BILL CLINTON, GERMAN ROMANTIC
Jul 14, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 43 • By JAMES W. CEASER
From here, Muller goes on to envision "conversations" everywhere -- "in music, art, philosophy, and politics. Conversations presuppose a community. And once a conversation begins, there is a natural impetus, despite intervening differences, toward unity in the end. Each "voice," while hearing itself, will also "feel in all labyrinths of thoughts and tones an omnipresent harmonic law." As with conversations between lovers, so with political conversations among a whole people. "Two lovers constitute an assembled people," and "a whole interacting nation is able to cultivate this discourse and perfect it."
There is in all this a large serving of pure bombast, of course. Yet where the idea is not merely pretentious, it contains ominous elements of manipulation and social control. Appearing to be unguided, the "process" moves us to some goal or end. Rhetoric as conversation is not a matter of distance, where a speaker in his own name will deliberate with, attempt to persuade, or even try to bully his audience. Rather, we are part of the thing, validating by our own presumed participation the result of the conversation. Writing nearly 200 years ago, just over the bridge to the 19th century, Adam Muller could not have had Bill Clinton in mind. Nevertheless, in making his plea for a national conversation in Germany, he asked that it be initiated by those who "feel this people's pain" (welche den Gram dieses Volk empfinden).
In reaction to the Clinton plan, many have expressed disappointment with the message, but few with the initiative itself. Yet the idea of the presidency as a peripatetic mouth, trotted from event to event, is not only distasteful, but antithetical to constitutional purposes. What kind of free people wants -- or needs -- a single person to perform this function? Presidents do educate, yes, but in the context of performing a presidential duty, so that word and deed are linked. This is what makes presidential speech real, in contrast to surreal "events" such as the San Diego-begun conversation or the Philadelphia summit on volunteerism.
Only at certain moments -- on ceremonial occasions, on leaving office -- do presidents earn the right to our indulgence of their personal impulses and thoughts. And by restricting themselves to these moments, presidents provide a chance that significant attention will be paid to their words, which otherwise suffer from the loss of value that accompanies all forms of inflation. In not respecting the economics of speech, Adam Muller -- practically forgotten today -- pronounced his own epitaph, and probably Bill Clinton's as well: "Only what is pure gold will last."
James W. Ceaser, professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, is author of the forth-coming Reconstructing America (Yale).