I saw former president Bill Clinton on C-SPAN the other day. He was at the Kennedy Center talking about something; he was performing. I could watch only about fifteen minutes, but it was enough to remind me of something that is important and will likely become ever more important going into the 2004 elections.
Now that the Democrats are no longer able to use the probability of a listless economy in an election year as a campaign issue, they have readily moved to the situation in Iraq as a tool with which to beat the President. The recent flow of blood and the groaning of men dying—the effects of what will be called the Ramadan offensive—have opened another avenue for their pessimism and partisanship.
Partisanship has shifted into high gear. The sometimes incoherent babble of the Democratic candidates—I exclude Gephardt and Lieberman in part from this characterization—will be turned into Solomonic wisdom by the media elite, and this will continue into the election and beyond. Although irksome and monotonous, the free-speaking politicians must be admitted to having a right to criticize, of course. Yet their criticism thus far smacks of opportunism and of rank pessimism; they have not yet proposed any alternative to this claimed “quagmire” we are in, save suggesting that more U.N. presence is needed. They are, however, able to call President Bush a charlatan and a knave and even a liar. They question his ends and means, and his character. In the end, of course, this will not do. These candidates do not recognize that great events do not call forth small men.
This gets me back to former President Clinton’s performance. Watching him reminded me of the difference between personality and character. He was a giant on that large Kennedy Center stage. He filled all the space there was and then extended himself to fill the very air of the place, as the air seemed to move to give his reach more room. He spoke and his words were fluent, his large hands proving useful as physical expressions emphasizing the mood his words were meant to convey. The theatrical effect was perfect.
I noticed these things. I also noticed—some minutes into his sanctimony—that I had no idea what he was talking about because I was so overtaken by his persona. I listened harder and discovered that he was talking about America’s role in the world. I listened even more and discovered that he wasn’t saying much of anything interesting or thoughtful, that he was talking without content. He was talking about his own role in the world.
He was, just as he had always been as a campaigner and even—Heaven help us—as president, emancipating himself to express his persona openly and without restraint. He was expressing himself, gratifying his need for fulfillment of the performance, hoping for acclamation of the Gucci-wearing masses to be found in this place of high culture. He seemed sophisticated but utterly preoccupied with his own self. His desire for fame was without content and without moral force; at no time have I ever seen Bill Clinton as a serious, morally engaged figure. He has come closest only when he was able to publicly feel other people’s pain, and then only because he was able to turn it into his pain. This is a low standard to which President Bush has not appealed.
When the battle for the American mind over Iraq takes place, as it will during this presidential election year, you must contrast Clinton’s personality with George W. Bush’s character because the outcome will hinge on it. And in that contrast you will see what Bush’s political opponents refuse to see: September 11 was a critical event and he has gained the trust of the American people since then. They have seen his sound judgment and his stout heart. They think that he is the man for a crisis.
And the people think this not only because of the eloquence of his words—when harsh necessity demanded he speak well of our ancient faith and why we should love our good country he did so—but also because he has shown courage and steadfastness in the midst of great adversity. The people have seen something of the source of his strength in his habits of mind and heart. They have come to trust his disposition and his judgment. They appreciate his lack of self-absorption and vanity, as they admire his character. President Bush is a serious, morally engaged man who is doing his duty as God has given him the light to see that duty. He has determined that the thing can and shall be done, and we shall find the way. And we believe him.
Peter Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.