No Satisfaction

Ken Masugi

February 1, 1999

As a political scientist perplexed by the public infatuation with him, I had to see with my own eyes this 50-something adulterer who is receiving such adulation. I was surprised how much younger he looked than his years. Totally at ease before his jubilant audience of all ages, sexes, sexual orientations, and races, he acted like a man half his age. Enthusiasm exploded from his diverse audience. The screams and spontaneous chants testify to his ability to scintillate–and to further outrage those who can’t comprehend this appeal.

Does he steal rivals’ ideas? No doubt. But he has clever way of repackaging them into a unique form.

The emotional outpouring for him is more than mere sympathy for a likable devil, who had often escaped threats of an early demise and gone on to a long career, which now sees no end. The eternal longing heard in the wail of a saxophone characterizes his Faustian career. Let a wonderful world come to this boy of lowly origins! In his quest for fame, he had seen many a rival fall: One was even jailed for masturbating on his audience.

No, our judgments of Mick Jagger’s private life do not mar our fascination with him. The success of the Rolling Stones’ star in his latest tour explains as well President Clinton’s apparent success. Both entertainer Jagger and Clinton have erotic affairs with their audiences–which doubtless have considerable overlap. They are flattered by the attention paid to them. They not only feel, they transform our pain, without our feeling their pleasure. To put this in other entertainment terms: If the Republicans are broadcasting old re-runs of "Victory at Sea," Clinton is a rock video. If Republican-leaning country music better expresses the depth of our souls than Clinton-Jagger rock, the latter inspires an explosiveness, against ordinary decency, conventional thinking. The late Allan Bloom could have been describing Clinton as well as Jagger when he wrote about the latter "shrewd, middle-class boy" 12 years ago in The Closing of the American Mind:

"He was beyond the law, moral and political, and thumbed his nose at it. Along with all this, there were nasty little appeals to the suppressed inclinations toward sexism, racism and violence, indulgence in which is not now publicly respectable. Nevertheless, he managed not to appear to contradict the rock ideal of a universal classless society founded on love…."

An earlier outrage against common decency probed the depths of these differences: The brash Socrates thought the human soul’s passions were fundamentally anger, on the one hand, and longing or love, on the other. The Republican Party has enjoyed success in years past as the party of anger–at mindless bureaucracy, incompetent economic policies, racial quotas, screaming feminism, and an inept foreign policy. Arguably the most successful Democratic President of the century, Clinton, the boy from Hope, appeals to the longing or striving for making the exotic his own; from Arkansas to Washington, from the Ozarks to Oxford. He has done so in the most calculated way: Focus groups tell him where the parade is headed, and he puts himself at its head. A stubbornly ideological Democratic Party and an irresolute, anchorless Republican Party make it all the easier for Clinton to practice "triangulation," the art of being not just the logical compromise but appearing the Leader.

Yet perhaps an even better model for Clinton than the raunchy, always disreputable Rolling Stones would be the Beatles, in particular their "White Album." In that greatest of rock albums, the Beatles show they can perform any type of contemporary popular music better than their best performers. No one can surpass them in this skill–white is all colors, after all.

Clinton’s recent State of the Union Address is his "White Album." Anything anyone of any party has proposed, he can do better: Pat Buchanan xenophobia, Ronald Reagan missile defense, George Bush diplomacy, Jack Kemp enterprise zones, Ross Perot reforms, Martin Luther King inspiration, John Kennedy optimism, Jimmy Carter compassion, and so on. Republican policies, Democratic packaging. The historical success of the Democratic Party has been in appealing to those excluded from the mainstream of American life, who long to be part of it: Over the years, westerners, southerners, Catholics, immigrants, labor, blacks, intellectuals, homosexuals…. Clinton seizes on this Democratic longing.

Perhaps Clinton is sui generis. If he isn’t, and the Democrats can really learn from him the way George Bush and Bob Dole couldn’t from Reagan, then the Republicans may be spending many years singing country music to themselves, as they discover what makes the American soul complete. One place to take their cue from: the greatest love song ever written for the American people, the Gettysburg Address, which combines anger and longing and transcends them both, to wisdom about American duty.

Ken Masugi is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. He is writing a book on American citizenship.