What's It All About? The Clintons Wonder

CLARENCE PAGE

May 28, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- The first lady is on a spiritual quest. She is not alone.

''And if we ask,'' Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an April speech to the University of Texas in Austin, ''why is it in a country as wealthy as we are, that there is this undercurrent of discontent, we realize that somehow economic growth and prosperity, fTC political democracy and freedom are not enough, that we lack meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, we lack a sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another.''

Detractors chortle over the speech's similarities to her psycho-babbling graduation speech at Wellesley in 1969 (Sample: ''We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty . . . '').

I don't find Mrs. Clinton's ramblings any more unsettling than Ronald Reagan's mental cruise down Highway 101 during his second 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. Nor does her proximity to power trouble me any more than Nancy Reagan's astrologer's did. Even so, I can't help but wonder whether Hillary's problem is not the same as Bill's, as the two of them try to lead the country in this co-presidency: too many ideas, not enough focus.

As one who, like Hillary Clinton, was born in 1947 and flirted with a variety of political ideas in the 1960s, I hear in her speeches the familiar ring of soul-searching. Like many other Boomers, she fell at various times under the sway of Barry Goldwater, Martin Luther King Jr., Saul Alinsky, Paul Tillich, John Wesley, John Lindsay, Eugene McCarthy, Nelson Rockefeller and Marian Wright Edelman, to name a few.

Her latest influences include Michael Lerner, editor and publisher of the progressive Tikkun magazine, who believes our lives in these times must be about not just ''the economy, stupid,'' but also about ''the politics of meaning.''

Accordingly, Mrs. Clinton said in her Austin speech, after saying neither market economics nor government programs were enough to meet the challenge confronting us, ''We need a new politics of meaning. We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring. We need a new definition of civil society which answers the unanswerable questions posed by both the market forces and the governmental ones, as to how we can have a society that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.''

If this sounds like something you have heard before, perhaps it was in the '60s, when it was fashionable to wrestle with the world's problems (and various sexual partners) over Turkish rugs and under psychedelic posters.

Alas, we Americans were in a far more expansive, generous mood in those days. The economy boomed and there was not yet a huge federal deficit. Today, Mrs. Clinton's quest echoes the appropriateness of bell bottoms, tie-dyed T-shirts and other blasts from the past, trying to make a comeback, but still out of place.

''I don't have any coherent explanation,'' she recently told a reporter who asked her to define her philosophy. Neither, it appears, does her husband. Sen. Bob Dole and other Republicans have pinned the tax-and-spend tail on him so easily that even his old market-oriented, ''New Democrat'' friends in the Democratic Leadership Conference are scratching their heads, wondering what kind of Democrat he really is.

He, too, has come under the sway of many different ideas over the years and seems to be passionately in love with all of them, leaving most Americans mystified as to what he really believes.

Is he a New Democrat, we ask? Well, yes and no. He promotes an active social-service role for government while calling for more individual responsibility. He promotes welfare reform and low-income tax credits to help low wage earners, yet seems too easily sidetracked by issues like gays-in-the-military, which, until recently, was not even a high agenda issue for gay leaders.

He seems at once to be a communitarian and libertarian and a fiscal conservative and a tax-and-spend liberal.

He is a populist man of the people who gets a $200 haircut in Los Angeles, while his caring, sharing, intellectually searching wife gets a $275 haircut in New York.

''It is not true that she was being fitted for a crown,'' quipped Washington comic Mark Russell.

The problem here is not so much one of meaning as of message. The Clinton people, in a sure sign that his presidency is in trouble, blame the media for making a big deal out of the haircuts, compared to the pass they gave Ronald Reagan.

True enough, but credit Mr. Reagan's show-biz acumen for preventing him from letting us know who cut his hair, let alone what shade it was tinted. He and his handlers knew how to maintain the all-important wall between stagecraft and backstage. The public understands that its presidents are human, but it also admires a certain amount of theater, including the appearance of being in charge.

Mr. Reagan understood the value of focus, something the Clintons need to learn. If Mrs. Clinton lacks a ''coherent explanation'' for her philosophy this late in the game, one wonders about the state of President Clinton's thinking, since she is known for being, if anything, the better focused of the two.

Already, it appears the Clinton health plan, Hillary's big project, is shaping up to be a cumbersome attempt to balance the simplicity of a Canadian-style single-payer system with the complexity of the private insurance market. The answer, attempting to please all, risks pleasing none.

Psycho-babble aside, the Clintons need to articulate a clear vision of where they want Americans to go, then take us there. It's not an easy task, but it's the one at least one of them was elected to perform.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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