When Christopher Hitchens published his grim appraisal of Bill Clinton (“No One Left to Lie To”) in 1999 I was having a bit of a bad time. When you’re disabled even the best moments can be demoralizing. I’d my own first memoir on the stands and while I’d tried to be nuanced and reflective about blindness both as I’d experienced it and as a larger circumstance I found myself on tabloid television where the nuance that disability requires went out the window. I missed reading “No One Left to Lie To” as I was busy dealing with the likes of Oprah Winfrey whose interview had nothing to do with my book. I appeared on the Leeza Gibbons Show with a drugged little girl, fresh from surgery, who’d had a third leg removed.
I was seeing first hand how the TV industry craves emotion over substance. I knew Bill Clinton had lied to the nation about reforming welfare by co-opting the GOP and emoting like a used car salesman looking into the camera and saying the poor would be lifted up. While the 80’s were built in part on fiscal lies the 90’s were about something worse. Clinton might have said: “a red herring in every pot” and few in mainstream journalism would have flinched.
Me? I’d written a book about disablement pre-ADA. Much like my friend Lucy Grealy’s memoir “Autobiography of a Face” which contended with physical deformity in public “Planet of the Blind” spoke to the self-to-self dichotomies of blindness and contempt in the civic sphere. Sitting in those TV interviews I saw that Oprah’s mantra “the truth will set you free” was false at least where disability was concerned. Her true motto should have been: “customary feelings only.” Several years ago I wrote about the Oprah experience. You can find the post here.
Tabloid television and its ugly child, “reality TV” were steamrolling by the end of Bill Clinton ‘s second term. I wish I’d read “No One Left to Lie To” back then. I certainly wish more people would read it now. In his lively introduction Douglas Brinkley writes:
“Hemingway famously wrote that real writers have a built-in bullshit detector—no one has ever accused Hitchens of not reading faces. What goaded him the most was that Clinton, the so-called New Democrat, with the help of his Machiavellian-Svengali consultant Dick Morris, decided the way to hold political power was by making promises to the Left while delivering to the Right. This rotten strategy was called Triangulation. All Clinton gave a damn about, Hitchens maintains, was holding on to power.”
I’m tempted to quote Brinkley’s entire intro but I’ll just add this:
“To Hitchens, there were no sacred cows in Clintonland. With tomahawk flying, he scalps Clinton for the welfare bill (“more hasty, callous, short-term, and ill-considered than anything the Republicans could have hoped to carry on their own”), the escalated war on drugs, the willy-nilly bombing of a suspected Osama bin Laden chemical plant in Sudan on the day of the president’s testimony in his perjury trial, and the bombing of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the eve of the House of Representatives’ vote on his impeachment.”
Do not forget that when running for the presidency in 1992 Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton signed off on the execution of a mentally disabled man named Ricky Ray Rector. This was death as a political stunt. It was also the exploitation of disablement as human sacrifice. How does a man of decency and conscience do such a thing? He doesn’t of course. Good men (and women) abjure the taking of human life for political theater. It’s permissible to argue about the ethics and merits of the death penalty but whatever your stance (I’m against it) you should know that politics is not only about who’s paying for your lunch (as Gore Vidal famously put it) but it also concerns public spectacle and performance. Democratic countries have always put people to death to make a point. Jim Crow. Sacco and Vanzetti. The Rosenbergs. Henry Ford and striking workers.
bell hooks wrote in her book “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” “Men need feminist thinking. It is the theory that supports their spiritual evolution and their shift away from the patriarchal model. Patriarchy is destroying the well-being of men, taking their lives daily.”
If you’re a disabled writer you have to want spiritual evolution. You have to recognize that the cynical politics of tough talk and any public performance that devalues life will eventually kill innocent women, children and men. Back to Clinton via Hitchens who quotes Robert Reich’s recollection about “ending welfare as we know it”–
“When, during his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton vowed to “end welfare as we know it” by moving people “from welfare to work,” he presumably did not have in mind the legislation that he signed into law in August 1996. The original idea had been to smooth the passage from welfare to work with guaranteed health care, child care, job training and a job paying enough to live on. The 1996 legislation contained none of these supports—no health care or child care for people coming off welfare, no job training, no assurance of a job paying a living wage, nor, for that matter, of a job at any wage. In effect, what was dubbed welfare “reform” merely ended the promise of help to the indigent and their children which Franklin D. Roosevelt had initiated more than sixty years before.”
A good man would not have ditched the supports Reich lists but a man who’d hang a mentally impaired prisoner would do it in a heartbeat. The point was “triangulation”–the pitting of the left and right against each other not for productive advancement but solely for personal success. Hitchens:
“Two full terms of Clintonism and of “triangulation,” and of loveless but dogged bipartisanship, reduced the American scene to the point where politicians had become to politics what lawyers had become to the law: professionalized parasites battening on an exhausted system that had lost any relationship to its original purpose (democracy or popular sovereignty in the first instance; justice or equity in the second).”
I say it all begins with the execution of a disabled man who was serving a life sentence. Good citizens beware.