Kelly cont'd 2/3
FL: As a politician what is the Clinton style and, is it unique in any
Virginia Kelly writes in her memoirs as a kind of a true joke, she writes of
herself and Bill and Roger, her sons -- something that I think she attributes to
Roger -- which is that he said if they were at a party and everybody in the
party, everybody in the room, loved them, but one person didn't, they had to
spend the entire evening focusing on that one person to find out why they
didn't love them and to fix it.
And Bill Clinton has that quality. Different people run in different ways.
Some people run in a combative fashion. I'm talking about running for the
presidency. And we're talking here about personal style, not ideology. Pat
Buchanan runs almost totally in combat mode. He's not asking you to love him.
He's asking you to support him or get out of the way. He's not asking you
anything actually, he's just telling you. Bill Clinton runs primarily as a
seducer in his effort to get people to vote for him. He does make an appeal to
logic. He does make an appeal to argument. But his primary appeal is one
based much more on seduction, on getting the voter to love him, or to at
least like him a great deal.
It is an unusually intense and emotional and personal, intimate, way of
running for office, style of campaigning. It probably could never have been
done successfully before the television age, because it depends upon the
innate understanding of the way the camera works, that the camera is very
intimate, that it's not like being on stage, as nineteenth century orators,
politicians, campaigned in the style of a Shakespearean ham actor,
declaiming on the stage. And as television has changed politics, politicians
have learned that that style simply doesn't work with the television camera.
It is hokey, and embarrassing, and melodramatic. What does work are the
things that work in a cool medium, intimate gestures, smaller, more
contained, more personal intimate style. And because of Clinton's
personality, because of his qualities of seduction that are inherent in him,
he can play this with the camera I think better, in a different way, an
unusual way, than almost any other politician.
When you watch Clinton work a town meeting, where he has this natural rhythm
and sense about him, almost as if he had, in a previous career, been a
talk show host, a Phil Donahue going around with a cordless microphone, it
seems utterly natural to him. And that moment of communion that somebody like
Phil Donahue strives for in a talk show context where the host and the person
in the audience, or the person in the chair on the stage are close to each
other and sharing the question and answer, making some kind of connection,
and the camera is capturing just that for the entertainment of the people
watching. Clinton understands that moment. He understands that he can do with
a small thing -- a face to face encounter with an elderly woman or a child, he
can do something that is worth a great many billboards and a great many
speeches. And he has the histrionic skills and the natural understanding of
this kind of theater to do this to an unusually adept degree, and that sets
him apart. That he understands, as other politicians don't understand, this
way of using the camera as a tool of seduction. Not of persuasion so much,
and certainly not of argumentation. It's much more about that moment that the
camera can catch of some communion between one person and another or one
person and a very few people that makes people watching it outside think that
they're a part of this.
The letter concerning the draft and his status....briefly, just what does
it tell us about that young man Clinton, and why is it a revealing document?
The letter to Colonel Holmes.... I think for me the great thing that you have to
understand about Bill Clinton is not that he set out to do bad things, that
he set out to be an immoral person, or to do immoral things. It's somewhat
the opposite of that. It is that he decided at some point in his life that
because he was a moral man seeking to do moral things, precisely because he
was a good man seeking to do great and good things, he could allow himself
dispensation to do lesser, less good things, to do in fact ignoble things.
And the revelatory document in this regard is the letter that young Bill
Clinton wrote to Colonel Holmes, the head of the ROTC program at the
University of Arkansas, explaining to this man why he, Bill Clinton, was
obliged to break his promise to enter into the ROTC program and why he was
instead going to seek another course regarding the war. I think that's what it
was: to break the promise to get into the ROTC program? He said... my facts
might be a little off on that. At any rate, in this letter, Bill Clinton
writes what is on one level a very candid document. On another level it is a
somewhat of a lawyer arguing an emotional brief. He's trying to convince
Colonel Holmes not to hate him for going back on their agreement.
But he says one remarkable thing in this. He outlines what he is intending to
do. And then he says to Holmes that the reason he is pursuing the course
of action he has chosen to pursue, instead of -- this course of action falls
short of openly defying the draft, as some of young Bill Clinton's friends
were doing. He says that he finds the war immoral, and that he believes it is
a moral choice to openly defy the draft, to be a conscientious objector, to
take one of those open dramatic steps that people took then. But he says he
cannot do that, he's not going to do that for one reason and one reason only:
to remain politically viable.
And that moment, writing that, he, 19 years old I think at that point, that
is a young man coming to accept in his mind the great compromise from which all
the other compromises will flow. He is saying right there "I, Bill Clinton, am
obliged to get out of the way of risk in the Vietnam war, and to get out of
the way of risk in getting out of the Vietnam war. Not because it is good for
me, but because it's good for the country. I have to do this because I have
to keep my political options open, and the reason I have to keep my political
options open is because I have great good things to do in my life. And that
idea is the core idea that will allow Bill Clinton from then on, for the rest
of his life, to rationalize anything that he has to do -- making a promise that
he knows he can't keep, saying something that he knows is not true, changing
his apparent ideology, shifting in one way or another, whatever he has to do
because these are not immoral actions, they are definitionally moral actions
because they are the actions that allow him to remain politically viable, to
continue in a career that is dedicated to doing good things. And once you make
that decision about yourself, all things become possible.
FL: Dole and the war wound.....what might be the kind of knowledge and
self-knowledge that can come from being, not only in a war, but wounded that
way? Can you get beyond the conventional cliches....what really might come out
of this war wound?
I think one of the things that happens in war, and it's also something that
happens in major illness and tragedy, -- it happens to people who are the
victims of horrific crimes -- is that people who go through the horror of war,
or who pass through a threatening, debilitating savage illness, or who go
through the experience of being brutalized in some horrific criminal act,
they're exposed to kinds of truths about the world that most of the rest of us
spend a great deal of energy avoiding seeing. Kinds of truths about human
nature. And you often see, I think, in people who have been through this
sort of thing, for the rest of their lives, a sort of impulse where they,
you get a sense they almost want to tell people you have no idea what you're
talking about, you have no idea they way the world really is. People are
capable of far worse things than you think: it is a bleaker, darker place
than you think it is. And this puts them in a different category. It makes
them see the entire world differently.
And Bob Dole was somebody who had this sort of experience. He had a very
short war, but he had the sort of experience that I'm talking about. He was
terribly wounded and almost killed and essentially destroyed as a physical
specimen. He had been an astonishing physical specimen when he went into the
war, unusually well built, unusually tall, and robust and strong, and he
wasted away to almost nothing and was left a cripple. And much of what you can
see in Dole, and much of what puzzles people about Dole, I suspect, and no one
can know this but Dole, that I suspect stems from the life-changing, the
world-view-changing experience that we're talking about here. That to spend a
year in a hospital bed, to see yourself go from being a creature of physical
strength and beauty, he was a very good looking young man, to an object of
pity, to somebody who has to beg for money to survive, to somebody who will
for the rest of his life need help in performing the mundane tasks of quotidian
life; buttoning a shirt, signing his name, must do something. And some of
the things it does are probably good in a sense but it must do a great deal to
the way you look at the whole world.
And a lot of Dole's wit seems to stem from this. Dole's wit is predicated on
the notion of "as if it mattered." When Dole is engaged in some banal
political task, fundraising or something, giving a speech that he knows is
simple boiler-plate -- means nothing to him -- trying to work his way through
some position on abortion or something that avoids all the land mines, is
designed almost with a lawerly mind to just get you through it, he cannot stop
himself from turning and muttering some sardonic "as if it mattered" aside.
And there is a sense almost in his entire campaign of "as if it mattered." You
know, as if it mattered if I got to be president. As if it mattered who you
voted for in a sense.
Which is quite odd and puzzling to voters, I think. And it's I think only
explicable if you see it in terms of what he went through in the war. If you
go through some kind of thing he went through, the rest of your life is a sort
of "as if it mattered." Everything that mattered happened. What happened
that year was the great thing that mattered. Everything after that is a kind
of less important epilogue.