Robert Winer, M.D.


G.W. & Hillary: America Agonistes

Reading an article by Patrick Lang in Foreign Policy, “What Iraq tells Us About Ourselves”, I reflected on concerns I have about America.

While friends of mine were upset by the thought that the Republicans have stolen the last two presidential elections from the Democrats, I was troubled that half my fellow countrymen (more or less) wanted to elect George Bush, even in 2004, even after all that had happened. His current approval rating has fallen to 29% -- but from another point of view, it is compelling to think that almost a third of America approves of the job he’s doing. The argument can be made that this third is simply the “religious right,” who believe that he is committed to their values, and that trumps every other consideration for them.

But I think something more is involved. At this point Hillary Clinton is substantially leading in the polls over her rival contenders. She and Bush are strikingly similar in style. Both have a Master of the Universe persona: seeming total self-confidence, arrogance, a take-no-prisoners bullying approach. Neither is inclined to seriously consider the points of view of people outside his or her immediate circle (legislators, citizens, etc.), except insofar as they can use such information to advance their own agendas (e.g., Hillary uses her focus groups for election tactics). So what is it about us that we find this appealing?

Certainly since 9/11 we have been willing to sacrifice a great deal for the sake of strong, decisive leadership; the current administration has counted on our anxiety and exploited it. The most effective complaint they made about John Kerry was that he “flip-flopped,” and that struck enough of a responsive chord in America that Bush was narrowly reelected, despite his failure in Iraq and the unmitigated terrorist threat. Jimmy Carter seemed too undefined in his presidency, too preoccupied with parsing shades of gray. After the Iran hostage crisis, we wanted a reassuringly forceful president and we elected Reagan, a patriarch, and we haven’t turned back since. On the contrary, we’ve been so desperate for authority that we’ve chosen style over substance.

Faced with the reality that globalization and the evolving power of the excluded now make us more vulnerable than ever, no longer protected by our geographical isolation (two buffering oceans), we try to push these realities aside and we respond with a thoroughly defensive grandiosity. We decide that everyone should want to be like us, and we set out on the mission of converting the nations of the world to American-style democracy. Patrick Lang sees this development as “brewed from such [American cultural] elements as enlightenment, optimism, Puritan utopianism, a Calvinist tendency to forgive sinners, and the settler’s lack of respect for the weak and ‘native’ peoples of the world.”

I would go beyond that, and add that all these qualities have been dramatically heightened, in a defensive way, as a response precisely to our current sense of being endangered. That might be why we decided to take on Iraq, rather than terrorism, in the years after 9/11. That war seemed more winnable – in fact, we had Bush’s triumphal moment on the carrier – although it has turned out that we were wrong about that. (Since Vietnam we’ve been looking for winnable wars.)

Europe seems more familiar with sorrow. While there are various strains of national pride there, we don’t sense the kind of triumphal spirit we find in America. 9/11 was remarkably humiliating for us, and we haven’t recovered. On the contrary, we’re responding by trying to sustain a fantasy of indestructibility. I think this is why the Bushes and Clintons, and their circles of friends, appeal to us. Much as we might dislike Dick Cheney, his overt denial of difficulty resonates with our deep wish to be reassured.

And now, Hillary. We’re in trouble.

Cheney, Clinton, and the Revenge of the Nerds

Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton have this in common: fanatically obsessive nerdiness. Both meticulous craftsmen, they pursue their agendas with rigor and discipline. For now, their objectives differ, and not along the lines you might imagine. Cheney seems propelled by a patriot’s desire to keep America safe – a desire whose implementation has taken on astonishingly perverse proportions – while Hillary is driven by the imperative of being elected, to justify to herself how she’s spent the last dozen years of her life.

Cheney is purposive. Not interested in being in the spotlight, he’d rather be invisible, a faded grey eminence. He’s determined to chart the course of our nation according to his own perspication, and he’s interested in others only to the extent that they can serve his ends. The Washington Post reports that on 9/11, when the first tower pancaked, everyone in the room gasped, except for Cheney, who stayed focused, eyes locked on. At this junction Aspergers wanders through one’s mind.

I believe that Cheney has as his first priority keeping this homeland secure, and that he is entirely prepared to make us a police state if that’s what’s required. To that end he’s ready to sacrifice the entire Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions, international regard, the rights of the Congress, and, of course, public opinion. America has Vox Cheney. He might have been disposed to think of the Executive Branch as a monarchy in any event, but 9/11 sealed the deal. I don’t think that he is pro-business out of self-interest for I think he would be fully capable of protecting his own corporate investments without abetting the interests of others, if it came to that. Rather, I suspect that it has to do with aiding business to satisfy the entitlements of Republican constituencies, so that he can get the electoral support to continue his crusade. Dick Cheney is Jack Bauer without a conscience. And he’s remarkably competent, tactically and strategically, at every level, adeptly delegating or micromanaging as the situation calls for, in pursuit of his agenda. This is a brilliant methodical man.

Hillary, in one regard, is the precise opposite: at this point she seems to have no policy objectives at all. With all her energy channeled into a single goal – getting elected – she behaves with the flexibility of a rug salesman: do whatever it takes to seal the deal. Every step she takes, every move she makes, seems calculated, tested in her focus groups, calibrated by her people, plotted on her matrix. Nerdy? This is a woman who, Michael Tomasky reports, spent a chunk of her time at Wellesley College devising a better system to ensure the return of library books. When I heard that there’d been a small brouhaha about her cleavage on the Senate floor, I pictured her prep team measuring out the quarter-inches in advance. It’s unkind of me, but seeing a wry expression on her face in a Times front page photo a week ago, I found myself wondering how much time it had taken to train those facial muscles to contract that way. Hillarious rigor. She has me at the point that I can’t believe that anything could be spontaneous, certainly not a smile. And this is probably all smart strategy – she’s way ahead in the polls and she’s effectively neutralized Obama.

Though I wasn’t there at the time, I now feel nostalgia for the Hillary who had the passion to pursue her ideas about health care during her husband’s first term, even though her plan wasn’t popular and it didn’t help Bill’s prospects. That Hillary is missing for me, and I have no confidence we’ll ever see it again. I imagine she’ll spend her first four years mainly trying to position herself for winning a second term (Bill’s tenure besting hers would be really insufferable).

I have a theory about why winning has become such a super-ordinate goal for her, trumping all other concerns or motives. I imagine that the Monica Lewinsky business must have been really humiliating, and that she could easily have felt that the only self-respecting thing to do would have been to dump him, even during his second term. The only way that she could have justified bending over for Bill would have been by rationalizing that this sacrifice would be required for her to acquire the Presidency. It isn’t really relevant to my point that it also happens that this would be true. Despite many women’s contempt for her for staying, the fallout of her departure would have probably made a presidential run impossible. And if not impossible, way less effective without Bill. But I can imagine that for her, now, not getting the throne would mean to her that she’d been a fool for making this deal, and that would be completely unbearable in terms of being able to feel OK about herself. So she needs to win, at any cost, to justify how she’s spent the last twelve years. That’s the only thing that matters now. Her electorate is the Hillary Support Group.

A friend asked me if I’d vote for her if she gets the nomination. On the plus side, it would be nice to have Bill back in the White House; she might, like JFK, choose a great support staff; I’d rather have the Executive Branch leaning left than solidly right; and maybe I’m just too cynical about her current loss of her soul. On the other side, if she disappoints me, I’ll feel I only have myself to blame. That shouldn’t be a reason to stay home on Election Day: though I’d feel tempted, I’d just be protecting my self-esteem like she’s doing now.

The candidates who are taking stands are doing badly: McCain, Edwards, Kucinich, Paul. Those who essentially stand for nothing, in a policy sense, or whose predilections are totally fungible, are doing well: Giuliani, Clinton, Thompson, and Romney. Obama falls in between. He’s primarily arguing for a form of reasoned and collaborative leadership, rather than for a specific agenda, and this is going poorly now because it’s precisely not his temperament to stand up for himself and fight back. In the political arena it’s becoming increasingly apparent that his style is self-defeating, a 21st century reprise of Adlai Stevenson. The race will not go to the passionate or the thoughtfully reflective, it will go to the nerd, the technocrat best able to engineer this electoral season, and that, for better and worse, will be Hillary.