Mendacious Flowers

Martin Jay

  • All too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos
    Hutchinson, 456 pp, £17.99, March 1999, ISBN 0 09 180063 3
  • No One Left to Lie to: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton by Christopher Hitchens
    Verso, 122 pp, £12.00, May 1999, ISBN 1 85984 736 6

‘The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man who, according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.’ It is safe to assume that the Oscar Wilde of ‘The Decay of Lying’ would feel far more at home in the America of William Jefferson Clinton than in that of its most esteemed founding father. For whatever else may be accused of falling into decay these days, public mendacity has surely enjoyed a robust revival. The most memorable quotations from our national leaders are no longer the inspirational homilies of a Roosevelt or a Kennedy – ‘You have nothing to fear, but fear itself’ or ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’ – but the exposed whoppers of Richard ‘I am not a crook’ Nixon, George ‘Read my lips: no new taxes’ Bush, and Bill ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ Clinton.

David Schippers, the majority counsel of the House Judiciary Committee, hammered home the point in the course of his peroration during last winter’s impeachment proceedings: ‘The President, then, has lied under oath in a civil deposition, lied under oath in a criminal grand jury. He lied to the people, he lied to his Cabinet, he lied to his top aides, and now he’s lied under oath to the Congress of the United States. There’s no one left to lie to.’ Christopher Hitchens borrows Schippers’s scornful punch line for the title of his own screed against the President. Unperturbed by his proximity to right-wing Clinton-bashers like Schippers, Hitchens mounts a relentless and often compelling attack from the left on the link between the President’s ideological duplicities and his personal ones, culminating in the scandal surrounding the ultimate erupted bimbo. His main ire is directed at the opportunistic ‘triangulation’ between pseudopopulist rhetoric, élitist, covertly conservative policies, and Clinton’s own power-lust and ‘ruthless vanity’, which undermined the chances of any genuinely progressive politics.

George Stephanopoulos’s insider’s memoir All too Human, although a far less vituperative account than Hitchens’s, also provides ample ammunition for the conclusion that in Clinton’s America felled cherry trees find no one willing to assume responsibility for their destruction. He, too, documents a sad tale of personal betrayal, compromised principle and self-deception, emplotting his own story as Clinton’s campaign aide, director of communications and senior adviser as an uneven, but ultimately friendship-shattering process of disillusionment with the man whose career he once so ardently forwarded. Where Hitchens sees the policy of triangulation as the essence of Clinton’s Presidency, Stephanopoulos attributes it to his desperate embrace in late 1994 of the loathsome Dick Morris. But for him, as for Hitchens, ‘triangulation’ is ‘just a fancy word for betrayal’. Even Morris’s fall from grace following the disclosure that he’d allowed prostitutes to listen in on Presidential phone calls failed to persuade him to stay on. The Greek Orthodox altar boy, whose idealism was interminably at war with his consuming ambition to win at the game of politics and mingle with the great and powerful, in the end triumphs over the cynical spinmeister. The impeachment scandal, he confesses, made his entire time at the White House ‘seem more like an experience to be explained than an adventure to be celebrated’. Although his fallen idol, unlike Hitchens’s entirely ignoble demon, still has some virtues to balance his flaws and ought not to be accused of abusing his power, as Hitchens claims he should, he is revealed as a master of self-serving prevarication, reckless irresponsibility and spineless disloyalty.

Stephanopoulos’s title – meant to suggest his own weaknesses, but equally applicable to the leader he served – is, however, in some tension with this summary judgment. For it inadvertently pays homage to Nietzsche, whose Human, All too Human shared with Wilde’s essay a certain defence of fabulation. ‘Convictions,’ Nietzsche said in that work, ‘are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.’ Elsewhere, he went even further, arguing for the paradoxical need ‘to recognise untruth as a condition of life’. Whether or not something called ‘life’ can be construed as a criterion of ultimate value, Nietzsche’s point about the necessity of lying, or at least, the relativising of truthfulness, warrants a closer look in the arena where Clinton’s mendacity has been most consequentially practised and ruthlessly exposed: that of politics.

The most trenchant consideration of this issue is probably to be found in Hannah Arendt’s celebrated, if controversial essays of 1968 and 1971, ‘Truth and Politics’ and ‘Lying in Politics’. ‘The deliberate falsehood and the outright lie, used as legitimate means to achieve political ends,’ she soberly notes in the latter, ‘have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.’ But rather than allow this history to justify a withdrawal from the corrupt world of the polis, it may well be a source of one of that world’s strengths. For if politics belongs to the realm of action, and thus involves the capacity to begin something new that was not the case in the past, it also requires a capacity for counter-factual imagination, which is a mark of our freedom. ‘Hence, when we talk about lying, and especially lying among acting men, let us remember that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear.’

Arendt’s brief for lying as being akin to imagination, which echoes without acknowledgment Wilde’s argument in ‘The Decay of Lying’, may seem a bit whimsical, but it is buttressed by a more fundamental concern, which she calls the ‘despotic character of truth’ when it enters the political realm. For truth ‘peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life. The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from a political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.’ Thus ever since Plato ridiculed the role of mere doxa, or unsubstantiated and contingent opinions, in political life, defenders of the truth have portrayed politics as the realm of expediency, compromise, hypocrisy, manipulation and mere appearances. Whether in the form of philosopher-kings, historical vanguards or technocratic élitists, they have sought to still the unruly turbulence of the public sphere and bring order into chaos. Claiming to know either the general will or the mandate of history, they have wanted to stop the cacophony of discordant chatter to allow the one true voice to be heard.

To put the matter somewhat differently, politics is not corrupted by rhetoric, image-making, surface appearances and public relations spin; rather, it is constituted by them. Its fragile and shifting consensuses are based on the arts of persuasion, not logical deduction or scientific demonstration. Political judgment is not the same as the subordination of concrete cases under abstract rules or principles; it operates instead by comparing individual cases, reasoning more analogically and metaphorically than subsumptively. The semantic play in political language cannot be exorcised in the name of perfect congruence between word and thing. In fact, as the arts of diplomacy and legislation make abundantly clear, the ability of words to generate multiple interpretations is, for good or ill, the lifeblood of an ongoing political discourse that cannot be reduced to the faithful duplication of an unequivocal original meaning. Clinton’s much ridiculed defence in his impeachment deposition ‘that it depends on what the meaning of “is” is’ is thus more in touch with the catachrestic, polysemic nature of political language than the simple-minded (and hypocritically self-serving) appeal to ‘just the facts’ made by Kenneth Starr.

Ironically, one of the most time-honoured techniques of political rhetoric is the appeal to truth and the accusation of base mendacity levelled against one’s opponents. Hitchens’s No One Left to Lie to is an exemplary instance of this rhetorical ploy; its tone is that of someone supremely confident in his possession of the unvarnished truth. That confidence is evident in his contemptuous dismissal of a politics of ‘the lesser evil’, which stoops to compromise on issues of principle, instead of fighting for them no matter how vain the struggle or how collateral the damage. Not only does Hitchens discern a consistent pattern of duplicitous triangulation in everything Clinton has done, he is also confident of knowing all the motives underlying the President’s actions. No action is overdetermined or indeterminant; they all serve the same triangulating function: maintaining political viability at the cost of betraying a liberal agenda.

No less ironically, the book is itself an extended op-ed piece, resting more on avid belief and strongly held opinions than hard, dispassionately presented knowledge, and liberally drawing on its author’s formidable rhetorical skills to convince the reader. Hitchens’s argument is based on a welter of assertions about Clinton’s actions – many of which, I hasten to add, are all too plausible – that are never backed up in a convincing way by verifiable sources. Appearing hard on the heels of Hitchens’s brief notoriety as a player in the impeachment scandal and, despite his protestations to the contrary, showing the effects of its rush to publication, the book does not, in fact, have a single footnote to allow one to test its truth claims. It relies instead on the repeated ad hominem excoriation of its main target as ‘the liar and the sonofabitch’ and an interpretation of every Presidential action in the worst way possible. Whereas Stephanopoulos’s Clinton is depicted as forever struggling with constraints that limit his ability to get anything done, Hitchens’s is able to complete the Reagan counter-revolution against the New Deal with breathtaking ease.

Not only does the effect of all this piling on become counter-productive, producing in the reader a certain sympathy for Clinton akin to the boost he got from being targeted by Kenneth Starr and his fanatic detractors on the right; it raises certain questions about Hitchens’s own impatience with the messy ambiguities of politics. Take, for instance, his handling of Clinton’s abiding popularity among African Americans, which was most clearly manifested during Monicagate. Hitchens ridicules the claim made by Toni Morrison and endorsed by Arthur Miller that because Clinton came from a broken home and had an alcoholic mother, he suffered from the same prejudices as those directed at blacks, and thus in some sense is ‘our first black President’. He knows that when Clinton, as Governor of Arkansas, allowed a mentally deficient black murderer to be executed, or, as a Presidential candidate, slammed Sister Souljah in the presence of Jesse Jackson, or, as President, sacked Surgeon-General Joycelyn Elders and jettisoned the nomination of Lani Guinier as Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, he was showing his true colours as a false friend of the people whose pain he pretended to feel. Even more explicitly destructive was Clinton’s welfare reform, whose likely intended consequence was ‘the creation of a large helot underclass disciplined by fear and scarcity, subject to endless surveillance, and used as a weapon against any American worker lucky enough to hold a steady or unionised job’. Stephanopoulos may record that ‘Bill Clinton inspired me most when he spoke about race,’ but for Hitchens, it was all craven pandering that had lacked substance from the very beginning.

The trouble with this analysis – aside from the recent evidence that young black males seem to be doing better at entering the workforce than Hitchens’s rehearsal of Marx’s classic argument about the ‘reserved army of the unemployed’ suggests – is that it shows scarcely veiled disdain for the African Americans who remain stubbornly on Clinton’s side. Hitchens fulminates against the ‘contempt with which Clinton and his circle view the gullible rubes who make up their voting base’, but tacitly shares it. When, for example, he excoriates the Clintons for spouting ‘the tawdry pieties of Baptist and Methodist hypocrisy’, he also reveals his inability to credit the people who share those pieties – many of them in black churches – with the ability to make reasoned judgments about the people they support. Many African Americans, moreover, seem to have the sophistication to understand that moralising jeremiads against character flaws in politicians can just as easily be used to discredit Martin Luther King as Bill Clinton. Black enthusiasm for Clinton may, in fact, reflect a sober ‘lesser evil’ policy that understands better than Hitchens, who pays no real price for his high-mindedness, the cost of giving power to the Newt Gingrichs and Trent Lotts of the world.

Stephanopoulos provides an opposite example of the way truth-telling, or at least its rhetorical mobilisation, can intersect with political discourse. Rather than insisting that he invariably knows which policies are inherently progressive and what the higher good is, he gives us a valet’s-eye-view of his time at the White House. To heighten the truth-telling effect of his narrative, he confesses his many personal weaknesses, reveals having turned to a psychologist for professional help with depression, even tells us about a nervous skin condition he had to hide with a beard. In addition, he punctuates his account with italicised passages that purport to indicate his deeper emotional response to the events he recounts. Thus, after telling us about the revelation of the tapes of Clinton and Gennifer Flowers’s compromising phone conversations during the 1992 campaign, he interjects:

He lied. Even if he didn’t, what’s he doing talking to her in the middle of the campaign? It must have been her that Clinton and Lindsey called from that pay phone in Boston. How could he have been so stupid? So arrogant? Did he want to get caught? How come he let me hang out there? Never said a word that whole ride to Claremont while I swore to reporters her story was false – just sat there, pretending to read Lincoln.

Such devices are the literary equivalent of the old trope of ‘parabasis’ used in Greek theatre, when a character would take off his or her mask, step to the front of the stage, and speak directly to the audience. They may have given the appearance of candid self-revelation, but they still served the playwright’s dramatic purposes. In the case of All too Human, they are used to convince us that its author is now what can be called a ‘recovered process wonk’, someone who is no longer willing to sacrifice his ideological convictions, true feelings and personal integrity in the name of winning at all costs. Whether or not his producing a best-selling, tell-all memoir while Clinton is still in power – a decision he had condemned in the case of Dick Morris – is itself a betrayal of loyalty, Stephanopoulos is anxious to leave the impression that he has moved onto a higher plane. Now, he tells us, he can be trusted to tell the truth, a useful quality in someone playing the game of impartial media commentator – his new role – rather than political insider.

To be ‘inside’ politics, however, seems to require a recognition that truth-telling at all costs is not possible, indeed not even desirable. As Arendt has argued, politics is a realm in which truth will inevitably be stretched, spun and relativised, rather than perfectly and deliberately expressed. There are, even so, some important qualifications. First, we have to record the vital difference between lots of small lies, partial truths and deliberately ambiguous meanings and what has become known as the Big Lie, the Orwellian reversal of the truth typical of totalitarian societies. The latter is the mirror image of the philosopher-king’s claim that he has a monopoly of truth. It seeks to still the conflict of disparate opinions and install a monolithic belief system to which no alternative is possible. Here the imaginative potential of lying is squashed in the name of a perfectly realised myth, which can brook no critical resistance. Democratic fabulation, by contrast, must allow a thousand mendacious flowers to bloom. It must cultivate a public sophisticated in its ability to pick and choose among the slanted versions of the world presented to them, capable of distinguishing between lies that are forgivable and those that are not. Such a public was able, during the impeachment fiasco, to distinguish between a humiliated adulterer’s fib and the system-threatening mendacity of a Richard Nixon willing to subvert Constitutional liberties for partisan purposes.

The second qualification that must be kept in mind concerns the permeability of the political realm to what might be called intersecting truthful discourse. That is, politics, dominated by belief, opinion, rhetoric and the like, cannot be kept entirely apart from the worlds in which truth claims are a more fundamental part of the game. Thus, the legal imperative to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, an oath that no politician could be expected to swear, enters when issues of perjury in front of juries or depositions to prosecutors are made. The impeachment waters were muddied by such issues, when the Supreme Court allowed a sitting President to be sued in a civil action by Paula Jones. Truth also interfered with political fabulation when the discourse of science was invoked to verify the DNA signature on the stains on Monica’s dress. Even Arendt agrees that what she calls ‘factual truth’ provides a check to unlimited trust in the spinning of politicians. Finally, the moral disapproval of lying in general became an issue for those who understand that even politicians, despite their attempts to play by the rules of the game they’ve entered, are also human beings beholden to broader cultural norms that disdain falsehood and value honesty.

Despite these qualifications, the conclusion remains that politics cannot be reduced to an arena in which truth-telling is automatically the highest good. In a film like Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar, redemption can be seen to follow the magical denial of even the possibility of duplicity, but the movies are not politics. Hitchens seems to think that politicians must be held to the most righteous standard, never allowing the lesser evil to undermine the quest for truth, come what may. While Stephanopoulos provides a more nuanced version of the conflict that inevitably pits principle against expediency, he, too, grows weary with the imperative to dissemble in order to win. Clinton somehow survives their opprobrium, however right they may be about specific policies or decisions. Slick Willy’s greatest legacy to history, ironic as it may sound, may well be his blatant disclosure of the links between lying in politics, the processes of democratic opinion-formation and the difficulty of really defining what the meaning of ‘is’ is.