have been on more than one of the flights. He was able to show me documents given to him in Clinton’s own handwriting, and to substantiate a good deal of what he alleged in other ways. And it is a fact that Clinton allowed the Arkansas National Guard to be sent to Central America at a time when other Democratic governors, such as Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, were refusing the poisoned chalice. Indeed, it was Clinton’s flexibility in the matter of this criminal and covert war (not unlike his subsequent haste to change sides and be on the winning side in the Gulf conflict) that won him the good opinion of several ‘responsible’ Establishment institutions, of the sort which never give up in the search for a trustworthy Democrat.

There are micro as well as macro elements in the Mena scandal, since one of the narcotics dealers involved was a man named Dan Lasater; a bond-dealer of the sort often described as ‘colourful’. Lasater, too, was a major Clinton fund-raiser and (until his imprisonment) a supplier of controlled substances to the President’s chaotic brother Roger. As in the case of his disordered family and courtship background, so with his amateur experience on the drug scene: once in Washington Bill Clinton proselytises for ‘family values’ and ‘the war on drugs’ with the zeal of a convert. Not since Nixon has the so-called drug war been prosecuted so sternly. Clinton all but fired his own Surgeon-General merely for recommending a debate on decriminalisation, and has now delegated narcotics ‘interdiction’ to a senior member of the military. Bills on drugs and ‘terrorism’ have stripped protection from citizens and defendants in a way that would never have been countenanced if the Democrats and liberals were in opposition. In his first re-election campaign video, Clinton announced himself the candidate of law and order and capital punishment.

Make no mistake, it is this version of ‘realism’ that animates the Clintons. Rather than be attacked from the right, they will invariably move to occupy the conservative ground. This has been as true of the little things, like prayer in public schools, as it has been of the larger issues like the demolition of the welfare state. In foreign policy matters, and on questions relating to the Pentagon or the CIA, Clinton has done rather more than demonstrate an impeccable orthodoxy. He has actually given the defence chiefs a larger budget than they asked for, and has kept in being some lavish ‘military Keynesian’ projects (like the B-1 bomber and the Seawolf submarine) which the strategists have declared obsolete. During his campaign against Bush, Clinton ran against him from the right on two important matters – namely, Cuba and Israel. On Cuba, the Bush Administration opposed a Congressional amendment which extended the American boycott to third countries and foreign companies trading with Havana. Clinton flew to Miami and – once again in return for a handsome campaign contribution – adopted the position of the more farouche exile leaders. Similarly, Bush and James Baker were anxious to see Yitzhak Shamir’s regime of petrified intransigence give way to Rabin and Peres. They therefore declined to make an unconditional loan guarantee to Israel, and as a result found themselves in a rugged domestic squabble with ‘the lobby’ in Washington. Clinton took the earliest possible opportunity of saying that he was for giving the loan guarantee without strings. Again, perhaps, the psycho-historian could posit, in Clinton’s strenuous eagerness on matters hawkish, an element of over-compensation for his ‘draft-dodging’ past. Certainly the organised gay vote, which came out decisively for Clinton in 1992 because of his pledge to end discrimination in the Armed Forces, was to find out speedily that, when confronted with anything like uniformed opposition, the supposed Commander-in-Chief would start to cry loudly before he had even been hurt.

But political hypotheses may be more trustworthy than psychological ones. At Georgetown University, Clinton’s mentor was one Professor Carroll Quigley, known to us old Special Relationship hands as the author of arcane but original works on the Anglo-American ruling class. (Some of his books now have a half-life in those wobbly Pat Robertson circles which affect a belief in ‘international banking’ as the engine of history. He was also a great expert on the power and ramification of the Rhodes Scholarship system.) In the course of his 1992 nomination speech, Clinton cited Quigley as a great influence. Could he have been thinking of Quigley’s immense Tragedy and Hope, a book which argued for the domination of parties by business interests? As Quigley phrased it, perhaps a little too bluntly for some tastes:

The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies ... is a foolish idea. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people could throw the rascals out at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy. The policies that are vital and necessary for America are no longer subjects of significant disagreement, but are disputable only in detail, procedure, priority or method.

Quigley was alluding principally to the durable consensus on grand strategy, military alliance and trade, but his argument applies with equal force to the home front. Here, the Clintons only ever made one challenge to the status quo. Inspired by the obvious popularity and also the electoral potential of the idea, they proposed a system of universal health care. Now it may be true (as I think) that nothing could have saved George Bush in 1992. But the change in the political tempo began with a remarkable Democratic triumph in Pennsylvania, orchestrated by James Carville and based like all good campaigns on the ceaseless iteration of a single note. There were forty million Americans without health insurance. No comparable society except South Africa lacked a health system. (Or, as Carville put it with a clever appeal to a different kind of populism: ‘If a criminal has the legal right to a lawyer, working Americans should have the legal right to a doctor.’)

Of course, the cry of ‘socialised medicine’ is one of the hoariest slogans of the American Right, so it had to be expected that there would be a political confrontation. But for once, the all-important opinion polls were aligned solidly and consistently with reform. There was expertise to spare among specialists on the subject. One group in particular, based at the Harvard Medical School, proposed the equivalent of a Canadian ‘single payer’ or National Health plan, combining a wide repertory of benefits with a range of choice between different physicians. The Congressional Budget Office furthermore certified such a plan as the most cost-effective, not least because it would end the fantastically wasteful duplication and competition spawned by America’s insurance racket. At an early White House meeting between the Harvard group and Hillary Clinton, the case for a straightforward National Health Bill was put by Dr David Himmelstein. As he recalls the exchange:

It was evident Hillary was thinking a lot about politics. Can you realistically tell me, she asked, that there are any big powers that support ‘single payer’ and that can take on the insurance industry’s lobbying and advertising budget? I said: ‘About 70 per cent of the people in the US favour something like a single-payer system. With Presidential leadership, that can be an overwhelming force.’ She said: ‘David, tell me something interesting.’

So at the very beginning of the argument, the only possible winning hand was thrown into the discard. The end of the argument – the utter humiliation of the Clinton Administration on Capitol Hill and the relegation of health care to the bottom of the political heap – could not, even in pragmatic terms, have been worse than a stand on principle would have been. Except that to contrast pragmatism with principle in this old-fashioned manner might be a mistake. What if the collapse in the face of the insurance racket is the principle? In order to try and construct a more centrist consensus of their own, the Clintons coined the phrase ‘managed competition’ to describe the highly bureaucratised free market in health care that they proposed. (Something like Milton Friedman’s famous allusion to ‘socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor’.) That term might well do duty for the whole menu of Clintonian rule, from the free-trade agreements with Mexico and Japan, to the care and feeding of the war economy, the distribution of favours for clients like Yeltsin and the quid pro quo relationship between tax exemptions and corporate campaign contributions.

There almost certainly is a relation between Clinton the man and Clintonism as politics, though it may not be as obvious as it seems. If one had to nominate a hinge moment, it would probably be the last days of the George McGovern campaign, in Texas, in 1972. Clinton was sent down to the Lone Star state, along with his friend Taylor Branch, at a moment when the Nixon forces seemed almost unstoppable. (A subsequent post-Watergate myth has depicted the press as anti-Nixon during this period. In point of fact, the general refusal of the media to discuss Nixon’s illegal use of state power was one of the most striking features of the election.) Taylor Branch, later the outstanding biographer of Martin Luther King, remembers the dying days of McGovernism very clearly. The Texas Democratic Party was riven with faction, and generally uninterested in the pro-civil rights and anti-war position taken by the young volunteers from up North. More time was spent in hand-holding, log-rolling and back-scratching than on ‘the issues’. But as Branch suddenly noticed, his friend Bill was very good indeed at the back-slapping and palm-greasing bit. As the vote drew near, senior Texas Democrats like Lloyd Bentsen and John Connally either deserted the McGovern campaign or joined the front organisation calling itself ‘Democrats for Nixon’. It was from this sort of timber that Clinton and others were later to carpenter the Democratic Leadership Council. He evidently decided, for whatever mixture of private and public reasons, never to be on the losing side again.

In other words, Clinton’s ambition became the same thing as his politics, and his approval rating from the powers-that-be became the same thing as his electability. From then on, the only test of courage was the ability – which had to be repeatedly demonstrated – to treat his own former principles and core supporters with distance and even contempt. He showed himself to be a swift learner. In many ways, then, his finest hour and his most maturing moment was his throaty speech at Richard Nixon’s graveside. Robert Dole cried. Governor Pete Wilson of California also cried. Clinton masked his tears but observed huskily that Nixon was a small-town self-made American who should be judged on his ‘whole record’ and not just on one regrettable episode. (As I said to Mrs Clinton on the one occasion I was able to mention this, I couldn’t agree more. Breaking off from a discussion of how unkind the New Right was being to her, the First of all Ladies exclaimed: ‘Oh, you noticed that did you?’ I did not know where to look.)

In November 1981, David Stockman gave a long interview. He was then Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, and had become the herald of the supply-side and trickle-down counter-revolution. Perhaps tempted by hubris, he bragged that the Reaganauts had put politics into a black box. By running up the deficit to a vertiginous level, and by promising deep cuts in taxation as well as a hugely-swollen military-industrial budget, the new Republicans had ensured that no Democratic Congress, and no future Democratic Presidency, could spend a dime more on anything without cutting at least a dime from somewhere else. Thus at last would come the long-delayed revenge on the New Deal and the civil rights movement. To get an impression of the sheer crookery of this, you have to recall that Stockman and Reagan predicted a zero deficit by 1984 and a $28 billion surplus by 1986. Thanks to a compliant media, the test of Democratic ‘realism’ became that of a willingness to pretend that this was true. (The old Democratic saurians of the Hill, the Bentsens and Foleys and Rostenkowskis and Packwoods, all voted for the Reagan illusion before expiring in the Gingrich flood they had unknowingly beckoned on.) It was Clinton’s unsentimental readiness to enter this auction of tax and spending cuts – while protecting the most ‘vulnerable’, like the wealthy risk-taking donors and the recipients of company welfare – that demonstrated his readiness to govern. It also demonstrated his willingness to accept the ‘limits’ of government, while hypocritically referring to these as some mysterious ‘gridlock’. When he needed a new Director of Communications after a spasm of local White House PR difficulty, he turned to the former Nixon-Reagan hack David Gergen – the very man who had ‘sold’ the Stockman programme to a credulous Washington élite. The resulting ‘managed insolvency’, which might neutrally be termed the doctrine of limits, and is neutrally termed by the élite in that way, does not by definition extend to that élite itself. Meanwhile, the United States deficit has become a real peril to societies and economies other than its own.

And now I take another look out over my home town. The Democratic primary has just been held. Amid the pitted streets and gutted schools and rotting clinics, with a ratted-out city nominally run by a corrupt black demagogue, and actually run by a group of indifferent white Congressmen, one can see the sordid end of the idea of ‘participation’. It was actually proposed that the primary be cancelled, in order to save money for a bankrupt neo-colonial municipality. But that was thought too brutal and candid, so (even though the two party machines had long ago emitted their white smoke and announced habemus candidatum) the vote duly took place. Eleven thousand people turned out in the nation’s capital; a total so shameful that it was barely reported. It is probably less than the statistical ‘margin of error’ by which the opinion poll industry claims the status of a pseudo-science. Is this what the 1968 Rhodes generation intended when it set out with its easy talk of ‘grass-roots’ and ‘empowerment’? Perhaps not, but it is what it has wrought. Politics as a spectator sport, staged by fixers in a parallel universe and determined – in point of ‘issues’ and ‘candidates’ – before a single real elector has been invited to comment. Extreme public squalor and tribalism, coexisting with a triumph of special interests not seen since the Gilded Age. Everything More Separate, More Unequal and more rancorous. And everything accepted as somehow beyond the reach of political action.

Post-Modern politics has dinned into us the concept of the ‘lesser evil’. One must, in other words, always be ready to accept Clinton (or Blair, or Mitterrand) lest worse befall. At one level, this is what is called a zero-sum game. If true, that is to say, it must be true all the time, and true in the same way as a theorem. How odd; that those who speak of a limitless offering of free will and free choice should be so insistent that one of the main items of decision involves no choice or alternative at all. The rise of Bill Clinton shows that there are indeed rewards for those who can learn to think this way. But those rewards are – shall we say? – unevenly distributed, and they involve a certain amnesia about the choices that were avoided, or repressed, or not made at all. By stressing the idea of ‘no alternative’, the non-ideological have redefined politics as a question of management, and eviscerated the idea that ‘the art of the possible’ is indeed an art of possibility. But they may have outsmarted themselves, and their professional apparatus of consultants and pollsters and spin-meisters. The declining landscape of possibility – whether it is the prison-state for young African-Americans, or the return of indentured labour in California, or the erosion of the First Amendment, or the collapse of environmental supervision, or the ‘deregulated’ airline and food industries, or the free market in judges and legislators – now becomes their responsibility. The plea of a lesser evil will not displace it onto other shoulders. In their cleverness, the new class of the privileged have been slow to understand this. I hope to live long enough to see the day, not when they find it out, but when it is found out by the patient and the swindled – and the trusting.

The following books were consulted for this essay:

Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries by James Stewart (Simon and Schuster, 479 pp., $25, 6 May 1996, 0 684 802309)
On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency by Elizabeth Drew (Simon and Schuster, 462 pp., $24, 2 November 1994, 0 671 87147 1)
Showdown: The Struggle between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House by Elizabeth Drew (Simon and Schuster, 448 pp., $25, 12 April 1996, 0 684 81518 4)
The Agenda by Bob Woodward (Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $24, June 1994, 0 671 86486 6)
It Takes a Village, and Other Lessons Children Teach Us by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Simon and Schuster, 256 pp., $20, 18 January 1996, 0 684 81843 4)
The Clinton Presidency: First Appraisals, edited by Colin Campbell and Bert Rockman (Chatham House, 416 pp., £13.99, 1 October 1995, 1 56643 014 3)
The American Prospect: Reader in American Politics, edited by Walter Dean Burnham (Chatham House, 400 pp., £12.99, 1 September 1995, 1 56643 012 7)
We’re Right, They’re Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives by James Carville (Random House, 183 pp., $10, 28 February 1996, 0 679 76978 1)
First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton by David Maraniss (Simon and Schuster, 512 pp., February 1996, $14, 0 684 81890 6)
The Rational Option: For a National Health Program, edited by John Canham-Clyne (Pamphleteer’s Press, 112 pp., $17.95, May 1995, 0 963 05871 1)