From The New Criterion.
December 31, 2007.
President Pervez MusharrafConsider, if you will the gem-like object that I hold in my hand. I retrieved it, like a tumbling nugget of gold snatched from a shallow but swift-flowing creek, out of the stream of media babble in which, as is my custom, I happened to be wading one day last month. It is a quotation from President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, explaining to the people of that turbulent country his reasons for declaring a state of emergency there on November 3rd. "This was the most difficult decision I have ever taken," he was quoted as saying. "I had to take a drastic measure to save the democratic process . . . I stand by it because I think it was in the nation's interest." Briefly I toyed with the notion that these memorable words were a sign that celebrity politics had come even to Pakistan, otherwise known as a seething cauldron of religious, tribal and other kinds of hatreds where politics and murder are never far apart. But it was pretty clear that the president’s words were intended for an international audience, especially an American one, and were uttered because he understood that, in the celebrity culture the American media have made of our public life, the feelings of our leaders have become more important than anything they actually do. Perhaps, he must have thought, even such "a drastic measure" as his crackdown on opponents could be granted the indulgence that that culture routinely affords to good intentions, fine feelings and public suffering.
Of course it was a forlorn hope. In the present media environment, the feelings of President Musharraf are scarcely more likely to be the object of solicitude than those of President Bush. But his excusing his repressive measures on the basis of the emotional anguish the difficult decision to impose them presumably cost him instantly reminded me of Bill Clinton’s apology, less than a month into his presidency, for his inability to produce the "middle-class tax cut" he had promised in his campaign of the previous autumn. By then this golden hope had been silently and retroactively downgraded to a promise "to invest in your future by creating jobs, expanding education, reforming health care and reducing the debt without asking more of you." Alas, a sorrowful Bill informed us, even this was now out of the question. "I've worked harder than I've ever worked in my life to meet that goal," he said. "But I can’t." Poor man! Though, so far from cutting our taxes, he was now actually going to have to raise them, at least we had the consolation of knowing that he had tried really hard not to have to do that. So hard in fact that, like President Musharraf, he must be supposed actually to have suffered mental, if not physical, anguish in the attempt.
It is sometimes said that politics is show business for ugly people, but the saying is now long out of date. That speech of Bill Clinton’s in February of 1993 should have put us on notice that, nowadays, politics is show business, tout court. Not that politicians have necessarily got better looking — though it can hardly be coincidental that you rarely see anyone who looks like Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon elected to high office anymore. Rather, show business has learned to seek out and exploit the hitherto neglected glamour of more and more areas of human life, politics being one, where distinction once depended on achievement unencumbered by more than a superficial layer of glitz. Within living memory, politicians might have flirted with the leading lights of stage and screen but they would never have been mistaken for them — hence that rather rude crack about ugly people. That changed with Bill and Hillary Clinton who, though not spectacularly good-looking, were indisputably the first celebrity occupants of the White House. As such, they have wrought a revolution in American politics that future generations may come to rank with that of Franklin Roosevelt.
Of course they had their precursors. John F. Kennedy was a celebrity but only retroactively, and long after he was dead. The fact that the media never reported on the details of his private life while he was alive and in office shows an implicit understanding of a kind that was once commonplace and widely accepted, both in the media and in the population at large, of the difference between politicians and celebrities, even when the former might behave like the latter. Jimmy Carter was not only the first successful presidential candidate to be interviewed in Playboy — George McGovern had set the precedent for Democratic candidates five years before but had gone on to lose spectacularly to poor, unattractive, unloved President Nixon — but he was also the originator of the celebrity-like assurance of being able to "feel your pain" that was later to epitomize the Clintons’ sanctimoniousness. Ronald Reagan was a celebrity who subsequently became a politician, but he never behaved like a celebrity in office. And his private life was not sufficiently interesting to the media to keep him lodged among their ranks.
We know that a true celebrity has to behave pretty badly to lose his fame, or to put himself as ordinary people still can, beyond the pale of decent and respectable society. Roman Polanski, Michael Jackson, even O.J. Simpson are all still bona fide celebrities, though they might be considered so far out of the ordinary as to be described as "creepy" ones. But the converse is also true. If you remain happily married to the same person for decades, go to bed at 10:00 PM every night and otherwise don’t give the gossip mills anything to work on, you can lose your celebrity status through coming to seem too much above the level of ordinary people for them to feel quite comfortable with you — particularly when you are seen to exercise power over them. In the celebrity culture there is no way to demonstrate humanity except through human vices and weaknesses. That’s why rock stars take drugs, behave promiscuously or trash hotel rooms. They may do it because they enjoy it, but they must do it, or something like it, because that is how they keep up their certification as rock stars.
As R. Emmett Tyrrell’s new book, The Clinton Crack-Up, points out, the secret of the Clintons’ ability to rebound from scandal lies in their celebrity status. How else to explain why, after even the New York Times proclaimed its disgust with the obvious corruption of Bill’s partin’ pardons in January of 2001, he is now back as a respected elder statesman and future éminence grise in the hopeful administration of his wife? The couple could treat the White House as rock stars treat hotel rooms and suffer no more lasting consequences than they do. Natural enough, then, to assume with Michele Cottle of The New Republic that the Clintons "have passed some point where they’re no longer just politicians. They’re rock stars." Here’s the introduction that Harry Smith of "The Early Show" on CBS recently gave to an interview with Sally Bedell Smith, author of For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton, the White House Years:
Brad and Angelina, Charles and Diana, Burton and Taylor, and you can count Bill and Hillary's union as one of the most scrutinized marriages of our time. A simple Google search reveals there are more than 40 books about this still-young couple. They met in law school, two bookish, wonkish, idealistic kids who somehow transformed themselves into political rock stars. Remember when Bill grabbed a sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show" during the ‘92 campaign? Now it’s Hillary who’s handling Letterman and trading one-liners with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show."
It might seem slightly odd that, 15 years on, the Clintons’ achievement — if that is what it is — should still be treated with such breathless excitement. One can only suppose that the intervention of the presidency of George W. Bush, which has proven threatening to some and promising to others of a return to the older model of political and presidential behavior, has created a pent-up demand in the media for the politics of celebrity. If so, the reason is not far to seek. For celebrity is the meat and drink of the media without which, now more than ever, they would simply wither up and die. In the age of YouTube and the Internet, the old mass media — ever diminishing in their massiveness, like the Arctic glaciers of whose fate they are so solicitous — have less and less to offer the paying public apart from their access to celebrities.
That must be a good part of the reason why they are so bad at resisting the allure of celebrity politics, one of the hallmarks of which is the substitution of the moral for the political. The great example of this is of course Global Warming. An Inconvenient Truth, the movie which marked Al Gore’s long desired transition from politician to celebrity, was rewarded with an Oscar by a grateful community of celebrities for its treachery to the political craft, as it was formerly understood, because it made this substitution starkly explicit. Global warming, the former vice president told us in that film, was not a political but a moral issue. The purpose of casting it in such terms was, as it always is, to render illegitimate any other view of the matter than the allegedly moral one. Thus anyone pointing, as the Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg does, to the very small gains against rising temperatures to be won from a very large, even ruinous investment in limiting greenhouse gases can be ruled out of court not on the merits or otherwise of his arguments but because he is a bad man, allying himself with oil companies and know-nothing Republicans who have been, sporadically and usually without great conviction, "deniers" of Global Warning.
Neither this nor other celebrity causes are always wrong or misconceived as politics, but in the process of being moralized and thus taken out of the ordinary political realm, they often become counterproductive, creating political paralysis where they might otherwise have accomplished something. Not that accomplishing anything is really the point of celebrity causes. Just look at the campaign on behalf of Darfur. "It’s not a political issue," says superstar heart-throb George Clooney. "There is only right and wrong." Oh, dear. Poor Darfur! If its miserable non-Arabic peoples who are being raped, murdered and driven from their homes by the Arabic-speaking Janjaweed militias are so unfortunate as to have been declared by a celebrity to be the beneficiaries of a simple matter of right and wrong, they might as well give up any hope of relief from the bien pensants of the West. For the point of their turning the political problem into a moral one is not to help the people who are suffering but to make themselves feel better about refusing the only sort of help that can do them any permanent good, namely military assistance.
Mr Clooney, who is a well-known member of the large, "liberal," anti-war and anti-Bush tendency in Hollywood, must presumably be as averse to any military action against General Omar al-Bashir, the tyrant in Khartoum who is conniving with the Janjaweed, as he was when it was against Saddam Hussein. He seems to have confined his actions on behalf of the sufferers of Darfur to public pronouncements about the wickedness of their oppressors and the oil companies who do business with them and to diplomatic missions to China and Egypt in so-far unsuccessful attempts to deny them the aid of their chief international protectors and business-partners. The oppressors, needless to say, are still in place and as wicked as ever, but at least George Clooney has had the pleasure of denouncing them and so displaying his own moral rectitude. Like Adam Sterling, the young student from California who is leading the campaign for the disinvestment by state pension funds in companies doing business with the Sudan, his concern is more with his own fine feelings than the fate of the people of Darfur.
As Mr Sterling puts it when he is asked in the new documentary, Darfur Now, why he has given up to activism so much of a life that might otherwise have been devoted to study — or fraternity parties — : "Part of it is guilt. I don’t want to look back in ten years and think I didn’t do everything I could." He is also opposed to the Iraq war and so no more inclined than Mr Clooney to call for military action — in Darfur or anywhere else. And yet his palliative and cosmetic measures apparently seem to him as heroic as any that might actually put an end to the killing. When in the movie we see Governor Schwarzenegger finally signing the disinvestment bill in Sacramento, a jubilant Mr Sterling announces: "To the government of Sudan: we’re coming! Your genocide will not occur on our watch, and it will not occur on our dime!" Well, yes it will, actually, but at least nobody will be able to say that Adam Sterling — or George Clooney, for that matter — is lacking in creditable feelings on behalf of the victims of it. Like Bill Clinton imposing a tax increase or Pervez Musharraf imposing a state of emergency, he is relying on his demonstration of the presumptively right emotions about a thing to insinuate that this fact should be the salient detail about it.
At about the same time that the state of emergency was being imposed on Pakistan in spite of the difficulty of the decision to impose it, the extended presidential contest back in America was encountering new and unfamiliar territory in its traverse of the celebrity culture. Mrs Clinton, universally acknowledged as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination to the presidency, had reacted to a concerted attack on her by her (male) opponents in that contest in now-familiar fashion by saying (or implying) that her feelings had been hurt, in the process hinting at a lack of gallantry on the part of the gentlemen involved. Imagine the shock she must have felt when she was criticized for this among those she might reasonably have expected to be her strongest supporters. Maureen Dowd called it "Hillary’s ‘Don’t hit me, I’m a girl’ strategy," while Kate Michelman, the former leader of the abortion-rights organization NARAL who is supporting John Edwards’s candidacy, said: "Any serious candidate for president should be held to the same standard — whether man or woman. Have we come a long way? Well, far enough to know better than to use our gender as a shield when the questions get too hot."
This reaction among her would-be allies actually caused me to feel more sympathetic towards the former first lady than any pain she might have suffered as a result of the men’s lack of chivalry. I could imagine her weeping hot tears and saying: "It’s so unfair! Edwards can plead for sympathy on account of his wife’s cancer, Obama on account of being a minority and an outsider. John Kerry can whine about how the opposition are treating him and actually add a new verb — ‘swift-boating’ — to the political vocabulary. Bill can behave like a pig and yet plead for — and get! — sympathy on the grounds that he is being hounded for it by Ken Starr. Yet let me say something as innocuous as ‘Hey, fellas, don’t all pile on at once," and suddenly I’m no longer fit for higher office." Put like that, it does seem a little unfair, doesn’t it? For the men, it is seen as a political plus to behave in what would once have been called a "womanish" or sensitive fashion by giving way to a display of emotion — even when the emotion is only self-pity. But when she does it, it only confirms the hated "stereotype" that women are not up to the emotional demands of political leadership.
"The point," wrote Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal "is the big ones, the real ones, the Thatchers and Indira Gandhis and Golda Meirs and Angela Merkels, never play the boo- hoo game. They are what they are, but they don't use what they are. They don't hold up their sex as a feint: Why, he’s not criticizing me, he's criticizing all women! Let us rise and fight the sexist cur." This may be true but, if so, it should be recognized that it takes away from Mrs Clinton what, under the Clinton-fostered and Clinton-encouraged reign of the celebrity culture has become the chief weapon available to Democratic politicians and, a fortiori, the Democratic nominee for president, namely his capacity for feeling hurt and aggrieved, either on his own behalf or on that of others. As Maureen Dowd put it, "maybe the qualities that many find off-putting in Hillary — her opportunism, her triangulation, her ethical corner-cutting, her shifting convictions from pro-war to anti-war, her secrecy, her ruthlessness — are the same ones that make people willing to vote for a woman." Yet the celebrity culture that she and her husband did so much to make the dominant one in American politics demand of her just the opposite.
The legendary warrior women of Dahomey in the century before last used to go through a religious ceremony on being recruited for the army, the point of which was to turn them — officially if not biologically — into men. Perhaps Mrs Clinton should look into this as her best remaining hope of turning herself into the sort of warrior woman Americans would be willing to vote for as president. Alternatively, she could try running as a Republican — though a sex-change might be the easier course. The paradox of her position is that, for the Clinton revolution to be preserved, Mrs Clinton would have to lose, or else to become quite a different sort of president from the one that her husband was — or that any other conceivable Democrat would be — and that we have already grown used to expecting her to be as well. This is perhaps the most hopeful thing that those of us who are opposed to celebrity politics have to cling to in the current electoral contests.