Captains of malice

To say there is a method to the Republican madness doesn’t mean there isn’t a madness as well.

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Sen. Bob Dole is almost too easy to imagine as Captain Ahab. Instead of an ivory leg, he cradles an arm permanently wounded in battle. Denied the presidency by his own negative virtues, he haunts the deck of American politics, waiting for his chance to harpoon the White House.

Melville delights in describing Ahab’s great natural intellect, but says his “larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted.” Sen. Dole’s black wit hints of a morbid nature, but also deflects our scrutiny. Surely a man willing to puncture enemies and allies can’t be all bad. His mean outlook is so complete we mistake it for a kind of fairness.

Dole’s oppositional leadership is peppered with Nixonian hints that he recognizes the fanatics in his own party and the fatuousness of all politicians. The senator understands his kinship with The Tricky One. In a tear-choked eulogy this spring, he called the second half of the 20th century “the Age of Nixon.” Both Dole and Nixon grasped something terrible about us, some mysterious joy we take in dividing the country, punishing the weak, despising our own vulnerabilities. Dole shuns mirrors because he can’t stand the sight of his atrophied limb.

Clinton’s acknowledgement of the vulnerable is anathema to many on the right. They don’t merely oppose Clinton; they hate him and believe he has no right to hold office. On C-Span recently, I debated Fred Barnes, a New Republic(an) pundit, who openly declared his support for Oliver North’s senatorial campaign. Asked how he could support such a liar, Barnes retorted, “Didn’t you say you voted for Clinton?” His equation of a personally besieged president with a functionary bent on subverting the Constitution was heartfelt.

Of course the Republicans’ relentless attempts to delegitimize Clinton are partly a conscious strategy. If the president’s bully pulpit can be sawed down to floor level, the White House won’t be able to muster congressional majorities on key legislation. And passing bills–any bills–on health care, welfare, employment, and crime is the centerpiece of the Democrats’ re-election strategy. Even Clinton’s top advisers will tell you that the contents of the president’s programs need not be very substantive. Their polls show that, since Bush ceded the entire domestic field, any progress may be seen as an accomplishment worthy of a second chance come 1996.

The Republicans want to obstruct the White House by claiming that all Clinton’s initiatives are as fraudulent as his character. But to say that there is a method to the Republican madness doesn’t mean there isn’t a madness as well.

Dole is the floor captain of the attacks, but not an articulate ideologue. The Republicans’ chief strategist is Bob Bartley, head of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages for the last 22 years. Bartley gave supply-side economics an intellectual facade, sold it to the Great Communicator, and then proclaimed the redistribution of wealth upward during the Reagan years as a boon for everyone save a few pinko whiners.

I interviewed Bartley recently. Sitting in a wood-paneled conference room, the soft-spoken man gave no quarter. Asked whether he thought that Reagan had consciously run up the national debt so that there wouldn’t be any money for government programs, Bartley said, “Yes, he took away the kids’ allowance.” The “kids” he was talking about are Congress and the voters who elected them.

When asked about Clinton’s prospects, Bartley chuckled, “He won’t be renominated for a second term.”

Bartley’s confident prediction chilled me. It bespoke a malice beyond reason. For a sitting president to be unable to obtain his party’s nomination could only mean a period of political turbulence bound to give Wall Street the shivers. Besides, as far as big money’s interests are concerned, the biggest difference between Clinton and Bush has been Clinton’s ability to attract enough Democratic votes to push through NAFTA.

Why then the fury? Not just to justify the Reagan years, I think, but also to punish anyone who even suggests that free markets are anything but God’s chosen temple. In the moment of capitalism’s triumph, with its chief adversary vanquished, has a hatred arisen against the weak and anybody who dares point out their struggling?

Bartley’s cynical disdain reminded me of another Melville character, Claggart, master-at-arms on the Indomitable, who frames the virtuous Billy Budd. Unlike Billy Budd, Clinton is hardly innocent. Still, he may be an innocent. His chameleonlike nature seems to attract all predators. I asked one of his advisers why the president doesn’t strike back at Dole. He said: “Believe me, we try to get him to counterattack. But the president says, ‘You don’t understand: Dole is a good guy. He’s only playing his part.'”

Of Claggart’s nature (and the passage works for Ahab as well), Melville says, “. . . what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to the end the part allotted it.”

On this Fourth of July we could do worse than to contemplate the venomous part of America’s political nature. Have we become so vexed by the needs we see around us, so afraid that sympathy will spawn more needs, that we have decided to empower malice? Such a strategy may toughen us, but we’ll be left living on with half a heart and half a lung.

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