ON JUNE 14, PRESIDENT CLINTON launched his highly touted "conversation" on race at the University of California, San Diego. The initiative was months in the making but, as the president would have it, a lifetime in the preparation. "If there is any issue I ought to have credibility on," he said, "it is this one. It is part of who I am and what I've done."

The president has committed himself to at least one conversation-related " event" per month over the next year. Then, after conferring with members of the special commission he has created, he will issue a report to the nation. This will conclude the formal phase of the conversation, but the president hopes that its impact on the hearts and minds of the citizenry will continue.

Until last month, most Americans would have taken a "conversation" to mean a private verbal exchange between two persons or among individuals in a small group. But those who spend a good deal of time on college campuses knew better: "Conversations" on hot-button issues such as sexual harassment, " diversity," and race relations are commonplace in academia. They are convened by administrators under one of two circumstances: either when these administrators have nothing to say on a subject deemed to be serious and crying out for discussion; or when they in fact have a major change of mind, in which case the "conversation" is used to circumvent traditional forums for deliberation (like faculty senates). Guided from the top, but free from the stigma of appearing to be so, a conversation is a remarkably effective instrument for engineering a desired consensus. The opposition is duly heard, a few cosmetic changes are made to the original proposal (in order to demonstrate the sincerity of the dialogue), and the final plan is announced, with widespread self-congratulation for the "civility" of the process.

It is unsurprising that the notion of this type of conversation should have been introduced into Washington-speak by Sheldon Hackney, Clinton's chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a former president of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1994, Hackney organized a "national conversation on American pluralism and identity," which supported earnest discussions of these themes in seminars and town meetings across the country. This conversation continued for a couple of years -- for all I know, it may be going on still -- but it evidently failed to obviate the need for the president's current initiative.

So where did this concept of a national conversation come from, originally? You might think it stemmed from the information "superhighway," of which the White House is so enamored, with its Internet exchanges ("chat groups"), constant telephone contacts, and appeals to reach out and touch someone. But in fact the concept has a much deeper and more deliberate origin. It was introduced by the German thinker Adam Muller (1779-1829), who first called for an all-European "conversation" in 1804 and who later, in his influential Lectures on Rhetoric, made the idea of "conversation" a central element of rhetorical theory.

Miller is known today as one of the most representative of German Romantic thinkers. And he is best understood by what he opposed: rational constitutionalist thought. Constitutionalist thinkers -- such as the American founders -- made a great effort to distinguish public communication from private communication. They were of course aware of what Alexander Hamilton called "the little arts of popularity" -- the devices by which politicians curry favor and win power -- but they sought to guard against these tactics and to set a higher standard of deliberative speech (such as that taking place in representative assemblies and among constitutional officers). The separation of public speech from other forms of discourse was meant to add to the dignity of political reasoning and to help complete the transition from medieval times, when a nation was likened to a natural family in which the monarch exercised authority based on the parental model.

Muller's idea of "conversation" was a primary weapon in his attack on rational constitutionalism. Wishing to recreate a new organic entity under an allembracing state, he aimed to bring back to politics the intimacy that rational forms had taken from it and to break down barriers separating the public from the private. He thus begins where one might expect -- with the purely private relations between the sexes. His idea is that, while male and female are different, there is nonetheless a yearning for a deeper unity. " Conversation" is the vehicle that will fuse these seemingly opposite forces and realize a full harmony.

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).

Next Page