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Kelly cont'd 2/3


FL: As a politician what is the Clinton style and, is it unique in any ways?

KELLY:

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.

FL: 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?

KELLY:

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?

KELLY:

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.


continued

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