Clinton offers an olive branch to his moral inferiors


WASHINGTON -- Given Bill Clinton's general loquacity, and particularly his propensity for speaking brassy nonsense, it is difficult to select his most amusing effusion. Difficult, but fun to try.

It might have been his claim to have read 300 books -- Dostoyev- sky included, he emphasizes -- in his first year at Oxford. Or: "I am the only president who knew something about agriculture when I got there." (Let's see: Washington, tobacco farmer. Jefferson, agronomist. . . . not to mention Jimmy Carter, peanut farmer.)

Or: "I'm probably the only president who grew up in a national park." Or (to an audience in California's Central Valley, of course): "I have probably consumed more raisins than any president who ever held the office."

Or (speaking after the San Diego debate, attacking Republicans for insufficient affection for government): "The last time I checked, the Constitution said 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.' That's what the Declaration of Independence said." (Not really. The "of, by and for" stuff is in the Gettysburg Address. But perhaps Mr. Clinton has not checked the Constitution or the Declaration in the decades since he taught constitutional law at the University of Arkansas. He may have been too busy reading Dostoyevsky.)

Have another raisin

However, now that he has time to curl up with a box of raisins and another 300 books, he should do so, if only to prevent himself from talking so much and so carelessly. One reason he talks so much is that he seems to have a primal urge to do so. However, he also is egged on by the populist notion of the modern presidency.

It is the idea that a president's legitimacy is a highly perishable attribute arising from his direct and personal relationship with "the people." That relationship must be constantly renewed by moral grandstanding -- by demonstrations of compassion by presidents who not only feel everyone's pain, but who prove that feeling by incessant talking.

The trouble is, as Glen Thurow of the University of Dallas has written, this means presidents must speak "on every occasion of any popular concern or anxiety." And soon presidents come to think as they speak -- in the most crude categories of popular rhetoric.

He felt our malaise

In politics, words are deeds, and some of Mr. Clinton's highly charged moralizings have damaged his ability to govern. The last preachy Southern president similarly injured himself. (A quiz. Who said, "I promised you a president who . . . feels your pain?" Jimmy Carter in his "malaise" speech of July 15, 1979.)

Shortly after becoming president in 1977, Mr. Carter proposed legislation to deal with what he considered the "energy crisis." As Mr. Thurow recalls, he "adopted the rhetorical strategy of blaming the greed of the big oil companies and the pressure of their lobbyists for the failure of Congress to have passed comprehensive legislation after the Arab oil embargo." Blaming the companies was supposed to be red meat for the masses who were seething about energy bills.

The trouble was, as Mr. Thurow said, that the clear implication of this rhetoric was that members of Congress -- the very people Mr. Carter needed to persuade to adopt his program -- were "dupes and lackeys" of the companies.

President Clinton, whose Carteresque, self-congratulatory rhetoric often involves the moral denigration of others, came up against a similar self-made problem 12 hours after claiming victory Tuesday night.

Wednesday morning Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott met the media and was asked whether Bob Dole might be an appropriate head of a bipartisan commission to recommend solutions to the onrushing Medicare crisis. Senator Lott replied that he thought not, considering the way, throughout the Democrats' campaigns, the Medicare issue had been "demagogued." Mr. Clinton's if-you-blinked-you-missed-it post-election honeymoon ended right there.

After you, sir

Speaking to the president through the media, he said, with a deferential bow designed to wound: After you, sir. He did not say, but could have, that the president spent the autumn charging not merely that Republicans are mistaken about Medicare but that Republicans' thoughts on Medicare prove that they are his moral inferiors.

But Mr. Lott did say, with deceptive blandness, that rather than quickly concocting a commission, it would be better for the president to begin by sharing with us his sense of what the Medicare problem is and his suggestions for coping with it.

Translation: Mr. President, do not soon come around seeking cost-free political cover from Republicans whose "extremism" is supposedly exemplified by their proposal to restrain the growth of Medicare a bit more than you proposed.

Thus does the bill for careless presidential talk begin to come due.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/11/96

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