Bill Clinton triangulates the war on fat.

Science, technology, and life.
May 4 2006 11:49 PM

Sister Soda

Bill Clinton triangulates the war on fat.

Bill Clinton strikes again.

A couple of weeks ago, I speculated that the first stage of the war on fat, which Clinton has adopted as one of his post-presidential missions, would be a rout. In this phase of the war, health advocates have targeted the sale of junk food to kids. I figured soda companies would lose this round, eventually fleeing schools where they currently hold contracts to sell their slush. But I didn't expect them to surrender—or, in homage to Clinton, look like they're surrendering—this fast. Score one for the big guy.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

The reason I expected the companies to lose this round is that it's easy to wage moral crusades when the only freedoms in the way are those of children. Americans have long been driven by two deep longings. The first is to be left alone. The second is to tell other people what to do. On most moral issues—abortion, porn, video games, alcohol, tobacco, guns—the easiest way out is to inflict our piety on minors. All the righteous satisfaction, none of the libertarian backlash. Great taste, less filling.

Clinton's the perfect guy to lead this phase of the war. Remember V-chips? School uniforms? He and his on-and-off political mistress, Dick Morris, knew we wanted our president to affirm community and family values, as long as none of those values messed with our HBO. The war on fat follows the same script. Who's coughing up the Coke machines? Schools, not offices. Who's getting squeezed to drop junk food ads? Nickelodeon and Channel One.

The deal itself is a patchwork of Clintonian compromises. Milk sold in elementary schools can still be "flavored," as long as it's low-fat, i.e., about 20 calories per ounce or less. High schools can't sell full-calorie soft drinks but can sell "diet" sodas, "sports drinks," and something called "fitness water," which presumably is either (a) an attempt to sell you an artificial concoction disguised as water or (b) an attempt to sell you water disguised as something that should cost a buck and a half. All provisions are voluntary, and the industry doesn't commit itself to full compliance till 2009. It's like those 100,000 cops and 100,000 teachers Clinton promised: Big numbers sound good, and you can always use the fine print to ease the delivery schedule.

Nothing's more important to Clinton than the importance of Clinton, so the deal's announcement put him front and center. It was hosted at the Clinton Foundation, whose Web site offers video excerpts of the event. In the background is the classic fabricated blue wall, which you might remember from all those message-of-the-day Clinton White House events. Today's message is pasted all over the wall on smiley-face logos: "Alliance for a Healthier Generation." The video starts with Clinton, then proceeds to the president of the American Heart Association and a parade of soda executives.

First comes the CEO of Cadbury Schweppes, who says the deal is "just one part of an overall strategy" that includes "increasing the amount of calories burned" by kids. That's been the industry's spin all along: Don't blame us, blame lack of exercise. Then comes the CEO of Pepsi, whose first line pops right out of the Clinton speechwriting manual: "This alliance gives [kids] the tools that they need to succeed." She yammers a bit about exercise and says her company and others will offer kids more "nutritious and functional beverages." How can a drink be "functional" if it's not nutritious? It sounds like ad-speak for those "sports drinks" that pretend to be good for you but seldom are.

Finally comes the CEO of Coke, Donald Knauss. He says of the deal, "We think it's going to strengthen our industry's ability to counter the perception that some of our critics have that some of our products don't fit into a balanced lifestyle." I just about fell off my elliptical machine (all this talk of exercise is highly inspiring) when I saw this. Don, you need remedial PR training! Ask that big white-haired guy standing behind you. Of course you're doing this to counter a perception that could hurt your bottom line. But, for God's sake, don't say that. You're supposed to say something about helping kids or doing what's right. Blurting out the stage directions in your consultant's message memo is very un-Clintonian. It's more like Bob Dole or George H.W. ("Message: I care") Bush.

Angry lefties call Knauss and the other CEOs "corporate predators." They label the deal "weak on marketing and enforcement" and denounce "commercialism" as a threat to children, democracy, and the environment. Not Clinton. "Alliance for a Healthier Generation—Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association—and Industry Leaders Set Healthy School Beverage Guidelines for U.S. Schools," says the headline on his press release. The first name in the roll of honor, of course, is Clinton's. But "industry leaders" has a nice ring, doesn't it? The press release returns to it, quoting Clinton: "These industry leaders recognize that childhood obesity is a problem and have stepped up to help solve it." Remember NAFTA? The White House coffees? Clinton never hated business. He knew whose posterior laid the golden eggs, and how to kiss it.

But angry lefties, as Clinton understands, are an important part of a well-balanced diet. That's what made him a great triangulator: Use the threat on your left to make the folks on your right happy to cut a deal with you in the middle. According to the Public Health Advocacy Institute, which threatened for months to sue the soda companies, their "agreement with the Clinton Foundation … comes after sustained pressure from potential litigation and negotiations with public health groups and their lawyers." In other words, the lefties did the dirty work so Clinton could score the winning bucket.

Clinton, of course, sees it differently. The companies "may have liked the way we were working with them, not just singling them out," he told the New York Times. "I'm glad we did it without litigation." That's Clinton: You get the victory; he gets the vanity. Not a bad deal.