I did tune in for five minutes, just long enough to reassure myself that this year's S.o.t.U. was the same old bag of malarkey. As luck would have it, I saw the moment, repeated with almost liturgical formality from year to year, when the President mouths "Ar lurv yew..." to Hillary, who stands in the gallery, smirking at the television audience. For some reason, this stunt always puts me in mind of "Johnny" from the Bud Light commercials of five years ago, that live-at-home 40-year-old who's always trying to separate his friends and family from the last Bud Light with an insincere "I love you, man!"
How pedestrian! How formulaic! For all the undeniable successes of his presidency, one of the things that historians will find most remarkable about Clinton is how profoundly un-inspiring he was. His ostentatiously worn "youth," his lip-biting, tear-wiping, emotion-aping theatrics, his seemingly impetuous love life... All of these were merely the way an extremely private man tried to throw even his intimates off the trail of who he really was: a sober, humorless, profoundly un-spontaneous and deeply ambitious person who belonged to a generation that distrusted all those things as "insincere," and who would have been thwarted early in his rise had his contemporaries seen through him.
Voters finally did see through him, though, and cut him slack because they understood that, deep in his most secret self, Clinton, like all libertines, has the soul of an accountant. For him, life's real poetry is to be found in the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink legislative nugae that ordinary Americans find about as interesting as the owner's manual for a Dispose-All. He delights in the droning lists of Democratic policy staples (matching retirement accounts, the minimum wage, Brady bill loopholes, the Patients' Bill of Rights and something called the Biomass Credit, which seems to be what those who speak plain English would call Paying People for Burning Compost) and even Republican ones ("marriage penalty" relief, a $350 billion tax cut, changes in the standard deduction). That's why the State of the Union was never a chore for Clinton: it's an expression of his innermost heart.
The Commitments Now it's raining money, with Congressional Budget Office audits showing we've got $2 trillion over the next 10 years that we didn't know we had. In such a climate, State of the Union wishes can all come true. And worse, people can say the insanest things and no one will take any notice. Last week, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt explained that, while there are many things we can do with that money, the last thing we should consider is letting the American people get their hands on any of it. "Republicans are eager to spend the surplus on massive new tax cuts," Gephardt said. "Until the money is in the Treasury, Congress should not make a commitment that it may not be able to keep. Instead we should take a responsible approach, and use the surplus if and when it materializes for extending the life of Social Security and Medicare and paying down the debt, and honoring our existing commitments to health and education."
The government doesn't spend money when it cuts taxes! You could write an I Love Lucy episode around Gephardt's philosophy. You know, Lucy says to Ethel, "Ricky found $10,000 on the street. I want to do the responsible thing and invest in a vacation. But Ricky wants to blow it all buying stocks!" Anyway, what does Gephardt mean about "honoring our existing commitments" with money no one knew we even had two weeks ago? Is he saying that Congress has for years been authorizing projects without having the money to pay for them? If so, then which side has been making a commitment that it may not be able to keep?
Bill Boards When Slate revealed last week that Bill Bradley had scored only 485 on his verbal SATs, it provided us with one of the most delightful moments of the campaign?albeit one of the least surprising. If Bradley is the intellectuals' candidate, it's only because (1) it doesn't take much to satisfy intellectuals: a diffident shrug here and a muttered invocation of seriousness there, and nobody will ever think to ask himself what Bill Bradley has ever said that's clever, let alone brilliant; and (2) consider the competition: if Al Gore's SAT scores were ever released, they'd most likely show him to be ineligible for intercollegiate athletics.
Getting some quantitative measure of Bradley's mental capacity at least explains why the Democratic debates have come out as they have. Bradley says: "Why should we believe you will tell the truth as president if you'll not tell the truth as a candidate?" (Liar! Liar!) Gore says: "That's not a negative attack?" (I'm rubber and you're glue! Everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!)
What has gone unexplained is how John McCain keeps getting credited with winning hearts and minds as he lurches from one humiliation to another. On his campaign bus, McCain was asked what would become of his pro-life sentiments if his 15-year-old daughter found herself pregnant. Now, this is one of the oldest journalistic tricks in the book, the campaign-trail equivalent of those three-move checkmates that work only against third-graders who learned to play chess this morning. And McCain fell right into the trap, saying "the final decision" would be hers. In other words, he doesn't think of abortion as murder. In other words, in his heart of hearts he's pro-choice?which is exactly what the journalist meant to establish in asking the question. When Alan Keyes scoffed: "Mr. McCain does not understand the moral issue that is involved with abortion," he was absolutely right, of course. A hardline pro-lifer would answer the question exactly the same way he'd answer a question about whether his daughter should take out a contract on her archrival for the cheerleading squad. He wouldn't say: We'd sit around the kitchen table and discuss it, but it would be her decision.
Then McCain told the Manchester Union-Leader that he was running for president because he wants to "restore respect" to the office. Am I deaf to a nuance here, or is McCain telling us, "The reason I'd make an excellent president is because I'd make an excellent president"? That's almost identical to what Orrin Hatch said when he got into the presidential race. When Hatch got out last week, having got one percent of the Iowa vote?including two non-Mormons!?he was equally inspiring. "It's now clear," Hatch confessed, "that there will not be time to build sufficient support for my candidacy."
Isolation Cell The best indication of the misunderstanding surrounding the Elian Gonzalez case is that while half the country hoped his visiting grandmothers would succeed in bringing him back to Cuba, and half hoped the doughty old ladies would fail, nobody seemed to pity them. Here were two humble senior citizens sent by a dictator, on a mission they didn't choose, to bring their flesh-and-blood back within tyranny's striking range. Meanwhile, liberal busybodies in the news media, who know nothing about living under a Communist dictatorship, parroted the line of "assembly president" Ricardo Alarcón that it was some kind of human-rights indignity that the grandmothers weren't allowed to bring their cellphones into their meeting with Elian. (Doesn't that explain it all?) Can you imagine anyone reunited with a grandson who's narrowly escaped drowning using the precious minutes not to reassure him but to make a telephonic propaganda broadcast? How did they come by these cellphones, anyway? In Cuba, as practically every human-rights report points out, you can go to jail for possessing a cellphone.)
Janet Reno proved herself a moral menace when she spoke out against granting Elian citizenship. "If we got into a situation," Reno opined, "where if American children ended up abroad and American parents wanted them returned and a foreign country made them a citizen so they did not return, I don't think people in the United States would be very happy about it." Reno seems to think the United States must negotiate with a state that holds power through torture and terror on some kind of equal moral footing. Under her logic, you could say it's wrong for Reno to keep Tim McVeigh in jail?after all, how would she like it he put her in jail?
"I think it's important that we recognize that what is at stake here is a bond between a parent and his child," Reno continued, "and that in almost every legal system I know?certainly in ours?is something that is interrupted only in rather extreme circumstances." She obviously doesn't know the Cuban legal system.
What's curious is that Reno's Justice Dept. last week unveiled the administration's new Responsible Fatherhood Initiative, which is aimed at bringing to book "Deadbeat Dads" who are even a couple of payments behind on their child-support. Such reprobates will have their cars booted, their gambling winnings garnished, their passports taken and Medicare benefits withheld.
Welshing on alimony seems to be the only criminal offense for which this administration has zero tolerance. And yet it pales next to what Elian's father Juan Miguel did during his Nightline interview a few weeks back: he threatened to hunt down Elian's Miami guardians with a gun. Obviously Fidel made him say this stuff?and as long as Juan Miguel is stuck in Cuba he can't speak his mind. But, having threatened on national television to commit domestic violence with firearms, he's the kind of person whom, if he were an American, our vigilant Attorney General would go to any lengths to lock up. For her, it would seem, Juan Miguel's only qualification for custody is that he can promise to bring up his son in a Communist country.