READING BILL CLINTON
12:00 AM, Sep 2, 1996 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
The Clinton sentence signifies a man trying to say so many things at once that he ends up saying nothing at all. Often this involves an endless series of participial phrases, allowing each member of the committee to get in his licks: "strengthening our nation's families, protecting our environment, caring for the elderly, keeping our streets safe . . ." Often it is simple and direct, as in this, which is, please note, a single sentence. Take a breath:
"The actions we take today will determine what kinds of jobs Americans will have tomorrow, how competitive our businesses will be in the global economy, how well-prepared our children -- especially the poorest among them -- will be to succeed, how secure and healthy our parents and grandparents will be, how safe our streets will be, how well we protect our land . . ."
And so on through several more clauses, as the president's face slowly turns blue. The book is choked with such sentences. Everyone gets to put something in, no one takes anything out, and the original point, if such there was, is lost forever. Of course, we must assume that the amiable Nothdurft is a professional writer, and so the book varies from time to time in tone. The president talks tough, as hairy-chested New Democrats often do: " Public housing is a privilege; abuse it and you're out." (Got that, you son- of-a-bitch?) And there are flights of pure wonkery. He ventilates countless initiatives, all impressively capitalized: the Crime Bill, One-Stop Career Centers, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, the National Gang Tracking Network, the National Drug Control Strategy, Second Chance Homes, America's Hope Scholarships, the College Opportunity Strategy, the National Export Strategy, Empowerment Zones, Enterprise Communities. . . . If you ache to know the difference between the president's proposed tax deduction for college costs and his proposed tax credit for up to two years of community college, you'll find it here.
There are other favored rhetorical tropes. He makes excellent use of that time-honored dodge of all after-dinner speakers, the false choice. The debate about the role of government in our national life is presented as a contest between anarchists on the one hand, and on the other . . . oh, Stalin. The president comes down firmly somewhere in the middle. The trade debate is similarly stark. "You have those who say we should build walls around our country" in pitched battle against "those who say what we need is pure free trade." The president's solution? "We need fair trade with fair rules."
Such Solomonic judgments come at considerable personal cost to our president. In his book Bill Clinton never says he "fights" about something without jamming the word "hard" right up next to it. The upshot is that Bill Clinton "fights hard." And if you wonder who he's fighting for, read the book. (It's you, silly!) This allows him to pull off the neatest of Clintonian tricks: self-pity as an exercise in self-aggrandizement. We are meant to feel sorry for him and be awed by him at the same time. Here is his account of last year's budget battle:
"The Republicans believed I would give in to them just to keep government going on a lot less money. But I wasn't fighting for 'government.' I was fighting for the future of America and for a different, less bureaucratic modern approach to help people help themselves. . . . I didn't cave. . . ."
As that passage indicates, a few elbows are thrown at Republicans in Between Hope and History, mainly through misrepresentation; he refers, as expected, to their "massive cuts in Medicare," which of course were neither massive nor cuts. (The Republicans proposed to slow Medicare's rate of growth by $ 158 billion over seven years; the president proposed $ 124 billion.) But the dominant tone is of a man who wants to please all the people all the time while getting credit for his unshakable convictions.
"We must meet," he writes, "the challenges of a new century and, at the same time, protect the values that have kept us on course for more than two hundred years." Yes, some may disagree . . . This is why those overstuffed sentences come in so handy. And what words those sentences are stuffed with! Scarcely a page goes by without referring to "challenges" (which must be met) or "dreams" (which must be dreamed, or realized, or come true). The "d" in " American Dream" is always capitalized, which puts it, in importance, up there with the National Gang Tracking Network. Some sentences simply go limp under the weight of all those big words: