Portraits of a Political Puzzle

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May 10 1998 3:30 AM

Portraits of a Political Puzzle

You know Donna Rice. Why don't you know Debra Schiff?

These two images are halves of a political puzzle. Fit them together, and you may solve the great mystery of the Clinton presidency.

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That mystery, of course, is Clinton's continued high standing in the eye of the electorate. He's still enjoying high enough poll figures to have refused to answer any scandal-related questions at his recent press conference, even to have noted his comfort in keeping silent. High approval ratings cushion even a stonewall.

Yet polls also indicate that the same electorate that "approves" of Clinton's presidency suspects that many of the scandalous allegations against him are true. How can two such opinions live peacefully together in the same heads?

Gary Hart would probably like to know the answer to that. That's him in Image No. 1. Hart was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987 when this "vacation" snapshot of him with Donna Rice on his lap surfaced, promptly crushing his candidacy. Hart was already reeling from allegations of womanizing; the photo--which was exhibited often enough to be burned into our synapses--closed the case against him. The consensus was that, as we could see with our own eyes, Hart lacked the discipline and character for the presidency. He was driven from public life.

What, then, does Image No. 2 show us? It shows us candidate Bill Clinton on a campaign flight in 1992. Seated next to him on a jump seat is flight attendant Debra Schiff; she's the one with Clinton's hand between her thighs. The image is from a video clip shown in February on ABC and since posted on the Internet. This image has occasioned almost no comment. What does it reveal about Clinton's discipline and character? Apparently nothing. Or rather, nothing that the electorate cares to be bothered with. The apparent consensus is that, whatever we can see with our own eyes, it's Clinton's and Schiff's business.

If there's any visual difference between these two images, it's that the one featuring Clinton is more lurid. Hart and Rice are knowingly posing for a camera; you could frame the shot and display it on the coffee table (as long as you had the right sort of postmodern family living in the house). Clinton and Schiff, on the other hand, have been caught off guard; the result would have a peeping Tom quality if their encounter had any personal intimacy, which it does not. There's a third person present, a man with whom Clinton is conversing even as he rubs Schiff's thighs. The effect is disturbing, because Schiff is depersonalized.

Why, then, the disparity between the political effects of these two images? Because one--Hart's--was perceived to contain vital political information and the other--Clinton's--apparently isn't. In the decade between the public exhibition of these images, 1987 to 1998, "character" has been largely emptied of the political significance it had throughout the postwar era, as least as far as many voters are concerned. In the Clinton era, presidential character has been decoupled from American character.

Hart's problem was actually that, as a symbol of American-ness, his "character" mattered more then than Clinton's does now. In 1987 there was still a significant external threat to the nation and a 40 year tradition of global competition over ideas and issues. Potential presidents--like astronauts, Olympic athletes, and other Americans playing on an international stage--still had to carry a lot of symbolic baggage: They had to appear as forthright champions in a historic contest, disciplined leaders who embodied national values. Look at Richard Nixon, an emotional stiff who would have a tough time competing for national office today. Yet in his own era he could parlay "leadership" symbolism into a pair of landslide victories. Leadership symbolism was pretty much what Ronald Reagan was about.

What is leadership minus strength of character? Hart failed that test. But Clinton never even had to pass it. By 1991, presidential role-playing was already changing dramatically. The Soviets were gone, and the Gulf War had seemingly solidified the U.S. global position. The electorate was able to shrug off the Gennifer Flowers scandal rather quickly; its concerns were becoming domestic. (Interestingly, Clinton is heard on the Flowers tapes telling her that, when asked, she can characterize their relationship as she pleases precisely because there are no known photographs of them together. But Clinton's concerns about being another Hart turn out to have been anachronistic, as the limited impact of the Clinton-Lewinsky embrace imagery demonstrates.) Even as Clinton was running for office, a different presidential model was already asserting itself.

We've seen this model before. Whenever the country emerges from a national trauma and focuses on its piggy bank, presidential expectations shrink. The years following the War of 1812 were, politically, the Era of Good Feelings. The presidents after Reconstruction were the political ciphers of Republican ascendancy. In the years after World War I, the business of America was business.

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