Clinton is the nominee, so now it's time for pragmatism

Anna Quindlen

April 09, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

THE DAFFODILS are pressing skyward, the winter coats are ratty and in need of a rest, and July will be here before we know it. It is time to get serious.

We've had our season of None Of The Above, the complaints that Mr. Right never stepped up to a podium and into our lives. Like the stages of serious illness, we've passed through anger and denial during this primary season. It is time for resolution, reconciliation, what the existential or the insurgent might call peace.

Bill Clinton is going to be the Democratic candidate for president.

He has the experience; he's done the time. A brokered convention would mock the primary process. For a few more minutes we can entertain the notion of a composite candidate: the oratory of Cuomo, the war record of Kerrey, the labor support of Harkin, the sheer decency of Tsongas, Bradley's vision thing, a bit of Nunn and Gore and Gephardt. And a good deal of regret, too, at all the candidates who stayed out of the race and must be kicking themselves today. Enough Identikit scenarios.

It's been a hard primary season, filled with questions. Clinton wasn't very good at some of the answers. He seemed to be doing a complicated minuet with his real self, the dance of the apologist for the person he once was. His evasions made big news.

But over and over you hear about folks who are uncomfortable with him, who think he's too slick or too polished or just not quite quite. And then they meet him. And their opinion changes. Bill Clinton is a guy who does better up close and personal. Still pictures and print quotes do him no service. They lack twang.

For months he's been telling newspaper reporters that the American people have more important concerns than who he's bedded, and it read like excuses, excuses, excuses. But when he threw it back at Phil Donahue, told him they were going to be sitting in silence for a long time if this line of questioning continued, he won the audience in no time flat.

"Donahue" is just what Clinton needs, even if the political snobs think it's declasse. That, and any other venue that lets him behave in a way local politicians do on a swing down Main Street. Clinton needs to shake the voters' hands and look into their eyes, at least metaphorically.

He is good on many of the issues, although he has a Democrat's unfortunate propensity for pie-in-the-sky, for spinning social welfare wish lists without really explaining where the money will come from. And I remain deeply troubled by the fact that he refused to issue an order of executive clemency to halt the execution of a brain-damaged convicted murderer earlier this year.

But at least he knows what the issues are, knows that we need some new deals. His Republican opponent will be a man who, if he had a heart tattooed on his bicep -- all right, suspend credulity with me for the sake of the image -- would have the words "status quo" emblazoned in the center.

Clinton's empathy for the poor and the striving seems genuine, the natural outgrowth of his own hardscrabble childhood. He needs to communicate that to the people and, in the process, bring them his own self. Ronald Reagan needed TV to abet a fantasy. Clinton needs it to communicate his reality.

It's time for a reality fix. It's time to get pragmatic. I hate pragmatism in presidential politics; I suspect that makes me not so different from a lot of other people. Every four years idealism seizes me by the throat and I wait for a white knight.

Perhaps this is the character flaw of someone whose first seminal political act was kneeling on a linoleum floor, saying the rosary with the sixth grade the day John F. Kennedy was killed.

But what I hate more than pragmatism is the idea of the Democrats expending their political capital on bickering and what-ifs, the idea of four years of disaffection with a White House that, now more than ever, seems to hover on some astroplane above the workaday world.

It no longer serves to compare Clinton with Jerry Brown, or Paul Tsongas, or some fantasy man we yearned to embrace in the face of our natural disasters. This has been a season of hard questions, but at its end comes an easy one. At a certain point, None Of The Above begins to sound dangerously like Four More Years. Is that really the message we want to send George Bush?

Anna Quindlen, a columnist for the New York Times, Tuesday won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

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