This past Sunday, an English friend called to inform me that our new President can’t speak, can’t dance, can’t sing. All I could manage by way of reply was that, to the best of my knowledge, George W. Bush wasn’t elected to do any of those things. I also pointed out–as I have about a hundred times since Mr. Bush was declared the Electoral College winner–that nothing said about Mr. Bush faintly compares to what people said about Harry S. Truman on his accession to the Presidency. I’ve been searching in vain for my copy of David McCullough’s biography of H.S.T. for the express purpose of extracting a small anthology of anti-Truman slurs to quote in this space (since The New York Times and others seem determined not to give history its repetitive due). Anyway, as the man said, you could look it up.
I remember the Truman-bashing pretty well, just as I remember what has to have been the most shameful moment of my life. It was April 1945; my brother and I were living with my mother and stepfather in Coronado, Calif.; our father was still out in the Pacific, on a carrier. We hadn’t seen him since the summer of ’41.
I came home from school to find my mother looking ashen.
“President Roosevelt is dead!” she told me.
“Good!” I exclaimed.
Why wouldn’t I have? I was 9 years old, I wanted to please my mother, and all I really knew of F.D.R. were the vilifications heaped upon him by the grown-ups who came to the house on Loma Avenue, including a great many serving officers on their way to, or returning from, the combat theaters of the Pacific. I thought that was what I was supposed to say.
I was surprised when my mother was furious. Furious–I thought then–with me, but also, I have since come to suspect, with herself, for all her own F.D.R.-bashing. Loss needs to be absolute and irrevocable before we can begin to grasp what has really been lost. Perhaps that’s why our postmodern world prefers everything to be relative. Perhaps that’s why they don’t teach much history anymore–or, if they do, no one seems to remember learning any.
Truman went on to be a great President, of course. He made the toughest calls any First Magistrate in my memory has had to make: the Bomb; the Marshall Plan; taking on the United Mine Workers’ John L. Lewis and the Army’s General MacArthur; the abolition, for the most part, of wage and price controls; a civil rights program that an Alabama Dixiecrat (party of the still-serving Strom Thurmond) swore would “mongrelize” the country. When people were busy calling him “that silly little haberdasher”; when they were announcing confidently that he would hand the country over in short order to Tom Prendergast and his crooked Kansas City machine, or to the unions; when they were laughing at the way he sprang to his daughter Margaret’s defense after Paul Hume criticized her singing, they overlooked the fact that H.S.T. had displayed the right stuff–and plenty of it–in World War I, in combat. He went on to beat a seasoned, perfect-résumé, pin-neat politician in 1948.
And here’s something else to think about. The Bomb; the Marshall Plan; John L. Lewis; MacArthur; loyalty to family and friends; staying a course that involved stakes immeasurably greater than how rich is rich–imagine if any of these great issues, larger than any we’ve faced in the past eight years, had been handled then the way they would be now. Focus-grouped. Poll-driven. Discussed on Hardball and debated on Newshour with Jim Lehrer . Suppose H.S.T. had been obliged to make his case on Larry King Live . You do the moral and political imagining.
Anyhow, we shall see what we shall see. In Washington, there’s a new President. Here in New York, the Butter-up Brigade–the social order headquartered at Le Cirque and Swifty’s that accords Henry Kissinger respect (I urge interested readers to peruse Christopher Hitchens’ indictment of H.K. in the current Harper’s ; the former Secretary of State wouldn’t have stood a chance at Nuremberg)–will prostrate themselves before Bill Clinton; a liar and philanderer should be more acceptable at table to these people than a war criminal. Connoisseurs of bootlicking can look forward to a downpour of Clinton items, especially now that David Patrick Columbia is giving Liz Smith a run for her money in the sycophancy sweepstakes. If this sort of thing amuses you as much as it does me, Ms. Smith and Mr. Columbia are almost as exciting to read head-to-head as the contest between Affirmed and Alydar for the 1978 Triple Crown was to watch, with every race (column) decided by the tiniest margin, often no more than a nose.
These are times that make the death of the English novelist and journalist Auberon Waugh not merely sad, but tragic. I never knew Waugh on Tuesday, Jan. 16, but I felt a kinship of spirit with him that passeth understanding. In some ways he was his genius father’s son, but also ever his own man. He was blessed (or, some might say, cursed) with a quality of mind I, too, know well: an inability to separate the truth of a person’s character and conduct from the allurements of that person’s personality. He never saw a fool or knave–no matter how charming over drinks–but he called that person such, and then some. In deteriorating health for many years, he was at least vouchsafed the journalistic blessing of being given Tony Blair’s “New England” for a subject. Would that he had been living on these shores to see Clinton America from beginning to end!
Here’s a typical Waugh passage: “News of Jeremy Thorpe’s arrest with three others breaks like a thunderclap over the Languedoc countryside. There is dancing in the streets, ceremonial rabbits are cooked and groups of peasants with lanterns are to be found wandering the lanes far into the night, singing at the tops of their voices and beating the hedges with staves.”
Substitute “Jesse Jackson’s admission,” etc., for “Jeremy Thorpe’s arrest,” etc., and “this corner of Brooklyn” for “Languedoc,” and you have a pretty good idea of the reaction in this corner to the news that Clinton’s spiritual adviser has been caught with his sanctimony down. I don’t like Jesse Jackson the public man. I think he’s a phony, an opportunist, a coattail clinger, and that to mention him in the same moral breath–or to compare him as an orator or rhetorician–with Martin Luther King Jr. verges on obscenity. On the Reverend Jackson’s behalf, however, let me say that he must feel the same way about having Al Sharpton come to his defense.
It’s funny to live where I do and contemplate Rev. Jackson’s situation, because just a few blocks away is the Plymouth Church, built for the great Abolitionist preacher, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. A man of ineffable moral and ethical vocation, Rev. Beecher was also a man of flesh, and in 1874 was hung out to dry in a public trial on charges of adultery, of which he was acquitted. There will be no public forum in which to judge the turpitude of Mr. Jackson, because he is already the beneficiary of standard-issue Blue America moral “judgment.”
In Blue America, it’s all relative and victimist: If you’re African-American, or Jewish, you’re excused (if you’re Hispanic or Asian, for some reason you only get a demi-bisque) because the criticism just has to be race- or tribe-based; or–in the likely event the criticism is just or fair–you’re excused because you’re a victim, or related to one. In Blue America, of which William Jefferson Clinton is the chief spokesperson, there is no basic morality. If everyone’s lying, no one is–get it?
Red America would like to hold all persons of all tribes, colors and faiths to a standard of basic morality, much of which is set forth in the Bible and in the great documents of American history, from the Declaration of Independence to the civil rights legislation of 1964; all of the latter happen, inexcusably, to be written in English–and are therefore, by Blue America’s lights, suspect.
But this is not to rehearse the Red America-Blue America dichotomy. There’s a larger question on the table that just fascinates me. Two Sundays ago, a friend attended a service at a large Brooklyn gospel church, with a congregation that is perhaps 99 percent African-American. This friend reported that, as expected, the music, preaching and sense of devotion were spirit-lifting and soul-wrenching. What was surprising, however, was the amount of praise heaped on President Clinton, so intense as to be tantamount to lamentation at his departure.
Now here’s my question–which I ask plainly. What exactly has Clinton done for African-Americans that they should regard him as quasi-savior? What? Give me a list. Give me chapter and verse, cause and effect. It’s a question I’ve asked myself and others a score of times since the election, and I’ve yet to get a proper answer, an answer more convincing and fact-based than a shrug.
Chapter and verse, please. Did this or that Clinton initiative enable you to open an account at Ameritrade? Or get an M.B.A.? Or open your own business? Or get your kids better educated? Or make getting medical care or credit easier? I ask only for information. Are we dealing with fact–or illusion? Set the general economy aside, since the economy lifted all boats (although the Queen Elizabeth -size craft all seem to have been launched on Park Avenue and not uptown). Tell me, please: Is this demographic group really better off than it was eight years ago–and if so, thanks to which specific Clinton policies? Can’t be welfare; can’t be medicine. Schools seem worse than ever. Biggest housing news to come out of Harlem in this administration was a scam. Show me the money! No one seems able to.
So maybe we’re talking something else. Feel-good stuff; “my brother” stuff. A President who had rhythm? A President who played off the respect of African-Americans for his office–a respect much greater than he ever showed it, a respect that inclines African-Americans to accept as gospel this President’s claim that he was their President? Or could it be the endorsement of co-opted people like Toni Morrison? The fact that he had Maya Angelou as house poet, even though what she read was gibberish? Is it simply fear of Republicans, who are associated with capital punishment, or racial profiling, or whiteness? Might it be Clinton’s seductive instinctual peckerwood plantation paternalism–the sort of thing I’ve heard white Southerners boast about in country-club locker rooms?
In other words, what exactly did Clinton do for the African-American community apart from telling them, in his slick way, that he was doing a lot for them? There wasn’t a day went by that this particular white man didn’t speak to everyone else with forked tongue; it makes you wonder.
Why does this matter? Simply because the African-American community voted the way it did. Voted that way, perhaps, because it believed what it was told–by Rev. Jackson and his counseling client in the Oval Office, among others. But what if, on close inspection, this was just so much mirrors-and-smoke say-so, was snake oil, was propaganda? If that’s the case, then there has been perpetrated on a crucial, politically innocent and trusting voting bloc a fraud as manifest as anything that may or may not have been perpetrated on other voters in certain Florida counties.
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