Szell: Is it safe? [pause] Is it safe?
Babe: You’re talking to me?
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Is what safe?
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: I don’t know what you mean. I can’t tell you something’s safe or not, unless I know specifically what you’re talking about.
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Tell me what the “it” refers to.
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Yes, it’s safe, it’s very safe, it’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it.
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: No. It’s not safe, it’s… very dangerous, be careful.
[Szell takes his dental explorer and mouth mirror and approaches Babe]
Szell: Hm. Relax, relax, relax. Come on. Open. Uh-huh. Okay, okay. [Babe opens his mouth] Come on.
[Szell explores Babe’s mouth with a dental instrument]
Babe: Huh! Ugh!
Szell: That hurt?
Szell: I know. I should think it would. You should take better care of your teeth.
Dialogue from Marathon Man (1976)
Politics is not a refuge for safety. It is the domain of danger, unexpected twists, vicious attacks and calculated gambles. Hillary Clinton knows the terrain. Is it safe? Hillary knows that Szell is always part of the landscape, an inevitable reality check-up.
Hillary has proved she has the chops for the Big Game, though.
Hillary Clinton may indeed become the next President of the United States. Her principal opponent is a wildcat, hate-baiting real estate developer that his own party thinks is whacked. It should be a slam-dunk in November. After all, Hillary is former Secretary of State Clinton, former Senator Clinton, former First Lady Clinton, forevermore Hillary Clinton, Esquire. She’s primed to become America’s Iron Lady, with due respect to the late Mrs. Thatcher.
But – and this is big but – 70 percent of Americans don’t trust Hillary. Is she Szell or Babe? Is it really safe? Nobody can quite tell.
To many, she appears as a political opportunist that adopts whichever posture she perceives as most advantageous at the time. In that regard, her political strategy is right out of her husband’s playbook. It worked for him; why not now?
Bill Clinton’s legacy is very jumbled indeed. He left office with the first surplus in a generation, but evidence still lingers about the structural damage he did to the country. He signed into law the Gramm–Leach–Bliley act, which repealed the Glass-Steagall act, removing the distinctions between commercial and investment banks. We all know how that turned out. He passed NAFTA, which undermined unions and destroyed millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, accelerating globalism and leaving rust belt cities to wither and die. His welfare reform legislation left millions inhabiting the permanent underclass. And he had a tryst with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, that led to a failed impeachment vote in the House.
During his grand jury testimony on the affair, and contending “there’s nothing going on between us” had been truthful because he had no ongoing relationship with Lewinsky at the time he was questioned, Clinton replied, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Slick Willy indeed. His semantics juggling didn’t play well in the heartland. Nor did his real politik quid pro quos, most transparently housing particularly beneficent corporate donors in the Lincoln bedroom. That sort of kow-towing to the smiling plutocrats who made his election possible was a long way from FDR and JFK.
“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936
“Simultaneous and identical actions of United States Steel and other leading steel corporations, increasing steel prices by some six dollars a ton, constitute a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest.
“In this serious hour in our nation’s history, when we are confronted with grave crises in Berlin and Southeast Asia, when we are devoting our energies to economic recovery and stability, when we are asking Reservists to leave their homes and families for months on end, and servicemen to risk their lives — and four were killed in the last two days in Viet Nam — and asking union members to hold down their wage requests, at a time when restraint and sacrifice are being asked of every citizen, the American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.
“The Steel Workers Union can be proud that it abided by its responsibilities in this agreement, and this government also has responsibilities, which we intend to meet.
“The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission are examining the significance of this action in a free, competitive economy.
“Some time ago I asked each American to consider what he would do for his country and I asked the steel companies. In the last 24 hours we had their answer.”
― John F. Kennedy, 1962
Not that FDR and JFK were saints. But little historical vignettes like these are instructive to show how are country has changed. Politicians, with few exceptions, tend to be self-serving narcissists, but there were instances of real conviction and outrage that do suggest moments when principles did override the sheer pursuit of and application of power.
Bill Clinton is, and is I suspect, largely devoid of any content that would be handily recognized as personal principles. His humble background (similar to Goldman-Sachs CEOs like Lloyd Blankfein and Jon Corzine) is a study in powerful, consuming ambition. It was his ticket out of the backwater, and he succeeded spectacularly. But is ascension to power a validation in itself for accomplishment, or simply an expression of a personal appetite for status? And how do you tell the difference?
On one level, Bill Clinton’s story is admirable beyond reproach. From another viewpoint, it is singularly narrow in its purpose and perspective. In the sea of politics, the tides change and the politician needs to adjust accordingly. But without the ballast of a principled constitution, the tempests lead the politician, not the other way around.
FDR and JFK, of course, were patricians with healthy doses of noblesse oblige baked into their pedigrees. Not so with Clinton. Richard Nixon once said about politics, “The important thing is, you have to win. They don’t teach you that in Sunday school, but it’s true.” Duly noted.
Back to Hillary.
She is the second head of the Clinton hydra. A powerful, capable woman with even more to prove than her husband. Becoming the first female president of the most powerful nation that ever was is no mean feat. It is spectacular and iconic. Hillary wants to prove to everyone watching that she is up to the task, history’s glare be damned. Hillary Clinton is a consuming fire of relentless purpose toward this moment in history, in all its naked gyrations. Not at all unusual for a successful politician. And that she is.
The primary season was rough for Hillary, as septuagenarian Bernie hit her hard and often. But in the end quasi-socialist Bernie melted away, endorsed nominee Hillary (along with America’s progressive sweetheart Elizabeth Warren), and set the stage for the coronation of the queen.
Way back in 1992, Bill and Hillary and Al and Tipper smiled and laughed while Fleetwood Mac played as balloons dropped at the convention, and the world was true and right. What worked back then won’t work today. We don’t inhabit a Fleetwood Mac world anymore.
We live in a country where mass murders have become commonplace. Where just about one-half of all Americans have no net worth. The coming-of-age generation is sloping down on the bell curve of prosperity, the first time this has ever happened. Health care and education costs are out of reach for most Americans, and getting worse, Obamacare be damned. Racism (and its cousin, xenophobia) are more explicit and virulent that at any time since the great eruptions in 1967. All this on the watch of America’s first Black president.
This in not an incidental point. The gesture of electing Obama was not a panacea for making America color-blind. Quite the opposite in certain parts of our land. Nor did it negate all of the ugly history that exists in the shadow corners of the American consciousness. It’s still there. And Unity politics, with all the Hope and Change pageantry and glitter, fragments pretty quickly once the slogans are pulled from the yards and windows.
We’re left with reality. Reality is not configured by election year rhetoric or jingoism.
Hillary certainly has Obama in her case book dossier. After all, Advertising Age named him brand of the year in 2008, and what could beat that? He was indeed an impressive visage in 2008, something entirely new, out of the Land of Lincoln, no less. Hillary is from that corner of the world as well, born and raised right outside of Chicago. Land of the Daley machine and Al Capone. Take no prisoners. Some of us also remember what happened to Black Panther Fred Hampton there, and what happened in Grant Park during the ’68 Democratic convention. A place of complex history, to be sure.
Brand Obama’s rhetoric did not manifest itself in any meaningful structural changes, unless ‘change’ is understood to mean the accelerating rate of wealth shooting up to the already wealthy. The middle class is no longer a majority in this country. Real wages continue to decline. High-paying jobs lost in the crisis of 2008 have been replaced by service sector jobs that pay a fraction of those. Go to the White House web site and the landing page still describes this administration as the most transparent in the history of the country. Edward Snowden would beg to differ.
What remains intact and entrenched today are the cornerstone policies of deregulation, privatization, the commodification of everyday life, a neo-liberal foreign policy, and the spectacular growth of militarism, which has encroached into the everyday life of Americans (go to Penn Station in New York and see the National Guard with their AK-47s if you doubt it.). Perhaps Obama’s greatest legacy will be his advocacy of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a NAFTA on steroids, which will remove governments from the equation regarding globalism and trade treaties. A corporate wet dream if there ever was.
His many opponents nevertheless refer to Obama as a socialist.
So these things are the antecedents to a potential Hillary presidency. What does it mean?
The so-called liberal legacies of her husband and Obama have conditioned those progressive types in the electorate to revise their thinking and expectations. “Liberal” today means better than the certifiably nuts guy in the other party. Nothing more. The content of progressivism, beginning with Clinton, has been excised from the Democratic party platform. It has become unachievable and unrealistic. It has become fringe. Politics has become the arena of the inevitable and the immutable.
“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! Is that clear?! Do you think you’ve merely stopped a business deal? That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and sub-atomic and galactic structure of things today! And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and You Will Atone!
“Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state – Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale; it has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality – one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock – all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.”
— Network (1976) Mr. Jensen (Ned Beatty) to Howard Beale (Peter Finch)
Hillary understands completely the primordial laws of business. Meanwhile, the well-meaning but hopelessly naïve electorate wait to hear a voice that doesn’t echo the invariabilities of our current malaise. Bernie Sanders got in his two cents, but that was more homage to a previous liberalism that an agenda for today. Today is different.
Today we’re on a train ride that isn’t stopping or making any unintended veers off course. Dancing until the music stops. Power in this context is largely metaphorical, not actual.
The power being contested in the 2016 election, outside of who will deploy the troops for the next war (since there always is a new war) is not about Hope and Change anymore. That rhetorical card has already been played. The tired and winded electorate look to Hillary to not be Trump, and she can comply with that. Is it safe? In comparison, most definitely.
Meanwhile, Hillary gets $250K for a single speech at Goldman-Sachs, declares her family ‘broke’after the Lewinski debacle, endorses the killing of the leader of a sovereign state (We came, we saw, he died), in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention’s stipulation for aggressive war.
Hillary has no wink-and-nod to her. We KNOW what we’re getting. She doesn’t sit around baking cookies, mind you. Hillary Clinton understands The Empire, and what empires need. Never mind that an empire is the antithesis of democracy. Democracy has been on life support for at least a generation, and is now used as a buzzword with no discernible content. For such a scenario, Hillary Clinton is the perfect fit. She is an adept technician when the technique was long ago established, and the mechanism is on auto-pilot. Hillary can be an able conductor.
Viscerally, many of us feel real fright by our current course. But we are in the margins at this great moment. We worry too much. We hang on to old, broken anthems of the past, when we should be embracing the new brave horizon.
Those of us who have lived long enough to have genuine reference points of how this country has been transformed know better. Others do as well.
Sitting in Washington Square Park last week, I noticed a pretty coed with a t-shirt that simply read, “California, 1973” Yearning for better days, I thought. The days of Vietnam and Nixon, and Watergate. The good old days.
Bring back the good old days, Hillary. Ride this train to the house on the hill. Make us believe.
Tell us it’s safe again.
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