Washington Diary

Christopher Hitchens

The high and low points of the Democratic Convention were, I found, unusually easy to determine. High indeed was the sight and sound of Aretha Franklin singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and giving it a variation that provided one of those only-in-America moments which do in fact only occur in America. Lower, both in scale and register, was the experience of seeing Roy Hattersley cruising the upper galleries of the ghastly neo-brutalist Madison Square Garden. Mr Hattersley is far too corporeal to be called a ghost, and most delegates wouldn’t have known him from Banquo anyway, but his apparition would, if he were better known, have caused said delegates to put on their garlic. The very last thing that the Democrats need is a reminder of what can happen to a campaign that plays by all the rules of poll, consensus and respectability.

On the face of it, adherence to these rules has put Bill Clinton and Al Gore so far in front that further argument – at least about moderation – is at an end. The polls, which a scant month or so ago were giving the White House to Ross Perot, are now awarding it to ‘The New Covenant’ (a slogan so treacly in its unction that it died a-borning and is never, ever mentioned even for satirical purposes. Its companion exhortation, ‘Putting People First’, is so vacuous that one imagines a careful caucus being convened to design it – presumably when the Animal Rights absolutists were out of the room). But it’s one thing to win the argument about moving the Democrats to the centre – an argument that was for all thinkable purposes won by Harry Truman – and quite another to convince an electorate which is, on most demographic and social indices, becoming Republican. Notoriously, if two parties say very much the same thing, the palm tends to go to the party that said it first, and most convincingly.

Exactly four years ago, when the aggregate of polling data gave Michael Dukakis a 17 point lead, Professor Roy Fair of Yale came up with a political/electoral ‘model’ that predicted a Bush victory with 52.2 per cent of the votes cast. In the event, Bush look 53.8 per cent, which was enough for an Electoral College landslide. So I wondered what rune Professor Fair (one of those pundits with ideal names for chat-shows) would cast this time. By ‘factoring in’ such variables as the inflation rate, the growth rate, the benefits of incumbency and the evolving trend towards a Republican, suburban electorate, he anticipates a Bush victory with 54 or 55 per cent. ‘A Republican incumbent running for re-election with a low inflation rate and a growth rate that’s at least not negative ought to win fairly well,’ says Fair, in the imperishable language of election-year politics. The other academic ‘modellers’ tend to agree, though even less quotably. The one measurement of the pace and rhythm of events that is absolutely no good at all is the opinion poll. This must be why it is featured in the headline of every newspaper.

Though to say this is to be slightly unfair to the Los Angeles Times, which more and more assumes the standing of the ‘must-read’ daily newspaper. Not only has the LA Times reported very tellingly on its own borough, giving unusual space and breadth to the consideration of the late unpleasantness – now very much out of fashion in conversation, as I come to think of it – but its national and international writers repeatedly make the New York Times and Washington Post look like the tepid retailers of received opinion which they have in fact become. I now get the slim-line East Coast exile edition of the LA Times every day, because I was fed up with having to ask for back issues containing series I had missed.

One of these was a multi-parter on how the Clintons run their own private Arkansas, and began with admirable lack of throat-clearing by telling us that ‘Presidential candidate Bill Clinton has rewarded the financial élite of Arkansas with lucrative state business and low-interest loans while soliciting them – in one case urgently and personally – for millions of dollars in political contributions and campaign loans.’ That’s what it means to move to the middle ground, of course. The fabled Republican negative campaigners may have a problem with exploiting it, even so. I can’t see them choosing to emphasise how soft money finances hard politics. In this, as in many issues between the parties, there is a kind of Mutual Assured Destruction which prevents the eruption of crisis. Rightly is it called ‘bipartisanship’.

The second magnificent LA Times series, and for those who care about such things the next sure-fire Pulitzer-winner, was the tremendous revelation of Administration deceit in the matter of Saddam Hussein. Day after day, the paper produced documents to show that Bush had chosen to build up Iraq as part of a divide-and-rule strategy in the Gulf; that he and James Baker had knowingly protected the banks, businesses and departments of state which financed the great Ba’athist rearmament, and that (perhaps worst of all) the time of closest military and intelligence collusion had coincided with Baghdad’s gruesome ‘pacification’ of Kurdistan. This huge trove of incriminating stuff helps to vindicate the vague popular suspicion that America was taken for a bit of a ride during Desert Storm. Having called the nation to war in the name of the most exalted precepts, Bush only waited a matter of days to convert the result into a piece of transparent realpolitik. As a consequence, there are many middle Americans who quite simply, and in a quiet way, can’t stand the sight or sound of him. Inchoate feeling of this kind may go some way to explaining Bush’s current free fall.

The Gulf War, of course, was intended as therapy for the ‘Vietnam syndrome’. I’m glad to report that, as we enter the last hundred days of the campaign, that syndrome is as stubbornly resistant as ever. Both Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton are engaged in a sort of permanent explanation of their conduct as would-not-be draftees. Al Gore is said to add lustre to the ticket because he swallowed his anti-war convictions and joined up. Ross Perot took a huge step in public esteem when Boris Yeltsin – one populist helping out another – came to Washington and said that perhaps there were still missing Americans in Communist hands. This in turn gave extra zip and sap to the poor, exploited, deluded families of the ‘Missing in Action’, who had George Bush to address their annual gathering last month. ‘No more lies!’ some of them shouted at the syndrome-slayer. ‘Shut up and sit down!’ he quacked back, in a moment of excruciating uncool. It’s not just that no candidate, let alone a Republican one, ever talks to Veteran-related groups in that tone of voice. It’s that Bush never expected he’d have to. The stain of Vietnam, in other words, is not to be erased by any kind of Dr Feelgood chicanery and most certainly not by another rather dubious, if not equally dubious war.

The therapy business, however, is still having a banner year. Both Clinton and Gore have gratefully and publicly admitted to long periods of ‘counselling’ about their marriages and kin, and the keynote addresses of both men in New York were larded with the langue de bois of ‘sharing’, ‘recovery’ and ‘codependency’. My friend Ben Sonnenberg told me that not since the death of Little Nell had he enjoyed so hearty a chortle as he did when listening to Gore’s moist account of his tiny son’s mishap with a speeding truck. I’ve long known that Ben isn’t typical, but there may be more reticence ‘out there’ than the viewers of daytime TV sob-fests suspect. A certain amount of huskiness and brave eye-drying is considered OK, and both Nixon and Reagan were – you should excuse the expression – dab hands at it. But husky is as husky does, and if Clinton is going to tell us all about his cornball, hog-wallow childhood and his ‘troubled’ marriage, he runs the risk of ‘empowering’ those who think his private life must be an issue after all.

The man in most need of intensive care may be the Leader of the Free World himself. It’s getting more and more possible to believe the rumours of his physical and mental deliquescence: rumours which may be the wild card in calculations like those of Professor Fair. Bush looks and sounds ghastly; veering from fury to self-pity in great arm-waving swoops and (as Clive James once wrote of Michael Foot) repeatedly proving that the English language can do anything with him. It’s not that his syntax wasn’t execrable before, it’s that people around him have started – well – noticing. The most ingenious apologia I have heard came from a former speechwriter, who told me that Bush’s mother always cautioned him not to employ the first person in case he sounded too egotistical. Hence the convolutions. The WASP élite makes sacrifices that we know not of.

Assuming that he stays upright and compos mentis, however, Bush has a solid chance of a second term. His problem is that Americans, widely written off as nationally amnesiac, actually have quite good memories. In particular, they remember that the 1988 campaign was a disgrace and that during it Bush promised not to raise taxes. They also can’t remember the last time there was a Democrat in the White House. The latter point may paradoxically be the important one, in that Bush, as well as having to defend his own record, will not be able to run against Washington from Washington in the surreal way that Reagan contrived to do. Moreover, the wide expectation of a dirty campaign somewhat immunises the voters, who emphatically don’t want a replay of what worked last time.

But here’s what Bush can do. He can campaign against Congress, which is Democratic turf and abysmally run withal. Congress voted itself a payrise; abused its cheque-cashing facilities; took bribes from the special interests; wanted to raise taxes. This, as well as cutting with the grain of public ‘perception’, also possesses the merit of being true.

Then there’s the fact that, though you might not know it from reading some current cultural critiques, white males abound across the American landscape. Indeed, if there is a gender gap in this supposed year of the woman, it is probably a testosterone gap. And if there is a ‘racial issue’, it is the common feeling among Caucasians that they are somehow oppressed. The Democratic Party hasn’t won a majority of the white vote since 1964. Despite the best efforts of Clinton and Gore to present an all-white, all-male, all-Southern, all-Baptist, all baby-boomer ticket, the subliminal association of the Democrats with the unpopular ‘other’ is something that can be reinforced by a tasteful campaign with lots of spare cash. And the underclass itself scarcely bothers to vote. So that in a year that saw every kind of insurgency, from David Duke’s racist populism to Jerry Brown’s slightly loopy egghead rebellion, the vast normality of America has reasserted itself. Things are safely back in the control of the handlers, the managers, the big donors and the spin-physicians. Even the ghost I saw in Madison Square Garden was a ghost in a machine.