Michael Douglas: Victim Victorious

Well-Fed Yuppie Michael Douglas Lead Charge for Resentful White Men

“Why don’t I just be that guy, that evil white guy you’re always complaining about?”
— Michael Douglas, Disclosure

Was that a threat or a bleat? Or was it only the satisfied acknowl­edgment of a smart career move? Improbable as it may seem, Michael Douglas currently commands a per-picture salary of some $15 million just to play That Evil White Guy You’re Always Com­plaining About.

American movies are the R&D of American politics. To be a reigning male icon is to promote a social agenda — ­it goes with the territory. John Wayne personified anticommunism at home and in the ‘Nam, Clint Eastwood was the original law-and-or­der licensed vigilante, Sylvester Stallone achieved stardom as Mr. White (Ethnic) Backlash. Arnold Schwarzenegger embodied the global triumph of American capital, but the world-historic role Michael Douglas has assigned himself is something like der Arnold in reverse.

A well-fed yuppie with a face that bobs and weaves around the frame, pretending to menace the camera like a kid’s clenched fist, Douglas has perfected his ability to pro­ject a glowering sense of aggrieved, put-upon masculinity. Taking on the de­fense of home, hearth, and career against a succession of castrating women, not to mention menacing minority groups and ascendant nationalities, Dou­glas has elected himself patron-saint of America’s leading special interest group. He is the heroic, resentful, white-guy, white-col­lar, heterosexual vic­tim, the social hiero­glyph and talk-show staple we might call the Mighty Kvetch. “Sexual harassment is about power. When did I have the power?” Douglas wails in Disclosure. “When?”

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AMERICAN HEROES ARE STOIC BY NATURE. As the leading protagonist of the bedroom horror genre that Fatal Attraction established, if not invented, back in the Reagan autumn of 1987, Douglas taught men to whine. The quintessential Douglas vehicle is an inverted Gothic romance in which women overcome men and bodice-ripping is a source of masculine pain — or even, in the case of Basic In­stinct (1992), death. The quintessential Douglas scene transforms a cozy home or congenial work space into an arena of mortal combat. As his godlike father Kirk Douglas battled fellow gladiator Woody Strode mano a mano in Spartacus, so Michael strips down to grapple with such harridan temptresses as the Medusa-permed Glenn Close, voracious man-eater Kathleen Turner, “fuck of the cen­tury” Sharon Stone, and big-haired Demi Moore in a custom-built Wonderbra.

A figure of fantastic, self-parodic, gangster­ish drive, the senior Douglas embodied a healthy measure of America’s post-World War II strength. Back in the ’50s, when men were men and women knew their place, he slaughtered screenfuls of Vikings, Romans, and Indians. Douglas pere was the closest thing to a Jewish John Wayne. Regularly parodied by Frank Gor­shin as a hoarse, tic-ridden, volatile neurotic, Kirk was perhaps the ’50s most aggressive action star. The younger Douglas brings his father’s (or maybe Gorshin’s) teeth-clenched, anguished in­tensity to the representation of sex-whimper­ing protests even as he’s being fellated.

American tough guys are notoriously in­expressive. In the course of his sweaty, grab-ass copulations, Douglas dramatizes every cliché about erotic torment as well as the inherent ridiculousness of (other people’s) passion. Fa­tal Attraction features Douglas and Close go­ing at each other as she perches on the ledge of a dish-filled sink. In Basic In­stinct, Douglas brings Jeanne Tripplehorn home, slams her against a wall, kisses her, rips apart her underwear, smooches her again, then pushes her facedown onto a chair and takes her from behind. (“You’ve never been like that be­fore,” she observes grumpily.) As der Arnold might tear apart a phone book, Douglas simi­larly rends the panties off Moore’s body dou­ble in Disclosure, while they clank around her high-tech office like a pair of amorous robots.

The American leading man is never thrown for an erotic loss. But Douglas always manages to win the battle and forfeit the war — invariably these actresses displace him from the movie’s center. The struggle is even biologically determined. As one guy observes in Disclosure, “They’re stronger, they’re smarter, and they don’t fight fair.” The dazed recognition that life is unequal — this is the source of Douglas’s pathos.

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MICHAEL DOUGLAS’S DEMOGRAPHIC PEERS include far more talented actors: Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, to name three. Even Harrison Ford and Richard Drey­fuss exude greater screen warmth. Yet the more limited some actors are, the deeper they burrow into audience fantasies, the less apt they may be to push themselves, the easier they find it to hitch a ride on the zeitgeist.

“Charlton Heston is an axiom,” Michael Mourlet wrote 35 years ago in a once-notori­ous Cahiers du Cinema manifesto defending violence on the screen. “By himself (Heston) constitutes a tragedy, and his presence in any film whatsoever suffices to create beauty.” Michael Douglas is likewise an axiom — even if his particular tragedy usually veers closer to farce and the beauty of his presence is a matter of some dispute.

Audiences pay to gawk at Arnold’s larger-than-life, indestructible will to power. Douglas, while no less ecce homo, more naturalistically regards his oppressors with fear and loathing, trafficking in humiliation and payback. Un­charismatic as he is, Douglas wouldn’t be any­body’s first choice as a leading man. But a true star is to some degree self-invented, having intuited a need that no one had articulated before. Indeed, it’s the sense of faintly obnoxious second-rateness that makes him such a perfect patsy for his powerhouse leading ladies.

Douglas is a selective demagogue. It appears to be part of his marketing strategy to bait women with his sexist complaints, or to pick on immigrants and the homeless, or boast of his courageously unfashionable attitudes. “You don’t have time to get politically correct,” is how he explained Basic Instinct‘s primal appeal. “Which is what movies are about, emotional catharsis.” So-called political cor­rectness has no place in fantasy — or anywhere else, for that matter. In flacking Falling Down, Douglas declared, perhaps more in sorrow than anger, that “political correctness is a state of mind, it’s a dream, it’s nirvana — and it has nothing to do with reality.”

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Douglas casts himself as someone who speaks truth to power (or is it powerlessness?). While it is diverting to imagine Kirk in any of his son’s roles, as a professional Man, Michael is dearly Kirk’s heir. Indeed, before he was any­thing else, Michael was Kirk’s son — which is to say the privileged progeny of’ ’50s affluence and hypermasculine display. Kirk’s career role of Spartacus adorns the cover of Roudedge’s fashionably titled scholarly anthology, Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema; self-made and self-named (he titled his autobiography The Ragpicker’s Son, boasting within that he taught his own mother to write her name), he never lost a certain class re­sentment or the sense of himself as an object. Regarding The Champion, the movie that made him a star, Douglas senior told Roger Ebert that he “was probably the only man in Holly­wood who’s had to strip to get a part.”

Kirk cast a giant shadow, at least on his firstborn. Michael Douglas first appears in the text that is Hollywood as a dutifully conflicted son. A commune-dwelling longhair during the ’60s, he broke into the movies as the would-­be Hollywood personification of the torment­ed Vietnam generation. In the supremely am­bivalent Hail, Hero! (1969), he played a hippie peacenik who secretly enlists in the army to please his World War II vet father; in Adam at Six A.M. (1970), he was an idealistic young college instructor. At the climax of Summertree (1971), draftee Michael was actually killed in battle, even as his hawkish parents contentedly made love. (The last film was produced by papa Kirk, then starring in male menopause dramas like The Brotherhood and The Arrangement.)

While falling far below the Fonda kids as a celluloid generational symbol, Douglas did successfully project a counterculture persona into American living rooms as veteran cop Karl Malden’s college-educated, idealistic-liberal protegé in Streets of San Francisco (ABC, 1972-77). In this, he earned Kirk’s approval, defined as staking out a healthy slice of the spotlight: “My father was impressed when I was doing the series because it was seen by 22 million people a week, every single week, in America alone.” Before Streets of San Francisco’s final season, Douglas quit his role as Malden’s foil. In the show, it was explained that he had left the force to become a teacher; in fact, he had retired to savor another late counter-cultural cum Oedipal triumph — as an Oscar-winning producer.

Persuading his father to give up a cherished fantasy of starring as McMurphy in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas succeeded in getting the picture made and then sweeping the Oscars. “It’s all downhill from here,” he correctly told reporters after the ceremony. Douglas nevertheless followed up by producing a second liberal hit, the meltdown melodrama The China Syndrome (1979), and rehearsing his role as the zeitgeist’s darling. The China Syndrome had the amazing good fortune to open less than two weeks before the near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. “It goes beyond the realm of coincidence; it’s enough to make you religious,” was Douglas’s com­ment at the time.

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LIKE MANY A BEMUSED HOLLYWOOD liberal, Douglas missed the Reagan reformation — making nothing more interesting than two adventure comedies, Romancing the Stone (1984) and Jewel of the Nile (1985), wherein he attempted to pass for a chillier version of Harrison Ford, playing opposite a steamy Kathleen Turner. It was not until that ultimate celluloid father in the White House suffered severe image paralysis toward the close of his second term that Douglas came into his own.

Fatal Attraction (1987) was Douglas’s Spartacus — a midcareer, midlife political manifesto that remains his top-grossing ve­hicle. Cannily, he promoted it as a form of sexual backlash: “If you want to know, I’m really tired of feminists, sick of them. They’ve really dug themselves into their own grave. It’s time they looked at themselves and stopped attacking men.” For the first time, Douglas presented himself as a male advocate and, in doing so, revealed a demagogue’s knack for bringing a crowd to its feet. As was well-documented at the time, the movie inspired an extraordinary degree of viewer participation, with spectators typically exhorting Douglas to “kill the bitch!” as he defended his family against the crazed assault launched by Glenn Close’s jilted one-night stand.

As Fatal Attraction, which put adultery on the political map, presaged the fall of Gary Hart, so Wall Street ap­peared less than two months after the Octo­ber 1987 stock-market crash that signaled the demise of the boom-boom ’80s. An openly “liberal” movie, Wall Street provided Douglas with an openly villainous role. His portrayal of financier Gordon Gekko was that of an unapologetically and totally powerful white guy — the megabully that lives deep inside every whiny wimp. The part, which won Douglas an Oscar, may be closest to his heart: “I don’t think Gekko’s a villain,” he explained at the time. “Doesn’t beat his wife or his kid. He’s just taking care of business. And he gives a lot of people chances.”

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Taking care of business, giving people chances. Since then, Douglas has enjoyed uncanny timing. His 1989 Osaka-set thriller, Black Rain, globalized Fatal Attrac­tion‘s sense of white men under siege. The movie, in which a typically baffled and enraged Douglas lashes out at an incomprehensibly alien (and, in some ways, “unmanly”) culture, materialized even as popular resentment peaked against the Japanese companies that — then blatantly buying up “underval­ued” American landmarks like Rockefeller Center and Universal Pictures — threatened America’s status as the world’s preeminent capitalist power. Falling Down, one of the first movies to portray Los Angeles as the new behavioral sink, was in production dur­ing the 1992 riots.

Originally asked to play Falling Down‘s heroic (but henpecked) cop, Douglas intuitively asked for the more fiercely self-pitying and demonstrative role of the laid-off defense worker known, from his license plate, as D-FENS. No less rabble-rousing than Fatal Attraction, Falling Down inspired audiences to cheer as Douglas crashed a Korean grocery (“I’m standing up for my rights as a consumer — ­I’m rolling back prices to 1965″), beat a bunch of Latino gang-bangers, dissed a homeless panhandler, and terrorized the robotic counter kids in a generic fast-food parlor.

For the benefit of the press, Douglas defended D-FENS as the personification of America’s lost middle class. What seemed lost on him was that if life in 1992 was re­ally so rough for middle-class white guys, how much worse was it for everybody else?

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REVENGE FANTASIES ARE A MAJOR COMPONENT in popular entertainments, particularly those designed for the disadvantaged. In this respect, Douglas has devised a more sophisticated form of slasher film. His vehicles are all about putting the shoe on the other foot, turning victims into victimizers and vice versa. Just as immigrants and the homeless make life lousy for hardworking Americans in Falling Down, so Fatal Attraction‘s stalker and Basic Instinct‘s serial killer are female, as is Disclosure‘s rapist. Meanwhile, Douglas is persecuted, passed over, laid off, divorced, beaten up, molested, and harassed.

A successful movie star is to some degree a public servant, shoring up those cultural norms perceived to be in crisis, or effecting a miraculous reconciliation of opposing values. Douglas’s stardom depends on his capacity to project simultaneous strength and weakness. He is the victim as hero — a bellicose masochist, aggressive yet powerless, totally domineering while bat­tered by forces beyond his control (includ­ing, of course, those of his id). It’s the same rationale by which O. J. Simpson can represent himself as a victim of spouse abuse, even if it is his own.

Basic Instinct is echt Douglas — it al­lowed him to synthesize all his previous roles in the person of an arrogantly fallible cop with an addictive personality. His heightened state of deprivation, having given up ciga­rettes, booze, and cocaine when the movie opens, alludes to his offscreen life: Douglas’s media image is typically that of the licentious workaholic. Magazine profiles emphasize his tremendous, ongoing success as well as his public battles against substance abuse and “sex addiction” in the context of a long-run­ning society marriage.

Douglas asks pity for the constraints un­der which he suffers as well as for those urges that he indulges. Both are defined as Woman. But where Sigmund Freud wondered just what it was that women desired, Douglas knows only what it is they don’t: “If we followed the rules, we’d all be these sensitive, upstanding, compassionate men­ — and no women would want us.” Hence the logic of the Evil White Guy.

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On one hand, men are persecuted. “Guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women’s unreasonable demands,” Douglas told the press while pro­moting Fatal Attraction. In that movie, Close demands that Douglas “face up to your responsibilities,” just as Moore, in Disclosure, orders him to “come back here and finish what you started!” The fear of being worked (or fucked) to death is matched by another anxiety. Basic Instinct is fascinated by Sharon Stone’s lesbian attachments, while Disclosure makes early, joking reference to a situation in which a child has two mommies. But these references seem less homophobic than misogynist — the manifestation of a male’s fear that he might be expendable. (It is an amusing footnote to the protests directed against Basic Instinct that one deliri­ous group of activists demanded, among oth­er things, that Douglas’s character be made lesbian and recast with his movieland ex-wife Kathleen Turner.)

Women define Douglas’s success as a movie star as well as his representation of life as a man. Even when women are not the primary enemy, as they are in Fatal Attraction, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure, they serve to exacerbate his predicament. Douglas’s crooked cop in Black Rain needs to make extra money for child support. The vengeful loser in Falling Down is driven over the brink by a cold and rejecting ex-wife. “I have to come home,” he warns her, hav­ing just delighted the audience by telling off an uppity vagrant.

There’s an underlying sadness here. Douglas, after all, was six years old when his parents split up. Broken families are at the center of The War of the Roses and Falling Down. Black Rain and Fatal Attraction alike are haunted by the image of beleaguered pa­triarchy. Disclosure opens with Douglas’s in­effectual announcement that “I am The Fa­ther and when The Father says put your jacket on — you put your jacket on.”

You do if Daddy is Spartacus. Just as Douglas suffers the humiliation of always being the son, so he is frequently put in the position of defending something he fears may no longer even exist. Thus, Basic Instinct evinces the most pathetic longing for Kinder und Küche. Projecting an ideal future with literal man-killer Sharon Stone, Douglas goofily suggests that they “fuck like minks, raise rug rats, and live happily ever after.”

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“I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?”
Michael Douglas, Falling Down

AS THE EMBODIMENT OF WHITE straight male power on planet earth, American presidents typically consort (at least in the national dreamlife) with those Holly­wood ego-ideals and doppelgängers who, like themselves, define what it is to be presumptive Master of the Universe.

Nixon identified with John Wayne, as well as the characters Patton and Dirty Harry. Underdog candidate Jimmy Carter was associated with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Reagan, in addition to playing himself, could morph into Indiana Jones and Stallone-as-­Rambo. For the overcompensating Bush, there was (by then, a kinder, gentler) Arnold Schwarzenegger and diffident Kevin Costner. For Clinton, who has been known to both whine in public and sniff around Sharon Stone, it is Michael Douglas — that is, if it is to be anyone other than Dead Elvis or (oh, the horror!) Barbra Streisand.

Although Disclosure hasn’t proved as mighty a windfall as Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct — are we getting tired of him yet — Douglas has at least temporarily sup­planted Arnold as Hollywood’s Mr. America. Junior, the latest and most radical varia­tion on the monstrous Schwarzenegger physique, tanked with squeamish audiences. (In his hubristic self-sufficiency, a pregnant Arnold made the mistake of playing both characters in a bedroom horror flick — and for comedy no less.) What, especially in the autumn of 1994, was Arnold getting in touch with his female side compared to the spectacle of the ex-hippie, glib yuppie Dou­glas rallying the troops once more — pre­vailing against another oversexed, postfem­inist, smart-assed, professional bitch? Yes!

That sort of appeal can take you straight to the top — just ask the Republicans. Indeed, as unlikable as he is, Douglas will next appear in the role of a successful politician. Wayne, Eastwood, Stallone have never gone this far. As his crowning achievement, Michael Douglas has been cast in the title role of Rob Reiner’s The American President. What’s more, it’s a romantic comedy. The Ragpicker’s Grandson, playing a wid­owed commander in chief (ding, dong, the bitch is dead), presumably ups his belea­guerment quotient by getting involved with a comely environmental lobbyist (heh heh), Annette Bening, whom his aides must smuggle in and out of the White House boudoir.

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Can it work? Will the wily Bening char­acter attempt to hijack the president’s health care program? Does she accuse him of in­decent exposure? Try to steal his job? Attempt to eviscerate the D·FENS budget with an ice pick? Can the long-suffering American people forgive this well-meaning but spineless victim of his indiscretions and appetites — his basic instincts? Will we “Hail to the Chief” chump? Assuredly, providing that he asserts his presidential prerogative and puts that tricky lobby lady in her place. (Douglas should have no difficulty with the requisite flackery: Corporations are going through a terrible crisis because of environmentalists’ unreasonable demands. The greens are digging their own grave.)

Just before Christmas, gossip columns reported Douglas hanging out at the White House to absorb the presidential vibe. So was Douglas sizing up the newly chastened Bill Clinton to prepare for his ultimate ex­ercise in belligerent self-pity, heroic victimization, and protection of the realm? Or was it, somewhat more logically, vice versa? ❖

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies


Bob Woodward, Inside Dope


ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — Nobody in Washington — and certainly not in a White House by now incapable of telling wheat from chaff, crisis-wise — is saying the obvious thing about Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, which is that the book itself is inconsequential. It’s not as if the fecklessness and crossed purposes with which Clinton’s rookie team brought forth last year’s budget went unreported at the time. Having the story regurgitate in Woodward’s familiar, dreadful, see-Jack-govern style is bombshell stuff if only the reader following the author’s lead, considers what everybody had for lunch to be the key detail, scandalously withheld. (It seems they all ordered the smoking gun.)

Yet inside the capital, you’d waste you time bringing up The Agenda‘s debatable merits as a chronicle, because here the book is being appraised more sportingly — as a chess piece that’s just been brought into play. While Woodward, as usual, declaims taking sides, he hardly needs to take one to be on one: in his hometown, whoever denigrates his work is instantly rated a Clinton apologist, which naturally no one cares to be accused of.

And yikes, me neither, although I do admit that The Agenda did get me feeling a certain sympathy for old spume-haired Bill, on purely humane grounds. The tip-off to how few scoops Woodward got on the policy front is that he’d  been touting the book’s inside dope about Clinton’s character, chiefly that the chief executive often blows his top in private and that he says “fuck” a lot. (Hortense, fetch my drool-cup.) The revelation of Clinton’s awesome inability to make up his mind, however, is a good deal more devastating, and the embassies concerned have presumably wasted no time telexing Woodward’s hot flash to Pyongyang and Sarajevo.

In fact, there’s nothing in the book that deserves to seriously alter anyone’s opinion, pro or con, of either Clinton or his presidency. Yet the overall effect is insidious simply because Woodward has chosen to put every nattering tidbit he culled between hard covers, thereby giving the mundane a frequently unwarranted air of the fraught. While the narrative’s flat, remote tone conceivably meets some abstract standard of reportorial objectivity, it’s scarcely neutral. True, Woodward interviewed every White House wallah worth talking to, but when their recollected watercooler squabbles are given the same weight as important developments, the one safe bet is that they’re going to sound like boobs — boobs in crisis.

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Woodward recounts last year’s near debacle over the hudget as the story of an education — that is, of the newly arrived Clintonites’ “slow and torturous awakening” to how Washington does business. Step by dispiriting step, he traces president-elect Clinton’s early acceptance of the conventional wisdom that deficit cutting mattered more than the economic policies he’d campaigned on, leading to a futile  scramble to salvage at least some of the budget package’s rapidly dwindling reformist components (investments in infrastructure, an energy tax) from the contending demands of the Senate, the House, and rival camps of presidential advisors. He describes how it became a crucial test of of Clinton’s presidency to pass a bill so out of whack with his original intentions that he’d already all by disavowed it to his aides. After their squeaker victory, the White House team recognizd with chagrin that they’d turned into exactly the sort of makeshift managers of business-as-usual that they’d come to town hoping to dispossess for good.

If Woodward gave a rat’s keester about the Clintonites’ abandoned goals, The Agenda would make powerful reading. But as far as he’s concerned, the point of the story is it’s happy ending, which is this pack of newcomers’ bloody-nosed acquisition of (that is, acquiescence to) insider savvy. He isn’t hand-wringingly dismayed over what happened, or even attractively sardonic: he’s approving. The book’s complacent equations of change with amateurishness, and of shrewdness with business as usual, are a little breathtaking — it’s How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the District.

Woodward, of course, is himself an old hand in institutional Washington — which means that, at least in some circles, his standing is rather more assured than Clinton’s is. To the permanent political population, all outsiders are parvenus even if they happen to be living in the White House. That’s why the permanent popula­tion is unconfessedly nostalgic for Bush: sure he stank as a presi­dent, but he was one of their own.

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But Clinton annoys them. True, he frequently caves in to their pri­orities, with an alacrity that to us bystanders looks like unseemly haste. Yet the mere fact that he has to cave in, instead of having shared those priorities from the start, keeps him suspect. He’s also what people used to call goal-ori­ented, to the somewhat manic de­gree that, when unable to choose between conflicting goals, he pur­sues all of them at once with equal heartiness. (It never occurs to him to do nothing: quite often, he ends up with worse than nothing, be­cause he’s expended so much en­ergy to so little effect.) Yet among Washington’s permanent popula­tion, results aren’t ranked all that high — like presidents, they come and go. The imperative value is the process, which is, like them, permanent. Little offends them more than some freshly elected clown’s misperception that the process is a way they get things done, and not the thing they do.

To permanent Washington’s mind, Clinton’s presidency still doesn’t seem quite valid. In this, curiously enough, they’re at one with the Christian right, which has by now merrily embraced a conviction that the outcome of the ’92 election was fraudulent. (Not the vote, just the outcome; it’s all pretty mysterious.) The curiosity is that nothing rattles permanent Washington these days like the rise of fundamentalist populism­ — though it’s the populist part, not the ideology, that gets the insiders nervous. Yet between them, per­manent Washington’s contempt and the Christian right’s broad­sides have gone a long way toward fostering a widespread if vague public perception, of a fascinating­ly unprecedented sort, that Clin­ton is somehow less than legiti­mate — an impression Clinton himself doesn’t do much to dis­courage with his chronic tendency to act as if he thinks he’s won a game show called President for a Day.

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Unlike Rush Limbaugh or even Newt Gingrich, Woodward is hardly trying to cripple a presiden­cy. (He’s already done that, right?) But like his fellow perma­nent Washingtonians, he thinks it only fitting to put Clinton in his place. In The Agenda, with nig­gling exceptions, all of the people Clinton brought to the capital with him come off badly. Every­body who was already in Washing­ ton comes off well. The atrocious Lloyd Bentsen, whose status as America’s most overrated public figure gives a fair idea of perma­nent Washington’s taste in self-­regard, is portrayed as a distin­guished and sagacious old sort even when he’s undercutting his new colleagues by making public pronouncements at odds with their strategy, as Bentsen acciden­tally-on-purpose managed to do twice during the budget fracas. Al Gore gets both kinds of treatment: he’s depicted as a numbskull when he’s being pushy about the environment and such, but viewed with new respect when he’s skill­fully carving out a niche for him­self in the White House turf wars, the latter being the kind of en­deavor that permanent Washing­ton has no trouble understanding and endorsing.

Also handled with noticeable cordiality is David Gergen — who was hired, of course, as Clinton’s desperate signal to permanent Washington that he was giving up on bypassing them. At one point, we’re urged to empathize with Gergen’s melancholy when young Clintonites tactlessly make “parti­san” — i.e., anti-Reagan — com­ments in his presence. Woodward is silent on whether Gergen’s ecu­menical sensitivities were similarly agitated by the backroom banter during his tenures in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan White Houses­ — although it is nice to know that Gergen, who accepted Clinton’s job offer with a much-praised speech about his duty to answer his president’s call, dickered be­hind the scenes for some days to make sure he’d get a high-sound­ing title.

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Last week, the White House trundled Gergen out on Face the Nation to respond to The Agenda with some welcome news. Nowa­days, said Gergen, the president was getting much better at con­trolling his temper. This was duly reported. It was also appropriate, since the book’s most damaging characterizations of Clinton’s out­bursts are written from Gergen’s perspective — “It was truly awful, on the edge of controlled violence … He had never quite seen an adult, let alone a president, in such a rage.” Presidents on the edge of controlled violence used to fire aides for such indiscretions, but Gergen leads a charmed life. He could cook Socks on a spit at the next press barbecue and the Clintons would still have to keep him on, because he’s their perma­nent-Washington status symbol­ — sort of a cross between a hostage and a trophy wife. They can only hope that when he quits, it won’t be at a juncture that will actively embarrass them.

As for The Agenda‘s descrip­tions of an administration in per­petual disarray, I’ve got no doubt that they’re accurate so far as they go. But the impression that’s conveyed of floundering bumpkinism occupies a void, because we’re giv­en no comparisons to how previ­ous White Houses handled deci­sion making. More lopsidedly, the other players in the budget-crafting process — Congress, the Republican opposition, the lobbyists, and the mucky-mucks of high finance­ — aren’t held up to the same scruti­ny. (One noteworthy exception: Bob Kerrey, who must have failed to pay Woodward due homage at a dinner party or something, since he’s depicted as an arrogant, self­-deluded prick — though just why he should be singled out on that score escapes me.) Clearly, Woodward can’t imagine any reason to view these fellow insiders critically. They may be the people who wrecked the country, but at least, unlike the Clintonites, they know their jobs. ■


Media: On Bill Clinton and Paula Jones

“‘Tis a Pity He’s a Whore”

OKAY. SO WE DON’T HAVE NIXON to kick around any­more; fortunately we have Joe Klein. I feel as if I owe the guy royalties, given the mileage I’ve gotten out of his whine some 15 years ago in Mother Jones — an irresistibly quotable classic in the annals of male liberal ressentiment — that the left had shamefully turned its attention from the poor to defending the liberties of “women, homosexuals, and mari­juana smokers.” I hereby resolve to stop squeezing that one, on the grounds that Klein’s approach to cultural poli­tics has gotten a lot more subtle, as evidenced by his bizarre piece of free association in last week’s Newsweek, “The Politics of Promiscuity.”

Klein starts out declaring that Paula Jones’s accusations against Bill Clinton, like Anita Hill’s against Clarence Thomas, are unprovable and ought to be of no interest to the media. Clinton’s enemies are “despicable,” motivated by ideology or greed. Besides, “it can be persuasively ar­gued” that politicians’ private lives are irrelevant to their public performance; take John Kennedy (I forgo the obvious interjection). “Indeed,” says Klein, “those who have come to the presidency with a prior history of philandering have been more successful than those who haven’t, at least in the 20th century (as opposed to those who’ve come to the presidency with high IQs, who’ve mostly been fail­ures).” (This in itself is a riveting piece of social analysis, which I will generously leave to other commentators to pick over.)

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But. (You knew there was a “but.”) The issue won’t go away, because there have been so many previous “allega­tions of personal misbehavior” against the president and because “it seems increasingly, and sadly, apparent that the character flaw Bill Clinton’s enemies have fixed upon­ — promiscuity — is a defining characteristic of his public life as well.” That is, the dictionary definition of “promiscuous,” revolving around such concepts as “indiscriminate,” “casual,” and “irregular,” fits the style and substance of Clinton’s governing in both good ways — he is empathetic, skilled at bringing people together and finding common ground, able to disarm opponents and forge compromises­ — and bad — he lacks principle, wants to please everyone, has trouble saying no, fudges the truth, believes he can “seduce, and abandon, at will and without consequences.”

I can’t quarrel with Klein’s assessment of the moral vacuum at the center of Clinton’s operation, especially in foreign affairs. What bemuses me is the not-so-deep struc­ture of this polemic, which unfolds more or less as follows: Sexual harassment charges against public figures are in­herently nebulous and an intrusion of “private life” into public discourse. (Anita Hill, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flow­ers are all the same in the dark; sexual intimidation, marital infidelity, what’s the dif?) Since JFK displayed a suitable, manly decisiveness in public, “acting in a sober, measured — and inspired — manner during the Cuban mis­sile crisis,” we can assume that he was able to contain his sexual weakness, to confine it to the bedroom, where it belonged; his expenditure of bodily fluids did not corrupt. With Clinton, in contrast, the press can be forgiven for breaching the proper boundary between public and pri­vate, because his own libidinal boundaries appear to be alarmingly porous. He is charming and seductive, wont to “wheedle” and “cajole.” “He conveys an impression of complete accessibility, and yet nothing is ever revealed: ‘I’ve had blind dates with women I’ve known more about than I know about Clinton,’ James Carville once com­plained …” In short, Bill is not only too feminine; his femininity is of the unreliable, manipulative, whorish sort. He has let sex invade the core of his being, as we all know women do (this is why it’s so much worse for a woman to be “promiscuous”); and it is this erotic spillover, this gender betrayal, that explains (or at least symbolizes) his abandonment of Haiti and Bosnia.

In conclusion, Klein quotes Clinton’s definition of character as “a journey, not a destination with ringing disapproval: “There is an adolescent, unformed, half-­baked quality to it — as there is to the notion of promiscuity itself: an inability to settle, to stand, to commit … It’s not too much to ask that a leader be mature, fully formed and not flailing about in a narcissistic, existential quest for self-discovery.” Translation: not only has Clin­ton failed to develop a real masculine superego, he hasn’t sufficiently tran­scended his roots in the decade that dare not speak its name. To be worthy of power in this era of settling and commit­ting, it’s not enough simply to refrain from inhaling — one must actively spit out. Live by the ’60s, die by the ’60s: having embraced the twin idols of Nar­cissism and Androgyny, it’s only fitting that Clinton should be zapped by their incestuous offspring, Personal Politics. All clear?

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An emerging theme elsewhere on the Paula Jones beat has been the failure of her case to become Anita Hill II (“Paula stunned by feminists’ silence,” a Post headline observed, while in Sunday’s Times Maureen Dowd offered such tidbits as Bob Dornan, suddenly converted to the cause of fighting sexual harassment, sporting an “I Believe Paula” button). Do feminists have a double standard? Have conservatives promoted Jones’s case mainly to embarrass feminists by making them look like hypocrites? Etc., etc.

When Marx amended Hegel to specify that history re­peats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, he could have been talking about American popular culture. The outcry over Hill was not only, or even primarily, about sexual harassment per se, but about women’s concerns being ignored by a male-dominated society. It erupted as it did for a whole stew of reasons: the symbolism of the Supreme Court, in the midst of the right’s attempt to pack it with anti-abortion ideologues; the smug protectiveness of the old boys in the Senate; the decade-long, cumulative frustration of women in a political atmosphere that increas­ingly denied the legitimacy of their anger at men. The eruption transformed that atmosphere, putting gender con­flict back on the pop cultural map. It has also had a more problematic effect, namely the push to expand the defini­tion of sexual harassment to cover any kind of male sexual behavior or talk that offends a woman. Even with a relative­ly specific definition — mine is the deliberate use of sexual attention, or expressions of sexual hostility, as a weapon to punish a woman for presuming to take up public space as other than a sexual object-it’s not easy to draw the line between sexual harassment and plain, reflexive sexual pig­gishness. (I believed Hill’s account of what Thomas had said, yet listening to her rendition of his words — abstracted from their original context, his tone of voice, his body language — I never felt I could judge whether he was a harasser, or just a sexist jerk.) And to imagine we can change a piggish sexual culture simply by outlawing it (even if feminists agreed on what kind of sexual expres­sion is sexist, which of course they don’t) suggests a naive and frightening faith in the state. In the wake of all the emotion over Thomas-Hill, many feminists have ar­rived at a quiet recognition of how messy this issue can get. So I don’t think the “silent” women’s groups are merely standing by their man; I think they feel a farce coming on.

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The Making of Conventional Wisdom Department: in a recent column in Newsday, James P. Pinkerton of the con­servative Manhattan Institute opines, “More than a quarter of all American babies are born outside of marriage. The rate among some groups is much higher, leading, everyone by now agrees, to the chaos and crime of the urban under­class.” Everyone agrees? I don’t think so. There’s been a fair amount of com­mentary, some of which I’ve written my­self, disputing this latest attempt to blame the social and economic crisis of the (black) poor on women’s out-of-con­trol breeding. What “everyone” means is “everyone who counts,” which includes ultraconservatives like Charles Murray (whom Pinkerton refers to as a “gloomy social scientist,” diplomatically omitting mention of his right-wing politics) but excludes anyone to the cultural left of, say, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. ■


Republican Nation: Save Our Symbols

S.O.S.: Save Our Symbols
January 10, 1995

THE NIGHT AFTER THEIR REVOLUTION, Esther and I washed dishes in Laura’s kitchen. It was Laura’s birth­day, and we’d celebrated (because, fuck it all, we needed to). Now, we were talking about the fact and the fairy tale of what had happened. We threw around the common predictions — social repression, economic depression, the dismantling of civil rights. I tried to make fun of fundamentalists, but ended up retreating into the dislocated feeling I’d first experienced way back when I was 20 and nobody I knew elected Ronald Reagan. My country, their revolution: here it came again, supposedly the spawn of a Middle America I couldn’t see in my kind, tolerant, working-class Wisconsin cousins, or in my freedom-loving Northwest family, all middle class and raised religious, with different opinions about abortion and the welfare state, but none of them this inhumane or this foolhardy.

“What’s being said,” Esther muttered into the soap suds, “makes me feel erased.”

“I know what you mean,” I replied.

“No,” she said. “I mean by our side. By the left.”

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This is how believing in their revolution hurts us. Esther spent the Reagan-Bush years — her twenties — as an activist and a cultural progressive, organizing for ACT UP, hanging out in an experimental arts collective, teaching junior high, and designing workshops to promote racial tolerance. Like me, like our friend Laura the Middle East activist and new-music promoter, Esther was very busy during the ’80s. She endured failure and dissension within her various communities, but she also saw progress. She wasn’t just living in a boho fishbowl; her efforts educated, expanded the discourse, and often effected real change. And she wasn’t alone — across America progressives created different versions of this synthesis of radical culture and political organizing. Yet she was being told that the left she’d helped preserve during a decade of very hard times was dead; that street activism and identity politics, not to mention a too-strong focus on culture, had in fact destroyed the left long ago. And that the only way to reclaim power was to disregard the importance of the very ground people like herself had won.

“The ambitions of the left have been political and their triumphs cultural, while the ambitions of the right have been cultural and their triumphs political,” Adam Gopnik wrote recently in The New Yorker. This aphorism elegantly de­scribes the way much of the left currently sees itself. The duality it expresses makes possible the judgments self-styled leftsavers are making about activities they deem “cultural.” This cordoning-off of culture from politics leaves no room for the evolving reality of left politics since the early ’70s, as it’s been shaping up in the imagination and on the streets. It dismisses the power of the arts to effect consciousness, and questions the importance of lifestyle, education, or any kind of socially oriented work that falls outside the the traditional political arenas of the voting booth, the picket line, and the halls of power.

Yet the very slipperiness of the term culture highlights its capacity to jump and blend boundaries, emphasizing the interplay of knowledge, belief, and behavior through which a society emerges over time. The split between culture and politics is an unnatural one; this is the rudimentary lesson of feminism, queer liberation, and movements led by people of color. If such a split is reasserted, it will once again devalue these groups, who’ve often been dismissed by hard-line politicos, in a very old-fashioned way: by marking their pre­occupations as frivolous. (Did I hear someone say “too fem­inine”?) And it will narrow our political vision on an even deeper level. What we’ve developed by taking culture seri­ously is a view of the political as a web, connecting individ­ual identity to community concerns, and personal passions to a larger social agenda. Exploring this web has kept the left alive during an era of vicious attack from the right. More than that, it’s made the left a more inclusive, multifaceted presence in American society.

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SOME MAY SAY TALKING about the links between lifestyle and activism, or the symbolic and the material, is mere distraction in our current state of emergency. But dis­missing this conversation as irrelevant not only makes it hard to understand our weaknesses, it denies our strengths. The syncretic view is what fed the heart of the left as it beat within direct-action groups like ACT UP, WAC, WHAM, and Queer Nation; in those doing clinic defense, guerrilla environmentalism, and immigrant advocacy; in the oft-maligned academy; and through the work of artists ranging from Karen Finley to Public Enemy and Roseanne. What these various figures and groups shared was the radically democratic notion that politics could happen wherever a person’s strengths and interests led.

This principle is elemental to our nation of individual­ists. It became progressive through the social critique orig­inating in the civil-rights movement and the counterculture. Those of us schooled in this history invested less faith in electoral politics than we did in the changes that sprang from conversations across women’s kitchen tables or in the neigh­borhoods where community workers lived, or, yes, through the words and visions of artists who have helped us under­stand the structure and experience of oppression, and the possibility of freedom. Our faith came from witnessing how change happened in our own lives.

The decentralized approach many activists have adopt­ed since the ’70s suits our moment. Direct action efforts like abortion clinic defense, for example, require loose net­working that can easily adapt to changes in agenda. Battered women’s shelters, free clinics, or needle exchange services all originate (and thrive) through the efforts of a few dedicat­ed people who see a need right there, right then, and fill it. When such methods work, they offer an antidote to the big­-government approach the right accuses the left of backing: grassroots organizing reduces bureaucracy in favor of a hands-on, usually nonhierarchical, practical approach.

So much of our daily lives contradicts the old defini­tion of a common culture as a homogeneous whole and de­mands a new model for community. Technology makes mi­crocosms. Architecture subdivides. The marketplace places us in niches. We need a model that accepts difference and seeks the common within it — a key to the new language that arises from mixing things up. Multiculturalism tries to imag­ine such a model. Rather than the downfall-of-the-left naysayers accuse it of being, multiculturalism is at heart a complex lesson in the art of empathy, essential to forming a vital movement in divided times. Multiculturalism starts with a simple method: listen and learn. It uses culture’s tools (the story, the image, the custom) to ground analysis. The process takes time. As we unlearn the rhetoric of Barbie Dolls and a vengeful God, we replace it by hearing other tales, discovering other icons, celebrating other realities. If we really want a broad-based left, this is the first, most prac­tical step.

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SOME OF US DRAWN to the left since the 1970s studied politics or stumped for the Democrats in school; more often, we learned our values from what the left’s stern commentators would label “cultural.” Sometimes the way the web works is very clear, as when homocore punk band Team Dresch offers a self-defense workshop (women only!) to open a gig, or the San Francisco conceptual art team Margaret Crane/Jon Winet de­sign tiny, elegant placards inscribed with AIDS prevention information and distribute them in restaurants. Less easy to prove, but nonetheless traceable, is the path that leads from being a Pearl Jam fan to volunteering at a center for child abuse victims, or from frequenting the Body Shop to becoming an environmentalist, or from reading a Toni Morrison novel to organizing against racist policies in your local school district. (Or reading a Morrison novel and hating Clarence Thomas; your public opinion isn’t just based on watching the nightly news, after all.)

It’s not just Lollapaloozers who believe that your life can be changed by rock and roll, or a great book, or even a TV show. Ad people know that ritual and image influence how people structure their opinions and their lives. So does the Christian right. In fact, the right un­derstands that in the 25 years since Janis Joplin died, pop­ular culture has helped shape a more liberal public. Anita Hill’s fall followed the summer of Thelma & Louise, and al­though the hearings themselves favored a horrifying con­servatism, you can bet that the women and men watching at home — those who, in the next election, chose more women than ever before — took what they’d felt and learned from the confluence of imagined scenarios and cold, hard facts into the voting booth.

Now, the right aims to possess the leaky means of ideological distribution known as the popular. The right knows the value of culture; that’s why it uses talk radio and television and religion now, and why, before Clinton became the only punching bag that mattered, it fought so hard against lightning rods like Karen Finley, hip hop, and Murphy Brown. Conservatism’s superstars attract their supporters by making their narrow-minded viewpoints fleshy, fun­ny, and moving — ex­actly what rock and roll, street fashion, and strains within all of the common arts have done for radical thought over the past third of a century. For the moment, the right’s wet weekend with pop has given it a ruddy glow. But the mass appeal they’re mining is a cruel one, based around bullying. Their fun is a gouge in the eye — a shtick that’s always appealed to crowds, from Shakespeare’s time to the present. Such mean-spirited fun appeals to the weakness in people, which is certainly vast, but ultimately un­satisfying. The aspect of culture that’s about learning, about expanding the self, isn’t honored here. That’s why figures like Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy fell, and why Rush and Howard will someday, too.

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Progressive movements have been far more successful in changing people’s worldviews. In fact, the loose web of attitudes reflecting some tie to post-’60s left politics has so successfully invaded the main­stream that it’s got its own market niche: alternative. This term, dread­ed by all who feel protective of the margins, encompasses everything from earth-friendly toilet paper to postpunk music to the Internet. Its impact remains hard to bottle: there’s been a sea change in attitudes about gays and lesbians since Stonewall, for example, obvious in the wide defeat of antigay legislation in the last election as well as in the popularity of Philadelphia and k.d. lang. Yet that legislation keeps pop­ping up, and as the tussle over gays in the military showed, many people aren’t willing to open the doors of American institutions to new values. Still, radical culture’s energy keeps regenerating, and when it’s tapped it can bring new people into the left, sustain those who are already com­mitted, and sway those on the fence.

The feeling on the left right now may be that we need to abandon our cultural focus and get seri­ous. I think we need to get serious about culture — as serious as we’ve ever been. We can see Melissa Etheridge at the Garden and feel uplifted, or give Mom a copy of Cor­nel West’s new volume and possibly affect one point of view. But we know that’s not enough. We need to retain the critique of capitalism that helps us recognize consumption as part of the system, not freedom from it. Then we need to take the next step, not abandoning the cultural but politicizing it further. That next step can lead in many different directions — toward intervening in institutions, seizing the means of pro­duction, changing our family lives, our sex lives, ourselves.

Artists and activists must be fearless now. Retreating isn’t the so­lution, and neither is penitence. We need to devise ways to make the symbolic a potent political weapon once again. The legacy starts here. ❖


Republican Nation: Bill Clinton’s Unrequited Affair

Love in Vain: Bill Clinton’s Unrequited Affair
January 10, 1995

WELCOME TO REPUBLICAN NATION, where men are men and President Bill Clinton is a skirt-chasing, draft-dodging, pot-smoking, non-inhaling, pussy-whipped, pussy-eating, pussycat-owning, homo-loving, touchie-feelie, yellow-bellied peacenik wuss.

Back in 1992, the American electorate (or 43 per cent of it, anyway) voted for a lover, not a fighter. A would-be Elvis defeated a John Wayne wannabe. Woodstock eclipsed Pearl Harbor as a generational metaphor. Now, as the New Dole dawns, we peer into our Kristol ball and see two years in Limbaugh with our Newtered president making ever more feeble attempts to recast himself as an old-fashioned TruMan.

What’s Clinton’s problem? Like his similarly suspect predecessor Jimmy Carter at the midpoint of his single term, Clinton is widely regarded as an incompetent — despite a growing economy and the fact that, on his so-called watch, almost no American blood has been shed on foreign soil. So why the widespread perception that there is something frighteningly unpresidential about our maximum leader?

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REPUBLICAN NATION was eagerly inaugurated moments after the November election with the spectacle of Speaker-to-be Gingrich’s quasi-presi­dential treatment in the media. It was as if televi­sion had discovered in Newt a shining new star: Bill Clinton’s evil twin.

Fawned upon by Ted Koppel, attacked daily by the op-ed pundits of the Eastern liberal press, his peccadillos fruitlessly “exposed” by New York tabloids, his coffers swelled by a $4 million advance from Rupert Murdoch’s publishing house, the architect of Republican vic­tory stormed the zeitgeist machine — su­perseding even O.J. Simpson as the object of The New Yorker’s fasci­nation.

Yes, only six years after the show closed, it was time again for a man’s­-man’s-man’s-man’s world: Reaganism redux. Back to the sci-fi future of Star Wars in cyberspace, and maybe even a new adventure with Indiana Jones. But first, some necessary chastisement. For, Newt (like Ronbo) gives every promise of being a man who can smile broadly while wielding a large and bloody ax.

So, will Bill Clinton feel Republican pain? Is the pope Time maga­zine’s Man of the Year?

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THREE CARTOON images might be conjured by the Democratic de­feat. One is of a blubbering, defenseless fat boy being taunted by a vicious crowd of schoolyard bullies. The second, even more pa­thetic, is of that same hapless fat boy chasing frantically after his tor­mentors, huffing and puffing and hoping the gang will let him join in their game. The third and creepiest has the fat boy turning his aggres­sion on some smaller, weaker playmate.

Three years ago, Bill Clinton won a Democratic nomination very few politicians wanted largely by defining himself as an anti-Democrat Democrat. Now, in his grotesque attempt to crash the Republican party, the pres­ident can barely wait to endorse a constitutional amend­ment on school prayer, propose an additional $25 billion for defense spending, dangle again the prospect of a middle-class tax cut, offer to shut down an entire federal agency (or three), and humiliate an uppity black woman who — in keeping with his previous pattern — was also something of a personal friend.

Bill Clinton just wants everyone to love him. So why does America, defined in the received wisdom of the last election as a land of white males, hate him so much?

Last month’s drive-by shooting, which left four nine­-millimeter slugs in and around the White House, is just the most blatant evidence that it’s open season on the president — an idea coyly endorsed by Jesse Helms in the elec­tion’s heady aftermath. Did the Maryland kamikaze who crashed his light plane onto the White House lawn hear voices in his brain? Or was he just monitoring Rush on the headset? What about Martin Duran, the 26-year-old ex-­GI with a prior history of racial and homophobic violence, who — less than a week before the election — sprayed the White House and its press room with a 29-shot round from an automatic assault rife. What was his frequency, Kenneth?

Suddenly, it’s Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue, as real killers stalk the nation’s dreams. One might assume that the final disintegration of the Soviet Evil Empire would be cause for a national feelgood bacchanal. Wrong!!!! Instead, there is emptiness, lack of purpose, con­fused self-definition, the depression that (Oprah could tell us) is rage turned inward. No time for pleasure now.

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The Great Satan is dead, but nature abhors a vacu­um — hence the “culture war” Pat Buchanan declared at the 1992 Republican convention (seconded by two oth­er would-be presidents, Pat Robertson and Phil Gramm). “There is no ‘after the Cold War,’ ” neocon godfather Irving Kristol recently ranted in The Public Interest. “So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in in­tensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos.… Now that the other ‘Cold War’ is over, the real cold war has be­gun.” In other words, the battle against the Soviets was only a rehearsal. The true jihad is the post–Cold War cleanup that demonizes liberals, rappers, feminazis, ille­gal aliens, counterculture McGoverniks, welfare moth­ers, secular humanists, homosexuals, performance artists, and Democrats.

Clinton, to his credit, has proven stubbornly disin­clined to designate the devils. But isn’t that exactly why we need a president? The leader is delegated to identify our enemies and thereby allow us to define ourselves­ — and this is something Bill Clinton seems temperamental­ly unable to do. He has difficulty with boundary issues, as Oprah might say. To the rage of Republicans, despair of Democrats, and contempt of all, he’s conflict-averse, a hopeless “people pleaser.”

Clinton’s failure to name the new national threat (let alone identify a threat to himself) has been compounded by his equally perverse refusal to cut and whack and there­by bind the nation to his cause. Nor has Clinton (yet) brought himself to kick wog ass in Bosnia or Haiti, Iraq or North Korea, demonstrating for the world to hear the clank of his — and our — big brass balls.

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THE LAST ELECTION was almost univer­sally explained as the white man’s re­venge — specifically, the Southern white man’s revenge. The Wall Street Journal’s postmortem inter­view with a 33-year-old unemployed Mem­phisite is typical. Mes­merized by the spectacle of women driving to work each morning, the Journal’s jobless every­man told the reporter, “You just know that has got to emasculate a die­hard, big-ego, male chauvinist. Men have got to have a scapegoat… and Clinton is just perfect for everybody’s ailment.”

Fuckin’ A! But what exactly ails us? Call it reg­is flaccidosis. It is precise­ly because men invest the nation’s leader with some sense of their own po­tency that they are so mortified by a president whose idea of human sacrifice is dumping Joycelyn Elders. Then, too, the fear and loathing occasioned by Bill Clin­ton’s “unmanliness” is further amplified in his generational association with the lost Vietnam War. As a commander-in­-chief who not only did not fight and kill for America, but openly op­posed the war and even sought to evade the draft, our Führer Bill is a griev­ous affront to that which the Germans call the Männerstaat — the state as an expression of mas­culine authority.

His scepter wilted, Clinton must wear the jester’s cap. In editorial cartoons, the president appears stripped to his heart-patterned boxer shorts, or cowering under the bed covers with a shrewish Hillary; he’s reduced to a fuzzy Easter Bunny or blown up as a bulb-nosed buf­foon. The New York Post routinely represents Clinton in the company of angst-ridden plucked chickens. The Dayton Daily News caricatures him in drag as a dowdy, befuddled “Mrs. Don’tfire.”

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Dazedly clinging to a severed, useless missile so that even her oversize pocketbook is unavailable as a weapon, Mrs. Don’tfire offers the fattest of targets for the slings and spitballs of mischievous Newt. But the negative images attached to our leader may have less to do with him than with us. So, too, the current projection on the iconically perfect yet politically blank screen that is General Colin Powell. (Won’t he please play Lou Gossett to Bill’s Richard Gere in a 1996 release of An Officer and a Gentle­man II?)

Even as the president’s endlessly reit­erated worst crime was his attempt to pan­sify the nation’s armed forces, his own ab­sent war record revived repressed feelings of Vietnam impotence, at the precise moment when the possibility of a re­duced defense budget had sent the military into a panic of perceived emasculation. (Thus, the peace dividend must be spent­ preferably on Star Wars, to defend ourselves from a nonexistent threat.)

Underlying the Reagan-era’s repression of a historical truth — that the Vietnam War was pro­foundly unpopular — is a tacit recognition that those sacrificed there were suckers. Rage at Clinton covers the survivor guilt of the millions — including Newt, Rush, and Quayle — who, no less than the president, scampered across an unleveled playing field and success­fully dodged the bullet.

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CLINTON’S MASCULINITY is suspect in other, less mar­tial ways. The 1984 and 1988 elections were widely reported and experienced as victories by manly Re­publicans over feminized Democrats. The 1992 contest, actually dubbed by the media “The Year of the Woman,” was more like the battle of the wimps.

Significantly more evolved than Mondale or Dukakis, Clinton actively promoted the idea of his spouse as an intelligent be­ing and full partner: “Buy one, get one free.” Now, Time imagines that Clinton is unable to persuade anyone to run his reelec­tion campaign because so “few believe [he] can pre­vent his wife… from tak­ing over.” Having ceded a small portion of his actual power to Hillary, Clinton is constantly being called upon to defend her hon­or, even as he himself is besieged by the other women in his life. Either way, it signifies an absence of male control.

Clinton is at once a lustful sexual harasser, swinging his dick at Paula Jones (instead of Saddam Hussein), and a hapless pawn in his wife’s mega­lomaniacal game. These contradictory images of our polymorphously perverse pander-bear, as well as the leadership style he is thought to exemplify, are conflat­ed in a recent Louisville Courier-Journal car­toon, which visualized a bloated Clinton (no Demi Moore) engulfing a terrified white man in the unwanted warmth of his smoochy embrace: “Bill Clinton & the American Middle Class in Disclosure.”

Inadvertent self-disclosure is more like it. America thinks that America doesn’t need to be hugged. America believes that, like a delinquent in Singapore, America heeds to be caned! Down with Mrs. Don’tfire! Dump Bill! As suggested by the current “mean sex” chic (featured on New York’s cover shortly after the election), what Ameri­ca craves is not therapy but discipline. And in the new Washington power equa­tion, there’s no doubt who’s the top and who’s the bottom. Left to his own devices, Clinton would surely abuse himself.

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The president doesn’t even have the courage of his skirt-chasing, draft-­dodging, pot-smoking, pussy-eating, homo-loving, peacenik convictions­ — which is why we can’t stand him either.

Out with the bleeding heart Democrats. In with the chop-and-slash Re­publicans. Failing that, there is always the Ulti­mate Weapon. As Newt told the Heritage Founda­tion a month before the election: “I do have a vi­sion of an America in which a belief in the Creator is once again at the center of defining being an American.” Forget Jesus; the Creator whom Gin­grich envisions is a punitive proponent of tough love. Or so it has been revealed to us by His prophet’s representation on successive covers of Time and Newsweek as those hard-hearted Christmasphobes, Scrooge and the Grinch.

What is the renewed insistence on prayer in public school if not a state-sanctioned return of the Great White Father? It must be time for the bloodthirsty patriarch William Blake named “Old Nobodaddy”: the cosmic bully who demands uncritical obedience from his priggish followers. They typically express their devotion through persecution and heresy-hunting. Nobodaddy has no use for sex or fun — or even National Public Radio: “Damn praying & singing/Unless they will bring in/The blood of ten thousand by fighting or swinging.”

Pleasure is the enemy. Hence the fascinated hor­ror of homosexual orgies in marine shower stalls. Hence the significance of Joycelyn Elders’s terminal transgres­sion. Masturbation priva­tizes sex, and sex without the possibility of procre­ation channels vital resources away from the production of potential workers and soldiers for the Männerstaat.

Republican Nation may hate govern­ment but it worships authority. Bill Clinton is despised because he is perceived to em­body one without projecting the other. ❖

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From the Right Reverend Michael Feingold, D.D.

I. LORD JESUS FULFILL THY ETERNAL PROMISE. Suffer the enemies of thy kingdom to be cast into the furnace of fire, with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Disfigure Newt Gingrich with leprosy, that he may be humbled. Send ravens to peck out Jesse Helms’s eyes, that his sight may be improved. Strip Pat Robertson naked, rend his flesh, and desolate his house, for he is as a whited sepulchre, full of hypocrisy and iniquity within. Lord, show these men no mercy, for they have dealt arrogantly with thee; they have strained at the gnats of thy law, and omitted the weightier matters of judgment, mercy, and faith; they proclaim the outside of the cup and the platter clean, while within they are full of extortion and excess. We shall endure their iniquity, Lord, because thou hast commanded it, but we pray that the great tribulation may be brought upon them soon, and that we who have suffered under the lash of their evil may see thee in thy glory, Amen.

II. LORD JESUS RESTORE OUR WELFARE SYSTEM, that it may feed the starving among us. For though hast said, “Give to him that asketh thee,” yet our wealthy refuse to give, and call judg­ment down upon the poor where thou hast said, “Judge not.” Knowing that thou lovest charity above all earthly deeds, we pray for the greedy and the selfish of our Republican party, that they may learn to see by thy light, which so many of them falsely claim to be their guide. “It is not meet,” thou teachest us, “to take children’s bread, and cast it unto the dogs,” yet these men take the bread away from children like ourselves, and cast it unto the dogs of affluence. Restore their sense of mercy, Lord, that they may feed us and our prayer to be given our daily bread may not go unanswered, in thy name, Amen.

III. LORD JESUS FREE ME FROM MY FAMILY. For thou hast come to set father against son and daughter against mother, and my father and mother are already sore set against me, for their ways are not my ways. I search, Lord, for the best way to live my life, and I know that, trusting in thee, I shall find it, given time, prayer, and patience. But my parents would compel me into their ways, without time or thought, even while their own bond is become a bitter yoke, and they cleave not to one another. Lord, free them from their bond for as in thy kingdom there is no taking nor giving in marriage, so all mortals should be free of these burdens on earth. Let us all live as we wish, men with men and women with women if we so choose, but that they be bonds of love, with couples cleaving unto one another, that these unions may be worthy by thy light, and the kingdom of heaven may be granted them, no matter how they are despised by the unrighteous here on earth. For the last shall be first and the meek shall inherit, as thou hast said it. Amen.


Republican Nation: The Rise

They’re They’re: The Rise of Republican Nation
January 10, 1995

THERE HE WAS on television again. But this time, Newt Gingrich wasn’t lecturing us on the evil of our countercultural ways. He was introducing Boys Town, as if to reassure us that what he has in mind for the dispos­sessed is no worse than the tough love Father Flanagan dispensed on the silver screen. But wasn’t Gingrich hosting the wrong movie? Shouldn’t it have been Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Isn’t his vision of America what that film is all about?

THE REPUBLICAN REVOLUTION isn’t just a shift in the way government does business. It’s a transformation in the way peo­ple feel. It begins with permission to be indifferent to the needy. It proceeds to venting rage on the transgressors. And it ends in blind devotion to the order, represented as free­dom. The real power is invisible — something out there in the galactic recesses of big capital. Those who detect the change in their neighbors are soon replaced. The rest are invited to fall into a soft slumber. Not only will they feel better, but the whole place will work better. Why, even the helpless ones will awake improved.

IN THIS SPECIAL ISSUE, five Voice writers refuse to shut their eyes. J. Hoberman probes beneath the surface of politics to where the American dreamlife re­sides. There he finds a president whose failure to meet the people’s need for punishment has created Newt Gingrich, Clinton’s evil twin. James Ridgeway describes the real agenda behind the Republican Contract: Curb regulators, cut back Congress, humiliate the president — and in the process, cripple the federal government. Robert Fitch shows how the current consensus on welfare reform echoes 19th-century campaigns to criminalize the poor: At its root, then and now, is the business cycle. Ann Powers takes on the left’s critique of itself, focusing on the much maligned practice of symbolic politics that, she maintains, is the key to survival in hard times. And Michael Feingold of­fers prayers for Christian children unlikely to be recited in the teacher’s presence.

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AFTER 20 YEARS of backlash and stagnation, the pods that were so diligently planted are be­ginning to sprout. It’s hard to be a humanist in Republican Nation. Just to express pity is to risk humiliation. That’s how subtle, and how rational, the transformation seems. And that’s why an ominous sense of the possible is so important now.

THIS IS NO TIME to go gentle into that Newt night. Better to stand out on the highway, flagging down cars if you must, to shout out a warning. Even at the risk of seeming ridiculous, or dangerous, or deviant. Stand up and say, “They’re heeeere!”



[Editor’s note: When we first re-posted this article, prior to the 2018 midterm elections, we thought it would be helpful for voters to remember just how far back Trumpism goes in the GOP. Below, find the cover key we wrote at that time.]

Rush Limbaugh’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Key to Cover Collage

1) Pat Robertson: Elfin evangelical demagogue; now a vocal Trump supporter

2) George Pataki: Callous “Empty Suit” governor of New York, 1995–2006. In 2016 he said, “I think Donald Trump would drive the Republicans off a cliff if he’s our nominee.” Was floated as possible ambassador to Hungary; still awaiting call from his president.

3) William Bennett: Pedantic, anti–public education secretary of education. In 1993 he wrote The Book of Virtues; in 2016 he threw it out to support Trump.

4 & 5) Two Hollywood actors from long ago — starred in an idealized movie the GOP views as template for the handling of unruly children

6) Oliver North: Bagman for murderous South American counterrevolutionaries; now president of the National Rifle Association

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7) Marilyn Quayle: The brains of the family (see #23)

8) Rush Limbaugh: Rotund forefather of Infowars. On-air bloviator since he was 16, in 1967.

9) Pat Buchanan: Onetime Nixon speechwriter, political godfather of Trumpism; vocal supporter of the POTUS

10) Arnold Schwarzenegger: Muscles-for-brains governor of California (2003–11); married into Kennedy clan — it didn’t work out. Likens GOP under Trump to the Titanic, though rest of his party is hell-bent on melting all the world’s icebergs.

11) VJ Kennedy (no relation): Used to be on MTV; now on Fox Business Network

12) Clarence Thomas: Supreme Court justice who mocks Thurgood Marshall’s soaring achievements every time he gets out of bed

13) Tom Foley: Former Democratic Speaker of the House; drowned in 1994 Red Wave, first Speaker to lose re-election bid in more than a century. Died 2013.

14) Mario Cuomo: Vacillating Democratic New York governor (1983–94) who died in 2015, and is best remembered now for having a bridge named after him

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15) Bill Clinton: Democratic POTUS who was at least better than having George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, or Bob Dole as president from 1993 to 2001

16) Dan Rostenkowski: Democratic virtuoso of the pork barrel. In 1996 was sentenced to seventeen months in prison after involvement in a mail fraud scandal; pardoned by #15 in 2000.

17) Jesse Helms: Unabashed racist senator from North Carolina who fought against voting rights for minorities at every turn; cultural warrior who decried Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic pictures: “The news media’s intellectual dishonesty in calling this perverse, filthy, and revolting garbage, calling it art does not make it art.” Died 2008.

18) Bob Dole: Wounded vet, U.S. senator from Kansas; last Republican on national scene with genuine sense of humor. Supported current president by saying, in 2016, “What am I going to do? I can’t vote for George Washington.”

19) Newt Gingrich: GOP Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, apparently named for an ingredient in a witch’s brew — his policy proposals were unrelentingly toxic. Now a rabid Trump booster.

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20) Al D’Amato: Republican senator from New York (1981–99) known for fixing potholes and putting the fix into any progressive legislation. Supports Trump, but lightly admonishes the POTUS to “think, don’t tweet.”

21) Mary Matalin: Republican operative famously married to Democratic operative James Carville. Claims they never talk politics at home. Changed her party registration to Libertarian in 2016.

22) Arianna Huffington: Wealthy former wife of former Republican congressman. Proof that people can change for the better.

23) Dan Quayle: Handsome trust fund–supported Indiana senator 1981–89, vice president 1989–93; very poor speller

24) Calvin Coolidge: President from 1923 to 1929. Forget ideals and compassion — America’s raison d’être is turning a profit. —R.C. Baker



Bill Barr: The “Cover-Up General”

Attorney General William Barr Is the Best Reason to Vote for Clinton

A federal judge accuses the Justice De­partment of trying to “shape” a case in­volving illegal loans to Iraq. The House Judiciary Committee blasts federal attor­neys for compromising their reputation for impartiality in the investigation of a com­puter-software theft. CIA officials charge a deputy attorney general with advocating the suppression of evidence in a sensitive sentencing hearing.

To even the most avid scandalmonger, these may sound like the ravings of a fe­vered Orwellian imagination. But in fact they are all part of a litany of wrongdoing leveled at George Bush’s Justice Depart­ment in the past two months alone. And at the center of the criticism is the chief artic­ulator of Bush’s imperial presidency, the man who wrote the legal rationale for the Gulf War, the Panama invasion, and the officially sanctioned kidnapping of, foreign nationals abroad — Attorney General Wil­liam P. Barr.

So fast has Barr’s star dimmed in recent months that even conservative pundits like The New York Times’s William Safire have taken to calling him the “Cover-Up General.” But so poorly understood are Barr’s ties to the president himself that the fires now threatening the Justice Department have barely singed the Oval Office.

To some Washington insiders, that comes as a surprise, for Barr is surely the closest thing this administration has to a court philosopher. Through the policy deci­sions he has authored, first as assistant at­torney general and finally as the chief him­self, he has fashioned a coherent, radical ideology for a White House that is only ostensibly middle-of-the-road.

While the president, for example, hails a “new world order” based on the rules of law, Barr’s briefs give us broken interna­tional covenants. Though conservative pur­ists pretend that the Justice Department remains reactive, the attorney general, bol­stered by an activist Supreme Court, sets aggressively conservative social agendas on everything from abortion to immigration­ — while stalling off inquiries into a myriad of scandals. Indeed, nothing better sums up the political gospel and failings of George Bush’s reign on the eve of this election than the handiwork of his chief lawyer.


It was 21 years ago, in 1971, that I first encountered William Barr. Both of us were working for the CIA at the time, he as a novice China analyst, I as a member of the agency’s Vietnam task force. Jovial and un­assuming, he took his cues easily from an overly politicized office chief. It was a to­ken of things to come.

Three years before, we had brushed shoulders unknowingly on Columbia Uni­versity’s roiling campus. Both of us were on the other side of the barricades as antiwar demonstrations there blasted our genera­tion into a decade of rage. Barr, a conserva­tive student spokesman, preached tough­ness to the university administration, of which his father, then dean of the engineer­ing faculty, was a leading light. Years later, this same damn-the-torpedoes zeal would commend Barr to his ultimate father figure, George Bush. When Cuban refugees penned up at an Alabama prison rioted and took hostages in the summer of 1991, depu­ty attorney general Barr ordered the place stormed. Soon afterward, Bush tapped him for the attorney general slot itself.

Barr first met Bush in the CIA. In 1976, having shifted to the agency’s legislative office, he helped write the pap sheets that director Bush used to fend off the Pike and Church committees, the first real embodiments of Congressional oversight of the CIA. Intimates say the experience was for­mative for Barr, turning him into an impla­cable enemy of congressional intrusions on executive prerogative.

“The most radical period I had probably was when I was sort of a moderate Republi­can,” he later acknowledged. Sure enough, Barr stayed safe within conservative clutch­es even after leaving the agency in 1977. Armed with a night-school law diploma, he asked for — and got — Bush’s backing for a clerkship appointment to Malcolm Wilkey of the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Years later, as attorney general, Barr would name Wilkey to investigate the House Banking scandal. Wilkey repayed the favor with a wrenchingly partisan in­quiry. Feeding the press overheated charges of wrongdoing, he scored points off the Democratic Congress just as the adminis­tration itself was being pilloried for its failed economics.


During the 1980s Barr bounced between government service and a prestigious Washington law firm that would later rep­resent one of the key defendants in the BCCI affair. Barr assured Congress in 1991 that he was long gone from Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge by the time it took on its dubious BCCI client. Still, the appear­ance of compromised interests would dog Barr at Justice, particularly as its own in­vestigation of BCCI stalled.

“Like your typical Wall Street lawyer… not a table pounder” was how one of Barr’s legal sparring partners remembered him during his days at Shaw, Pittman. In­deed, “corporate” was written all over him. Though he never tried a case in court, he took on the causes of some of the firm’s starchiest clients, including a nuclear utility in a whistleblower case.

Briefly, in 1982, Barr left the firm for a stint in the White House’s Office of Policy Development. Congress took no action on his two main portfolios, abortion and tu­ition tax credits for low-income parents of private school students. But he did strike up a useful friendship with White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray. This relationship would later help propel Barr to the top spot at Justice and nurture speculation among critics that he was a White House toady.

In 1983 Barr returned to law practice and laid low for the next five years, thus avoid­ing the Iran-contra tar baby. But as Bush launched his presidential bid in 1988, Barr joined the campaign team and, among oth­er things, helped fend off attacks on Dan Quayle’s character. His loyalty was quickly repaid. In late 1988, Barr became the first assistant attorney general to be installed in the wake of the election.

He also began flexing his ideology in pub­lic. During a congressional hearing at the time he boldly acknowledged having “doubts” about the constitutionality of the independent counsel statutes because of what he saw as their limiting effect on pres­idential power.

For the next two years, as chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Coun­sel, Barr played a key role in shaping Rich­ard Thornburgh’s stormy tenure as attorney general. In a job that was essentially politi­cal, he helped maintain the administra­tion’s ideological purity by screening out judicial candidates who weren’t conserva­tive enough. He also drafted two key docu­ments rationalizing the U.S. invasion of Panama and the seizure of General Manuel Noriega.

If Barr had made no other contribution to the imperial pretensions of George Bush, these documents would nevertheless qualify him for hero status in the Republican pan­theon. The first “opinion,” written in June 1989, recognized the president’s right to dispatch FBI agents abroad to arrest for­eigners even in violation of international treaties. The second document, issued the following December as American forces geared up to invade Panama, gave a patina of legality to the president’s desire to use the military in similar takedown opera­tions. Together, the two memos enshrine what has come to be known as the presi­dent’s “snatch authority.”

In an inevitable seignorial flourish, the administration refused to release the com­plete contents of these documents, even to Congress. But over the years, enough of their flavor has seeped into the press to take one’s breath away. Writing in the June memo, Barr argued that both the president and, through him, the attorney general have an “inherent constitutional power” to au­thorize certain overseas operations, includ­ing abductions, to fend off “serious threats” to U.S. domestic “security” from “international terrorist groups and narcot­ics traffickers.” Such actions, he said, are mandated by the Constitution and domes­tic law and can be undertaken even in the face of objections from a foreign government or provisions of the UN Charter bar­ring the use of force against member nations.

When Congress first got wind of these astonishing theories, in November 1989, Barr insisted that they represented no poli­cy change. But weeks later, the Panama invasion kicked off, and the following spring federal agents infuriated the Mexi­can government by arranging to have a Mexican doctor, who had helped torture and murder a DEA agent, abducted and spirited to the U.S. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the legality of that action. Though the conservative ma­jority approved it on the grounds that our extradition treaty with Mexico did not spe­cifically bar kidnapping as a law enforcement tool, Justice John Paul Stevens, in dissent, seemed to be speaking for many Americans when he decried the ruling as “monstrous.”

“It is shocking” he wrote, “that a party to an extradition treaty might believe it has secretly reserved the right to make seizures of citizens in the other party’s territory.”

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From the moment the “snatch” memos be­came news, nobody on Capitol Hill seemed in doubt about their authorship. But sur­prisingly, the rancor didn’t rub off. Some­how Barr kept even his critics convinced that he was a conciliator, the type of mod­erate conservative you wouldn’t mind hav­ing to dinner. Journalists tell the story of how on the eve of the Panama operation he charmed the guests at a Thornburgh Christ­mas party by showing up in kilts with bag­pipes under his arm to play for hours. Where Thornburgh rankled, Barr soothed. For an administration increasingly beset by scandal and economic malaise, this capaci­ty for the light touch proved a valued asset.

In mid 1990, as Thornburgh’s own prob­lems with Congress deepened, Barr was tapped to run interference, and was named deputy attorney general. The appointment came just in time for him to draft another landmark tract for the administration, the legal pretext for the undeclared war against Iraq. It would have made any Nixonite proud. Explaining it later to Congress, Barr said he believed there was a “gray zone” between a declared offensive war and an emergency defensive action where “there is latitude for the president, if he believes that the vital interests of the United States are threatened by foreign military attack, there is room for him to respond.”

Barr did not make clear how the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait equaled an attack on vital American interests, but to his credit, at the moment of decision itself, he did counsel the president to soften the impact of his unilateral rush to war by seeking a declaration of congressional support. That piece of advice, much akin to Johnson’s leveraging of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, helped to keep the naysayers at bay.

Barr’s service to the administration, how­ever, wasn’t limited simply to such flashes of political savvy. In 1991 he became active in stone-walling the Iraqgate and the BCCI investigations and further gratified conser­vatives by keeping up the tattoo on their favorite hot-button issues. Embracing im­migration policy as his own, he helped craft an exception rule that automatically barred HIV-positive sufferers from entering the country. Civil libertarians charged illegal discrimination and even racism, since many of those excluded were black Hai­tians. Barr assured Congress that the policy was meant only to keep out people who might be thrown back on public welfare.

Flogging another conservative hobby­horse, Barr fought hard as deputy AG to keep federal courts from expanding their right to review state criminal convictions on writs of habeas corpus. As a devout Catholic, he also pandered to the antiabor­tion crowd, even “torquing” the law in Au­gust 1991 to advance their crusade. The challenge came when a federal judge in Wichita issued an order barring anti-abor­tion demonstrators from blocking access to a clinic. The Justice Department inter­vened to try to force a lifting of the ban. Later asked about this by Congress, Barr gave an exquisitely technical rationale, as­serting that though the demonstrators were “lawbreakers… treading on other people’s rights,” they “should be dealt with” in state court, not federal court — thus the federal judge’s order was unenforceable.

It was vintage Barr, a neat fileting of the law for a political end. Democratic prede­cessors had done the same. But what made Barr an irritant to critics was his adeptness at it.


If any single event assured Barr’s final as­cendancy, it was the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation. At his confirmation hearings in November 1991 Barr admitted that Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had gathered evidence against Hill and commu­nicated with her congressional critics, but he denied any impropriety. “It is my under­standing,” he testified, “that OLC lawyers did not go proactively to investigate Anita Hill… [but] performed the traditional role of lawyers, which was to take the informa­tion coming in, transcripts, statements, and so forth and analyze them.”

Democratic senators were not convinced, but because the Hill-Thomas fight had been so bitter — and because no one wanted a replay of the fractious hearings that had greeted Robert Gates’s bid to become CIA director — Congress cleared Barr’s nomina­tion with barely a protest.

When Barr finally moved into the AG’s chair in late 1991, he talked tough about combatting drugs and crime and immedi­ately shifted 300 FBI agents from counter-intelligence work to antigang and violent-­crime squads. In addition, an inner-city program that he dubbed “Weed and Seed,” aimed at weeding out violent criminals and revitalizing neighborhoods, was soon ele­vated to administration policy.

For all the fanfare, however, critics sensed little more than smoke and mirrors. The Noriega conviction, which Barr touted as a major blow to narcotrafficking, pro­duced no slackening of the drug flow through Panama. Moreover, the Rodney King affair and the subsequent L.A. riots exposed a glaring contradiction in the de­partment’s get-tough policy on crime.

Responding to the acquittal of King’s po­lice attackers, Barr empaneled a federal grand jury to investigate. But, lest he offend Bush’s law-and-order constituency, he con­tinued to stall off other initiatives. Over a year ago, Representative Don Edwards in­troduced a bill making it a federal crime for a police officer to engage in a “pattern” of excessive force and empowering victims to sue to stop such abuses. But under the hammering of Justice and some friendly senators, the still-pending bill lost its teeth, degenerating into a simple authorization that would permit the attorney general him­self to sue offending police departments.

On top of this, Justice officials have pi­geonholed until after the election two long-promised, potentially explosive studies of 15,000 police brutality complaints from across the-country. The delay outrages black leaders, who fear further frustration and violence. “The department’s response to this issue has been totally inadequate,” the NAACP’s Washington director Wade Henderson recently told the Legal Times.

On other fronts, displays of partisan ex­cess under Barr’s stewardship are becoming bolder, more transparent. Last summer, in deference to the administration’s anti-regulation agenda, the attorney general himself overruled the EPA and his own staff and wrote an interpretation of the Clean Air Act that dismantled its most important pol­lution regulation. He also took another im­perious swipe at the immigration issue by helping devise a new policy that authorizes the Coast Guard to intercept Haitian refu­gees on the high seas and return them to their island. The initiative was a response to the flood of refugees unleashed by the military coup in Haiti last fall. But human rights organizations have gone to court to challenge its legality, declaring that it vio­lates UN protocols that forbid the repatria­tion of those who face political persecution at home. “It is another example,” says hu­man rights lawyer Michael Ratner, “of the Barr regime flouting the law for political ends.”

The truest measure of Barr’s extremism, however, lies in the coils of three unfolding national scandals. The central question they pose is: How far will he go to protect his master? The answer, some feel, already exposes Barr to the risk of a grand jury investigation and maybe worse.

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Nobody knows how much the American taxpayer has lost in the BCCI affair, but after years of start-stop investigations it is apparent that federal authorities knew as early as 1983 that the London-based Bank of Credit & Commerce International was trying to buy into the American banking system illegally, even as it engaged in a variety of crimes abroad.

Why the Justice Department was so slow to step in has never been adequately ex­plained. Some accuse Thornburgh and Barr of trying to cover up BCCI links to Iran­contra and the CIA, which has admitted using the bank’s facilities abroad in covert operations. No substantiation has been found for this charge, but few doubt that a stall-off did occur at Justice.

The initial culprit appears to have been the CIA, which, though aware early on of BCCI’s inroads into American banking, chose not to inform the attorney general. Even so, by 1988 the violations were so blatant that Senator John Kerry stumbled on them while heading up a subcommittee on drug trafficking. He alerted the Justice Department — to no avail. Later, a Customs bust prompted indictment of some BCCI officials in Tampa, but inexplicably the Justice Department pursued only low-level prosecutions, while leaving top BCCI offi­cials untouched.

Finally, in July 1991, banking authorities worldwide moved to shut BCCI down. Deputy Attorney General Barr admitted to Congress at the time that there had been “coordination” problems in the investiga­tion and promised to remedy them. But a top federal prosecutor in Miami later ac­cused Barr and other Justice officials of repeatedly thwarting his own efforts in 1991 to indict the bank of fraud charges.

What broke the logjam was Senator Ker­ry’s own impatience. Frustrated with Jus­tice’s inaction, he eventually had one of his investigators, Jack Blum, turn some dirt on BCCI over to New York state district attor­ney Robert Morgenthau, who promised an investigation of his own. That did it. In December 1991, the Justice Department joined Morgenthau in announcing a plea arrangement with BCCI that nailed the bank for various criminal violations and obligated it to fork over $550 million, the largest criminal forfeiture ever obtained by the government. Last July, Morgenthau and federal attorneys in New York dropped the other shoe, announcing the indictments of Democratic Party patriarch Clark Clifford and his law partner on charges of lying to banking regulators, bribe-taking, and falsification of records — all in service of their onetime client, BCCI. Both men pleaded not guilty.

Barr gloated, declaring after the initial plea agreement that this “resolves all United States charges against BCCI as an insti­tution.” But Senator Kerry’s own analysis of the scandal, released only a few weeks ago, makes clear that the Justice Depart­ment’s investigation of BCCI was often too little, too late.

Says Blum, whose approach to Morgen­thau levered Barr into action: “Justice’s handling of BCCI gives the lie to the ad­minstration’s claim to being hard-line on crime.”


Barr has long been a critic of the indepen­dent counsel law and has argued that Jus­tice officials are professional enough to in­vestigate themselves and their own masters. But a report on the Inslaw affair, released in September by Representative Jack Brooks’s Judiciary Committee, obliterates that claim.

At issue is whether the Justice Depart­ment itself stole valuable computer soft­ware from the Washington-based Inslaw company in the early 1980s. Four years ago, a lawyer for Inslaw called for the ap­pointment of an independent counsel to investigate, but Thornburgh resisted, and at his own confirmation hearings in Novem­ber 1991 Barr announced that he was nam­ing an in-house counsel under his own con­trol to handle the inquiry. According to the recently released Brooks report, that inves­tigation has yet to bear fruit in part because Barr delayed granting his appointee subpoena power.

Even worse, says the report, Justice offi­cials stonewalled the committee’s own ef­forts to get at the facts, by blocking access to witnesses, and by denying and even “los­ing” relevant documents. The report blames this “lack of cooperation” for the tenativeness of its own conclusions, but leaves little doubt where the committee’s sympathies lie. Pointing out that Justice officials concluded as early as 1986 that Inslaw’s claim to the disputed software was “legitimate,” the report says the depart­ment nonetheless spent $1 million fighting the issue in court, thus raising the “spectre” of “an abuse of power of shameful proportions.”

“The Department of Justice is this na­tion’s most visible guarantor of the notion that wrongdoing will be sought out and punished irrespective of the identity of the actors involved,” the report concludes. “The Department’s handling of the INSLAW case has seriously undermined its credibility and reputation in playing such a role.”

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Last week the chair of the Senate Intelli­gence Committee lent his voice to a chorus already calling for an independent counsel to investigate how the Justice Department, CIA, and FBI bungled a case in Atlanta involving $5 billion in illegal loans to Iraq. Over a month ago, William Barr rebuffed a similar congressional request and bridled at suggestions that his department couldn’t handle the inquiry itself. But since then, the CIA has accused one of Barr’s subordinates of having “strongly advised” that relevant intelligence be withheld from the federal judge in Atlanta who until recently was handling the case. In response, Barr has just announced that he’s appointing a special prosecutor — a Republican judge — to inves­tigate under Justice Department supervi­sion. It’s precisely the kind of stall tactic Barr used so effectively in the INSLAW affair.

In basic terms, the controversy is over the classic cover-up question of who knew what when — and bears critically on the most sensitive foreign policy issue of the Bush presidency, the coddling of Saddam Hussein prior to the Gulf War.

To be up to speed, you have to under­stand a few arcane facts. First, the adminis­tration is accused of having allowed U.S. agricultural loan guarantees to be used to underwrite military purchases by Iraq during the late 1980s when the official policy was: moderate through conciliation. Sec­ond, the Atlanta branch of the Italian bank Banca Nazionale del Lavoro is said to have floated $5 billion in illegal loans to Iraq during the same period. Third, the Justice Department is suspected of having deliber­ately singled out BNL’s Atlanta branch manager for prosecution, saying he acted alone, so as to avoid embarrassing his high­er-ups in Rome and opening a can of worms that could reveal deeper administra­tion complicity in the funding of Iraq’s military buildup.

Along the way, evidence has surfaced that the Commerce Department altered documents that pointed to the dual use (read: military) applicability of certain items the Iraqis had purchased with U.S. aid.

Still awake? Please, there’s more. In Feb­ruary 1991, the Justice Department struck a plea agreement with the BNL manager in Atlanta that pledged him to clam up, mak­ing no statement in court, in exchange for having the charges against him lessened. Members of the Senate Judiciary won­dered: what gives? So did the Atlanta feder­al judge, Marvin Shoob, who late last sum­mer was about to sentence this apparent fall guy. Shoob called for an independent counsel to sort out the mess.

That’s when the bureaucrats began quick-­stepping. On September 4, the CIA sent the Justice Department a classified letter that glossed over early intelligence reports indi­cating top-level knowledge within BNL Rome of the Atlanta branch’s illicit Iraqi loans. Ten days later, House Banking com­mittee chair Henry Gonzalez, who’d previ­ously goaded the CIA into giving him the facts, spilled them in a speech on the floor of the House. Inevitable conclusion: the U.S. intelligence community knew, by late 1989, that BNL from top to bottom had played fast and loose with American bank­ing regulations. Why, then, such a delay in prosecution?

The CIA continued to duck and weave, claiming in a letter to Shoob on September 17 that nobody knew nothin’ about the early intelligence reports implicating BNL-­Rome in the scandal.

As the heat intensified, however, so did the weakness in bureaucratic knees. On Oc­tober 8 CIA lawyers, testifying to the Sen­ate Intelligence Committee, declared that a devil at Justice had made them do it – that one of Barr’s subordinates had encouraged them to skimp the truth in the letter to Shoob. Justice officials struck back by play­ing victim. How do you suborn the CIA? they demanded publicly. The CIA again parried by claiming that the early tell-all intelligence reports fingering BNL-Rome had been known to FBI and thus Justice officials since late 1989. Barr in turn or­dered FBI chief William Sessions investi­gated on unrelated ethics charges — a probe that some see as an attempt to buffalo the Bureau at the very moment it might be tempted to investigate Iraqgate on its own.

You can’t be awake. But what’s impor­tant is this: The Justice Department stands accused by the nation’s premier intelligence agency of having abetted the cover-up of a possible crime, even to the point of shaving evidence. Maybe this simplifies it, but the allegation itself should give pause even to the most devout law-and-order conserva­tive. And no, this ain’t a mugging, baby. The lawlessness espoused in Barr’s snatch memos inevitably breeds offspring.

There is, too, the more basic issue of equity: Imagine you’re the manager of At­lanta’s BNL branch who’s wound up in Barr’s cross hairs because the Justice De­partment and everybody else in the Bush administration needed a scapegoat for their own policy errors. On October I he did get a reprieve of sorts: The Justice Department decided to try him rather than embarrass itself further by sticking with the plea agree­ment that so artfully found him guilty with­out giving him a chance to speak. Even so, if you’re in his shoes, do you place any stock in American justice? Or, as one critic said of the snatch memos, do we have here a regime of law that says: when the presi­dent declares it’s illegal, it is? ■


The Republicans’ Alternate Realities Didn’t Start With Trump

As the nation heads into the 2018 midterm elections, it is important to remember that Donald Trump’s cruelty, crudity, mendacity, and penchant for distempered judges was not created in a vacuum. In the 1994 midterms, Democratic president Bill Clinton was drowned under a red wave. The Republicans captured majorities in both houses of Congress and immediately began attacking Clinton’s centrist agenda. Today, President Trump’s “accomplishments” — a tax cut that disproportionately helps the rich, the negligible federal response to Puerto Rico’s ongoing humanitarian crisis after Hurricane Maria last year, savage immigration tactics, support of the “fine people” who march under swastika flags, insert your favorite attack on civil society here — can be partially traced back to the Congress elected in 1994, which was in turn building on the earlier callousness of presidents George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, all the way back to Calvin “The business of America is business” Coolidge. Although he went to jail for his role in the Watergate crimes, Nixon’s onetime attorney general (and campaign chairman) John Mitchell said, in the summer of 1970, “This country is going so far to the right that you won’t recognize it.” Indeed, his prophesy has been vindicated if we take, as just one example, the fact that a Republican Senate refused to even consider the judge that Barack Obama — a two-term, popularly elected Democratic president — chose for the Supreme Court. We have had one-step-forward, two-steps-back progress in America for decades now, due to the GOP’s mendacious machinations, and, with its unwavering support of Donald Trump, the nation has entered uncharted territory, which only gets bleaker the further the president and his enablers drag us into it.

In its January 10, 1995, issue, the Voice published a dozen-page special section exposing those earlier GOP policies that helped lay the groundwork for what has become the Darkness at Noon landscape of Trump’s presidency.

First, from that week’s contents page, we get a rogues’ gallery of the neutered Democrats and right-wing ideologues and con men who were leading the GOP’s slash-and-burn ethos.

1) Pat Robinson: Elfin evangelical demagogue; now a vocal Trump supporter

2) George Pataki: Callous “Empty Suit” governor of New York, 1995–2006. In 2016 he said, “I think Donald Trump would drive the Republicans off a cliff if he’s our nominee.” Was floated as possible ambassador to Hungary; still awaiting call from his president.

3) William Bennett: Pedantic, anti–public education secretary of education. In 1993 he wrote The Book of Virtues; in 2016 he threw it out to support Trump.

4 & 5) Two Hollywood actors from long ago — starred in an idealized movie the GOP views as template for the handling of unruly children

6) Oliver North: Bagman for murderous South American counterrevolutionaries; now president of the National Rifle Association

7) Marilyn Quayle: The brains of the family (see #23)

8) Rush Limbaugh: Rotund forefather of Infowars. On-air bloviator since he was 16, in 1967.

9) Pat Buchanan: Onetime Nixon speechwriter, political godfather of Trumpism; vocal supporter of the POTUS

10) Arnold Schwarzenegger: Muscles-for-brains governor of California (2003–11); married into Kennedy clan — it didn’t work out. Likens GOP under Trump to the Titanic, though rest of his party is hell-bent on melting all the world’s icebergs.

11) VJ Kennedy (no relation): Used to be on MTV; now on Fox Business Network

12) Clarence Thomas: Supreme Court justice who mocks Thurgood Marshall’s soaring achievements every time he gets out of bed

13) Tom Foley: Former Democratic Speaker of the House; drowned in 1994 Red Wave, first Speaker to lose re-election bid in more than a century. Died 2013.

14) Mario Cuomo: Vacillating Democratic New York governor (1983–94) who died in 2015, and is best remembered now for having a bridge named after him

15) Bill Clinton: Democratic POTUS who was at least better than having George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, or Bob Dole as president from 1993 to 2001

16) Dan Rostenkowski: Democratic virtuoso of the pork barrel. In 1996 was sentenced to seventeen months in prison after involvement in a mail fraud scandal; pardoned by #15 in 2000.

17) Jesse Helms: Unabashed racist senator from North Carolina who fought against voting rights for minorities at every turn; cultural warrior who decried Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic pictures: “The news media’s intellectual dishonesty in calling this perverse, filthy, and revolting garbage, calling it art does not make it art.” Died 2008.

18) Bob Dole: Wounded vet, U.S. senator from Kansas; last Republican on national scene with genuine sense of humor. Supported current president by saying, in 2016, “What am I going to do? I can’t vote for George Washington.”

19) Newt Gingrich: GOP Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, apparently named for an ingredient in a witch’s brew — his policy proposals were unrelentingly toxic. Now a rabid Trump booster.

20) Al D’Amato: Republican senator from New York (1981–99) known for fixing potholes and putting the fix into any progressive legislation. Supports Trump, but lightly admonishes the POTUS to “think, don’t tweet.”

21) Mary Matalin: Republican operative famously married to Democratic operative James Carville. Claims they never talk politics at home. Changed her party registration to Libertarian in 2016.

22) Arianna Huffington: Wealthy former wife of former Republican congressman. Proof that people can change for the better.

23) Dan Quayle: Handsome trust fund–supported Indiana senator 1981–89, vice president 1989–93; very poor speller

24) Calvin Coolidge: President from 1923 to 1929. Forget ideals and compassion — America’s raison d’être is turning a profit.

On the opening page of the Voice‘s special section, Richard Goldstein reports on Newt Gingrich’s vision for America: “The Republican revolution isn’t just a shift in the way government does business. It’s a transformation in the way people feel. It begins with permission to be indifferent to the needy.” Simply substitute “antagonistic” for “indifferent” and we get a sense today of just how successful the GOP has been in shifting the norm in America from caring for one’s fellow man to every man for himself, each armed with a Glock on his hip. Goldstein’s opener previews the articles to follow and exhorts the resistance of 1995: “This is no time to go gentle into that Newt night. Better to stand out on the highway, flagging down cars if you must, to shout out a warning. Even at the risk of seeming ridiculous, or dangerous, or deviant. Stand up and say, ‘They’re heeeere!’ ”

In the next piece, longtime film critic J. Hoberman tried to determine why Bill Clinton, elected in 1992, was being eclipsed in the media by Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich, speculating that it was because “the architect of Republican victory stormed the zeitgeist machine — superseding even O.J. Simpson as the object of The New Yorker’s fascination.” Hoberman asks questions that resonate morbidly in our own violent moment: “Did the Maryland kamikaze who crashed his light plane onto the White House lawn hear voices in his brain? Or was he just monitoring Rush on the headset? What about Martin Duran, the 26-year-old ex-GI with a prior history of racial and homophobic violence, who — less than a week before the election — sprayed the White House and its press room with a 29-shot round from an automatic assault rifle. What was his frequency, Kenneth?”

Also on those pages, theater critic Michael Feingold puts on his vestments to instruct children in truly Christian prayers to counter the Republicans’ blasphemies: “Restore our welfare system, that it may feed the starving among us. For thou hast said, ‘Give to him that asketh thee,’ yet our wealthy refuse to give, and call judgment down upon the poor where thou has said, ‘Judge not.’ Knowing that thou lovest charity above all earthly deeds, we pray for the greedy and the selfish of our Republican party, that they may learn to see by thy light, which so many of them falsely claim to be their guide.”

Next, Voice Washington correspondent James Ridgeway exposes the GOP blueprint of greed, and today’s readers might be forgiven in thinking that they have fallen into a far-right time warp: “Make no mistake. The goal of the Republican revolution is to dismantle government as we know it…[and to] speed up executions, bundle all social-welfare programs in block grants and send them back to the states, and move forward with privatization of the Social Security system.”

In “The New Poor Laws,” contributor Robert Fitch spells out “How Mr. Gingrich brought back Tiny Tim”: “The idea that the dependent poor could be transformed once again into quasi-criminals hardly seems far-fetched anymore. The punitive and ascetic 1990s already resemble the 1890s more than the comparatively liberal 1970s, when the dominant idea of welfare reform was to give every American a guaranteed income. That was Richard Nixon’s plan!” Fitch also points out another parallel from then to now: “Rudolph Giuliani’s criminalization of squeegee men and beggars outside the ATMs ominously reprises the furious campaigns against begging and vagrancy that began in the 1870s. The battle reached a peak in 1911, when the state legislature, at the behest of New York City COS [Charity Organization Society], passed a law that created upstate prison camps for city beggars.”

And finally, we get music critic Ann Powers musing on the personal as political: “I tried to make fun of fundamentalists, but ended up retreating into the dislocated feeling I’d first experienced way back when I was 20 and nobody I knew elected Ronald Reagan. My country, their revolution: here it came again, supposedly the spawn of a Middle America I couldn’t see in my kind, tolerant, working-class Wisconsin cousins, or in my freedom-loving Northwest family, all middle class and raised religious, with different opinions about abortion and the welfare state, but none of them this inhumane or this foolhardy.”




Rightbloggers Say Franken Shows Dems Are Immoral, What’s ‘Hypocrisy’?

The Roy Moore circus continues, with Republicans and men of God going to the wall for the would-be Alabama senator accused of sexual improprieties and crimes. As I recorded last week, some conservatives were compelled by self-interest to declare themselves shocked, shocked at this divergence from what they portrayed, against all evidence, to be normal GOP moral order.

But last week the brethren both made and were gifted opportunities to change the subject. A number decided that a more important moral topic than candidate Moore was Bill Clinton, who last stood for office more than twenty years ago. And when it was reported that Democratic senator Al Franken had once allegedly assaulted a USO show co-star, more paroxysms of whataboutism ensued.

The Clinton comparison was spurred by liberal saps such as Jeff Greenfield (“Years of excusing Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct suddenly seems morally indefensible”) and Matthew Yglesias (“Bill Clinton should have resigned”) who demonstrated their wokeness by relitigating not only Clinton’s impeachment, but also various sexual crimes imputed to him during his presidency, including Juanita Broaddrick’s claim that Clinton raped her.

Conservatives treated these folks and their scruples exactly as the more cynical among us would expect them to.

“Liberals’ Sudden Concern About Bill Clinton’s Behavior Is Cynical And Self-Serving,” declared the Federalist’s David Harsanyi. “MSM’s Phony Clinton Contrition Is Only About Destroying Roy Moore,” cried Breitbart’s John Nolte, who ambitiously grafted Clinton’s alleged crime spree onto that of New Jersey Democratic senator Bob Menendez, “a Democrat currently on trial for corruption, and who is also accused of having sex with underage hookers.” Nolte claimed the “MSM” had “protected” Menendez, though it would seem a jury of his peers has actually done far more to protect Menendez than anyone else.

National Review’s Mona Charen even blamed Clinton for “Harvey Weinstein and Anthony Weiner and Kevin Spacey and Roger Ailes” because his example led them to believe “even if only in the back of their minds, that if they got caught, in our age, this sort of thing would get a wink and a nod.” If only he’d broken down like Jimmy Cagney at the end of Angels With Dirty Faces! But no, he’s that selfish.

On Thursday, rightbloggers got a chance to test this approach on a live target when a TV host claimed while she and Al Franken — then a comedian, now senator from Minnesota — were on a USO tour in 2006, he pushed his tongue into her mouth. She also offered what appeared to be a posed photo of Franken reaching for her breasts while she slept in a flak jacket.

When the Franken story was quickly covered by every major press outlet in the country (and they’re catching up on a new accusation against Franken this morning), and Democratic politicians and liberal and feminist journalists immediately denounced him and even called for him to resign (he has not) or be investigated (he will be), conservatives suggested that the press and the Democrats were actually covering up for Franken.

Fox News’ Brian Flood, for example, accused “the left” of “downplaying [the] Senator’s harassment.” How so? While “the photo is clear evidence of twisted behavior by Franken,” said Flood, “most mainstream media outlets softened the situation with terms that make it seem like the harassment is merely a rumor.” That is, the press used “words such as ‘allegedly’ and ‘says’ ” — as they do with murder cases, as well as allegations against celebrities, as well as those against Roy Moore — “despite the undeniable evidence.”

Inevitably, both ends were played against the middle: While some conservatives demanded “Admitted creep Al Franken must go,” others like National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson said even if Democrats succeeded in getting Franken to resign, it would be meaningless. “Minnesota has plenty of Democrats waiting to take his place,” said Williamson. “Just don’t let them fool you into believing that this is moral calculus. It’s political calculus — today, just like it was in 1998.” Democrats, you see, are literally damned if they do denounce, and damned if they don’t.

Around this time, somebody tried to cook up and disseminate a fake sexual assault scandal involving Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal. In this case, it turned out, there wasn’t even an actual accuser, but maybe in the near future that won’t be necessary.

Meanwhile, there was actual legislation moving through Congress: a tax bill giving massive breaks to wealthy citizens and big business, to be funded by cuts to Medicare, student loans, and plenty else — a historic transfer of wealth to the rich.

If you haven’t heard the brethren’s defenses of this bill, it’s because for the most part they haven’t bothered to make any. Even Fox News was reporting “Only 16% of Americans Believe GOP Tax Plan Will Reduce Their Taxes.” They can afford to be honest about it — unlike the previously botched Obamacare overthrow attempts, this is a money bill and, as New York Republican congressman Chris Collins put it with refreshing frankness, GOP donors demand it and what they say goes.

So we can expect some version of this bill to be passed, and then forwarded for signature to a man who has, at last count, been accused of rape or attempted rape by three women and of lesser improprieties by two dozen others, yet has escaped any consequences apart from election to the presidency. A lot of people hoped the Harvey Weinstein revelations last month, and the similar exposés that followed, would make it easier for women abused by powerful men to get their stories believed. I hope so, too, and that it won’t instead become, like so much else in modern life, just another opportunity for unscrupulous propagandists.


Manic and Cramped, Free Birds Tries to Offer a Vision of a Kinder, Gentler Thanksgiving

Attention, children! Thanksgiving will soon be upon us, and unless the cook in your household provides a vegetarian option, that means turkey — a bird that has been raised to be axed, packaged, and raced to your grocer’s freezer, ultimately to wing its way onto your family’s table. There it will be presented on a platter, its legs splayed in a most ungainly fashion — let’s hope it’s been spared the further indignity of those ruffled paper anklets — before its flesh is torn to pieces and ingested by a gang of ravenous humans who will later fall asleep on the couch while watching football. It’s the American way. We are, after all, a nation founded on bloodshed.

Free Birds, an animated wingding from director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!), offers a vision of a kinder, gentler Thanksgiving. Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a young turkey with a higher-than-average IQ, which means he knows his days are numbered. He casts a somber glance around the barnyard at his fellow future oven-stuffers and despairs over their stupidity: They stare with delight at their own toes; their eyes gleam with gratitude when the farmer comes around with their daily ration of corn, the better to fatten them with. But Reggie sees a way out when the President comes through town to pardon one lucky turkey. (As voiced by Hayward, he’s a Bill Clinton sound-alike with a cheerful corndog drawl.) Reggie is lucky enough to be the chosen bird, and he’s whisked off to Camp David, where he’s introduced to the pleasures of TV and pizza delivery. He even gets his own pair of fuzzy pink bunny slippers, shuffling around the Presidential digs as if he owned the place.

No turkey ever had it so good. But fate intervenes in the form of a bigger, more ambitious turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson), who urges the reluctant Reggie to travel back in time and alter mankind’s holiday-eating habits. Via a giant talking space egg named S.T.E.V.E. (that stands for Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy, and its voice belongs to George Takei), they whiz back to Plymouth circa 1621, where they try to destroy the gunpowder stash of Myles Standish (Colm Meaney) to keep turkeykind safe from his muskets. Their plan goes awry, and they’re saved by a plucky girl-turkey named Jenny (Amy Poehler). She serves as Reggie’s love interest, though she’s also destined for great things within her own turkey tribe. Because these days, it’s not enough for cartoon characters to just be cute; they need to be aspirational and inspirational as well.

Free Birds is so unhinged that it could almost work. It doesn’t, at least not after Reggie leaves the comfort of Camp David (and those fuzzy pink slippers) behind. Like so many modern animated features, Free Birds packs too much in; the picture feels cramped and cluttered, and, despite its occasionally manic action, it moves as slowly as a fattened bird waddling toward its doom.

And there’s another question: Just how charismatic can an animated bird be, Foghorn Leghorn and Tweety and Daffy notwithstanding? Peter Lord and Nick Park pulled off a small miracle with their 2000 Chicken Run, a retelling of The Great Escape using chickens: With their googly eyes and buck teeth, their bodies shaped like ginger jars, those capon crusaders had style to burn. The result was cockalorum pandemonium.

Free Birds‘ Reggie looks anemic in comparison: He has Fozzie Bear’s haunches and a blue head perched on a slender, rubbery neck. His expression is eager-to-please, vaguely imbecilic — he has none of the gung-ho determination of those Chicken Run gals. Jake is older, more robust, with a big, macho brown torso, but his personality is just as indistinct. It doesn’t help that Hayward jams a sort-of robot army and dozens of nondescript 17th-century turkeys into his story.

Reggie and Jake do change history, persuading human beings — in this case, early settlers and Native Americans alike — that there’s something tastier than turkey flesh. It’s a lovely idea — all those turkeys’ lives spared! But it’s doubtful Reggie’s 1621 triumph will change what shows up on most Americans’ Thanksgiving tables this year. Then as today, bird is the word.