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, while noting the unsound and racist scalping metaphor:
“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.
America was built on an idea, Jefferson’s, equality at its core. Illusion was necessary if greed and the suborning of rights was to succeed. Civic rhetorics must be tuned for the increase of division. But only politicians who most desire power over all else will overtly “batten an exhausted system” with overt disdain for the poor or the cripples.
Rick Perlstein writes in “The Invisible Bridge” about the singular moment when during Nixon’s first term American housewives protested a beef scarcity. Nixon trotted out his top consumer advisor, Virginia Knauer:
“President Nixon’s consumer advisor, Virginia Knauer, made a presentation for the press, suggesting “liver, kidney, brains, and heart can be made into gourmet meals with seasoning, imagination, and more cooking time.” She then trilled, “From my own experience I have found a shopper can generally trim as much as ten percent off her food budget.” An aide demonstrated a cost-per-serving slide rule for the cameras. On NBC that night, Knauer’s lesson in home economy was the lead story. It was followed by a field report on a schoolteacher’s wife who surreptitiously slipped horse meat into her husband’s sandwiches (a similar story made it onto an episode that fall of All in the Family).”
Talk about battening the exhausted!
Disability as lived experience is all about the lack of things. Inadequate public transportation; insufficient medical care; inaccessible doctor’s offices; lack of jobs and job training; the daily difficulty of acquiring necessary accommodations whether you’re in a boardroom or a ball park. There may be no greater experts in exhaustion battening that the cripples.
If you want to forestall equality there’s nothing like promoting ingesting bleach or shining a light inside the body during during a pandemic. If you want want power alone–without any irritable reminder of America’s foundational social ideals you push horse meat, execute Ricky Rector, defund any social programthat will help the poor during the greatest health crisis in global history. You tell people there’s nothing to see. You tell people they need more seasoning and imagination.
This was Reaganism at its core. Clinton understood it better than George H. W. Bush. Poppy Bush actually believed in “compassionate conservatism.”
In 1999 I discovered that tabloid TV which was by then, really, all TV, was only concerned with the exhaustion batten complex.
Oprah wanted to know if I could see anything at all, a variant of “how many fingers am I holding up?” Leeza wanted to know if my life was sad. Dateline wanted to know if my effort in youth to seem more sighted than I was meant “I was living a lie.” That disability is a devastating social construction was off the table. I was the singular lurid talisman of something they couldn’t figure out.
Reagan and Clinton put us firmly on the road to Trump. George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, launched accountably to seize non-existing weapons of mass destruction destroyed the last remaining optics of American idealism. Obama did his best to staunch the bleeding of public confidence but he wasn’t much of a liar and while he served two terms he never could put the batten back in the box. A country that’s disinterested in the least of its citizens and disdainful of nuance is next to ungovernable.
Back to the beef. Reagan was Governor of California while the price of meat was skyrocketing. He became the subject of an inquiry. Perlstein writes:
“In 1971, a student-operated radio station at Sacramento State College reported that Reagan’s 1970 tax return claimed he owed precisely zero dollars and zero cents. Reagan was befuddled when confronted with the news at a press conference; then he offered a recollection that he might have got a refund on his federal taxes. The governor’s office released a statement saying the reason was unspecified “business reverses.” He refused to say anything more—with a vengeance: “We fought a war about that! I say all men have a right to be safe in their books and records. That’s what the Revolution was about.”
Can you think of anything more Trumpian or Clintonian than that?
But wait! There’s more! Perlstein:
“One month later, the Sacramento Bee broke the story of what these “business reverses” entailed, and it was a doozy: the governor had contracted with a company that advertised to clients with a net worth of at least $500,000 that “tax laws favor cattle. . . . When you buy them, you become a farmer and can keep your books on a cash basis. You put in dollars that depreciate or are deductible. You take out capital gains.” Voilà: newly minted cowboys, whose ranks included Jack Benny, Alfred Hitchcock, and Arnold Palmer, “lose” enough money, in the company’s boast, “to avoid or postpone payment of any income tax.” ”
Can you think of anything more Trumpian or Clintonian than that?
Bill Clinton signed a much ballyhooed law in 1999, “H.R. 1180, the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act” which was trumpeted as a progressive effort to help the disabled receiving social security disability benefits by allowing them to participate in job training and vocational rehabilitation programs and still receive stipends. The problem? There was no effort to create jobs. Money for the VR programs came from social security. It was in effect a double tax without a true employment program.
Trump now says the states should pay the ongoing unemployment benefits that nearly 60 million Americans desperately need.
Voila indeed! To avoid or postpone payment of benefits as well as taxes!
The disabled are in the cross hairs of the exhaustion batten and tabloid TV won’t cover it.
MSNBC won’t cover it.
Anyone out there?
In a devastating article over at CBS we learn that over 100,000 disabled Americans have died while waiting for social security benefits, which is to say, died after being denied those benefits, died while they were being further reviewed:
“The Social Security program, known for its retirement benefits, also provides disability payments to people of all ages who can’t work because of a physical or mental condition. But the process required get those benefits can be a bureaucratic nightmare, with applicants — who tend to be older and poorer than most Americans — sometimes waiting years to start collecting.
One measure of just how arduous that process can be: From 2008 to 2019, almost 110,000 people died as they awaited an appeal after initially being denied Social Security disability benefits, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal agency. Between 2014 and 2019, 50,000 people filed for bankruptcy waiting for their cases to be resolved.”
Stories about the health crises faced by the disabled are still few and far between in the mainstream news. Even the “progressive” platforms like “The Nation” and “Mother Jones” largely avoid the subject though at least The Nation has been giving space to the activist and disability journalist Sarah Luterman .
Instead the media reports on disability as scandal. The inestimable Ira Glass of “This American Life” broadcast a hatchet job about disability and social security but with lots of help from NPR and The Washington Post. Here I’ll quote from my blog in 2017:
“The Washington Post has published an article that purports to examine a steady increase in disability Social Security claims by poor families. Under the heading “Disabled America” the headline bellows: “One Family, Four generations of disability benefits. Will it continue?” If you’re disabled like me and you’ve a sense of disability history you have to shudder since the half-rhetorical question evokes an edict by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who infamously wrote: “three generations of imbeciles are enough” in Buck vs. Bell, a 1927 ruling that upheld the right of Virginia to sterilize “mental defectives” without their consent. (You can read more about the case here.) In short, the Post’s headline raises the specter of eugenics whether the writer or editor knows it or not. Either way its fair to say “shame on them.”
Shame also for committing the journalistic equivalent of what I call “Betsyism” for Betsy DeVos who presides loudly over our education system without experience, knowledge, or curiosity. Only Betsyism, the willful extrusion of facts for ideological purposes explains the Post’s perfervid and ill informed article. Why is it ill informed? Because like other mainstream media forays into the subject of disability and Social Security there’s only a singular narrative: the US is filled with fake cripples who are stealing from good old you and me–a story that received considerable traction two years ago when the redoubtable radio hipster Ira Glass rebroadcast (without journalistic fact checking) a spurious story from Planet Money asserting phony social security disability claims are officially out of control in America. The provenance of the story hardly mattered to Glass, who, when confronted with its falsehoods simply declared himself a journalist and shrugged. It mattered not at all to the doyen of “This American Life” that the tale was largely the dream child of a notorious rightwing think tank, or that the outright falsehoods contained in the broadcast might do tremendous damage to the disabled. Falsehoods about the powerless play well.”
Remember what we’re talking about? Batten exhaustion as tabloid meat.
There are people, disabled, black, brown, indigenous, white, old, young, students, seniors, health care workers, activists of all kinds who are talking back to the Batten Exhaustion Complex.
Some of the best writing comes from the folks over at The Disability Visibility Project .
In her essay “The Future Liberation of Disability Movements” Valerie Novack, a black disable woman, writes:
“I realized that my disabled peers weren’t fighting for my inclusion, my access, my liberation. My peers were fighting to be part of the status quo, to be part of the norm. To have access to all the privilege they felt denied as white disabled people. Largely, they didn’t want to fight for something new, better, and just, they wanted to fight for access to the systems we have and know were built on the bodies of our ancestors and that these systems thrive on continued oppression of BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). I learned that the disability rights movement wasn’t a push for equity, but for equality in the hierarchy of structures offered to other people. ”
Disableism, ableism, disability discrimination–is profoundly encoded, encircled by racism. Reading Valerie Novack I thought: “How many times have I been among privileged disabled people, all of whom were white, who applauded Bill Clinton?”
The white disabled community has been slow to recognize poverty and structural racism as coefficients in furthering disability rights. I remember disabled people applauding Clinton’s Social Security gambit. I also remember saying “there’s something fishy about this.”
I love Novack’s phrase “equality in the hierarchy of structures offered to other people” since it denotes how the comparatively well off white disabled often want their own level playing field but not much else. One sees it.
I remind you: Good men (and women) abjure the taking of human life for political theater.
Political theater can be less dramatic than the execution of Ricky Rector, it can be the calculated indifference to suffering on either a small or vast scale–but always delivered with that moue of contempt, the one that says “they deserved it.”
With Reagan’s election in 1980 the nation largely shrugged and accepted an imperial presidency, the chief executive whose method acting would be always about the consolidation of power, a consolidation built around the demolition of social programs favored by the old liberals. Reagan was a great story teller. Bill Clinton studied him closely. Triangulation for both these men meant never solving poverty but pitching the idea that the “other” party was solely responsible for the nation’s increasing squalor.
Black Lives Matter is presently upending this forty year narrative.
It’s a deeply embedded narrative. According to Dick Morris, Hillary Clinton said of “welfare reform” in 1995:
“Our liberal friends are just going to understand that we have to go for welfare reform—for eliminating the welfare entitlement. They are just going to have to get used to it. I’m not going to listen to them or be sympathetic to them.”
Excerpt From: “No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton.” Apple Books.