Today’s history lesson: Back home in Arkansas after Georgetown University, Oxford, and Yale Law School, William Jefferson Clinton ran for governor in 1978, and won. He had previously run–in his twenties–for the U.S. House of Representatives and lost, then for state Attorney General and won. In 1979, he became the youngest governor in the U.S.
National attention; widespread political awe, admiration and envy; a seemingly limitless upward trajectory for a ‘boy governor’ and Southern political rock star who seemed to marry the best, or anyway most electable, elements of good ol’ boy (including the treatment of Arkansas women) and elite education. Then Clinton ran for reelection two years later–and lost, in a stunning upset and reversal, to Republican Frank White in deep-blue Arkansas.
So much for ‘electable’.
Quite the setback for someone who had run for every conceivable office from his time as a student.
So what did the highly educated and fairly well-traveled Bill Clinton conclude? 1) He was simply too good for the populace. As with Mark Twain’s Hank the Boss in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the populace was not up to his level. And 2) he was never going to make that mistake again. In diluted parallel to the infamous determination made by George Wallace, Clinton resolved that nobody was ever going to out-mediocre him again.
My own take is that Bill and Hillary Clintons’ joint career has been shaped by and has fulfilled that determination ever since. They do not go out ahead of fellow pols on issues of peace and justice. They back-pedaled the early opposition to the death penalty, with its proven racial disparities, so despicably that Bill Clinton flew home to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to be present personally for the execution of a learning-disabled African-American man. Bill Clinton has been called every name in the book, but if you really want to get his goat, try calling him a leftist. For decades, both Clintons have persistently courted the favor and money of big donors, choosing Wall Street and management over working families and labor. They viewed every rising Democratic politician who appealed to the working class as a threat. They undermined any succeeding state Attorney General who moved in favor of employee rights or the working poor. They did little to nothing, putting it nicely, for women in Arkansas; not in law enforcement, not in academia, not in journalism. (Female wealthy family members do not count as exceptions.) Like some pale-blue and GOP pols in other border or near-border states, they dismantled the populist legislation of the early twentieth century.
And they left the Democratic Party in Arkansas a shambles.
The irony is that there was a grain of truth in Bill Clinton’s perception of his problem. Yes, on one hand the idea that somebody like Clinton was ‘too good’ is ludicrous. Yes, on the other hand the illusion that I’m just too good is one that anyone could succumb to temporarily.
But there were in fact individuals who resented Clinton’s early success. I can remember private conversations about the reaction. Educated people went to the polls with the attitude, ‘I’ll show him [he’s not so great].’ And they voted accordingly. And everyone waked up the next day to find that Arkansas had elected a Republican governor for [only the second time]* since Reconstruction. (In the next election, they reversed and put Clinton back into the governor’s office, where he stayed until the run against George H. W. Bush in 1992.)
Too bad Clinton didn’t take out his umbrage on his fellow cheesy white-collarites, who played a large part in voting him out, instead of on working people.
But instead the Clintons adopted the education-lite platform. If you replace crummy white bread with (fairly) good white wine, that’s progressive. No need to support the right to collective bargaining or to cap interest rates on loans.
There is a short moral in this story for 2016: Do not jump to the conclusion that you are too good. This moral is especially pointed not only for Secretary Clinton–who is assiduously courting elite GOP pols as I write this–but also for major media outlets. As I write, a dangerous narrative is shaping up, pushed from more than one direction, opposing the ‘elite media’ on one side to the crowd or ‘the mob’ on the other. The narrative is being pushed by Trump rallies on one side. But it’s being pushed by self-serving media representations on the other. Some take the form of less-than-clinical analysis of the many-headed. Generally the authors are not analysts.
My own perception of 2016 is shaped by my perception of earlier and ongoing issues.
The invasion of Iraq was a betrayal, and the media voices now raised in opposition to Donald Trump were not heard, for the most part, when George W. Bush was pushing the invasion of Iraq. The subprime-mortgage debacle was a betrayal, and the silk-stocking financial press was MIA. The selection of Secretary Clinton as Democratic nominee before a vote was ever cast was a betrayal, and the national political press did nothing to clarify what was happening.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave hope to millions of people. But Clinton allies behind the scenes took little account of that hope, as their emails amply make clear. Nothing transformative. Nothing inspiring. No passion for the public. At best, an endless obsession with the minutiae of self-advancement and appearances, greed and politicking.
And this attitude is shared to a disheartening degree by their allies in the media.
So, the inevitable response now becoming more and more explicit in 2016: You didn’t listen to us. So why should we listen to you?
*Correction. Winthrop Rockefeller was the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction.