“Best-selling author Bill Clinton announced yesterday he has landed a deal for a second book, this one about public service.
“The still-untitled book is due out either late next year or in early 2008 — which would take the increasingly popular ex-President on a big publicity tour just as the next presidential campaign heats up.
“Noting that his wife, Hillary Clinton, is widely believed to be planning to run that year, Jim Milliot of Publisher’s Weekly said archly, ‘It could be a perfect campaign book.’”
Of course, a runaway best-seller about . . . public service.
Look, VDB appreciates a good Hillary conspiracy-theory story as much as the next snarky insider political blog. But let’s remember first principles: Bill Clinton writes very boring books. (Anyone remember Between Hope and History?) Even My Life, the much-hyped autobiography, proved disappointing to readers — even to hard-core Clinton book readers like myself.
The basic problem is that Clinton — not surprisingly — wants to airbrush reality. Every book, in other words, is a campaign book, in the worst sense of the term. This odd new project will be turgid, and its sunny cliches will inevitably be matched up with salacious moments from the Clinton Presidency for ironic contrast.
Which is to say that this new “public service” project will actually be the worst possible scud Clinton could launch at his wife’s nascent campaign.
And that brings us to the real conspiracy-theory: that Clinton wants Hillary to lose.
Think about it. Bob Dole did everything he could, as far as we could tell, to tank Liddy’s chances in 2000: he announced that he’d probably support John McCain, and he began airing erectile dysfunction commercials during the primaries, to take two fairly obvious examples.
Why? Because Bob Dole desperately didn’t want to be First Gentleman in a White House that had been denied him time after time after time.
Do you think Bill Clinton — after a famously stormy marriage and two terms in the White House himself — wants his wife to become Commander-in-Chief? To wield all of the power that he himself can never know again?
Somehow VDB doubts it. Hence the carefully designed failure that will hit bookstores to great derision sometime in 2008.
In any event, if you’re up for it, below is a review of My Life, with some closer reasoning as to Clinton’s tortured authorial motivations. To summarize, if you’ve never read the ex-President’s autobiography, don’t.
Clinton’s “Pretty Good Story” Not Really So Pretty
by Philip Baruth, for The Burlington Free Press
In a June keynote speech to BookExpo America, Bill Clinton had this to say about his long-awaited memoir: “When I was a young man, getting out of law school, I said one of the goals I had in life was to write a great book . . . . I have no earthly idea if it’s a great book. But it’s a pretty good story.”
It turns out that this remark was far from off-the-cuff.
The prologue of My Life offers the same humble formulation, in a slightly more elaborate form: “I wanted to be a good man, have a good marriage and children, have good friends, make a successful political life, and write a great book . . . . As for the great book, who knows? It sure is a good story.”
And lest we forget that we have just read a good story, the very last line of the epilogue — that would be page 957 — reads: “As I said, I think it’s a good story, and I’ve had a good time telling it.”
I began My Life more than happy to forgive this authorial boosting. After all, this is a man who’s spent his entire adult life in politics, a world where winners frame audience-response and then stay ruthlessly on-message.
And I wanted to like the story. It would take a certain kind of masochism to read nearly a thousand pages of any story you weren’t genuinely prepared to like.
But the cold fact of the matter is that My Life is not a very good story.
Don’t get me wrong: Bill Clinton’s life itself is a phenomenal story, one I’ve spent a good chunk of my own life researching and fictionalizing. And My Life is other things — a faithful record of Clinton’s Presidential initiatives, a moderately intriguing treatise on globalization and the inception of the information age, a painstakingly complete catalogue of every Arkansas hamlet that turned against then-Governor Clinton in 1980 because he raised their driver registration fees.
But it is not a good story, not even a “pretty good” story, not by a pretty long shot. And ironically, for all Clinton’s seeming emphasis on catchy narrative, My Life isn’t a good story on purpose.
To understand why, we need to go back to Clinton’s 1999 State of the Union address. (Only for a second, I promise.) The Starr report had only weeks before been unceremoniously dumped into the public record. Americans had only weeks before learned about some of their President’s odder sexual quirks. The House had voted, for only the second time in history, to impeach.
The Senate was sitting in trial mode.
And the defendant himself came down the center aisle of the House Chamber that night, late as always, smiling and shaking hand after hand, looking amazingly together, to give a long speech under more pressure than most of us will ever experience during the entire cumulative course of our lives.
Under that pressure, Clinton did what he is famous for: he delivered an eye-glazing list of small-bore initiatives, fifty or sixty in all, representing his hyper-ambitious legislative agenda for the coming year.
And as always, Americans generally loved the speech. The week following, Clinton’s poll numbers rose to their highest levels ever.
But what Americans loved was not the speech itself, I think, which had all the drama and intrigue of a Department of Public Works website.
They loved the complexity and the narrative richness of the event, the symphonic interplay between the various storylines: on the one hand a President deeply involved in all of the impossibly boring minutia of government, and on the other a wildly unfaithful husband and father, looking at being removed from office, looking — in a worst-case scenario — at jail time.
What else could make tax credits and trust funds and pension changes must-see television?
This is an effect that you can trace through a surprising number of Clinton’s State of the Union speeches. One was delivered split-screen as the O.J. verdict was announced live. And of course the 1998 SOTU fell just days after Ken Starr revealed that he had tapes of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton, entirely against his will, perfected a new sub-genre of State of the Union address, in which the President fights to be heard, to legislate, over the din of our televised culture.
Under this logic, it makes sense to rethink Clinton’s rise from the ashes in New Hampshire in 1992. Instead of a candidate claiming the Democratic nomination in spite of his lurid press, Clinton was a man made interesting and consumable to a nation of entertainment-junkies partially because of that byzantine weave of storylines, and the fact that he could survive them.
But in My Life, of course, Clinton exerts complete control, and the result is for the most part strikingly dull.
Yes, Clinton is long-winded, but that’s not the root of the problem; more to the point is his evident desire to expunge — systematically and for all time — as many traces of those interesting cross-narratives as possible from what becomes by contrast a bland monologue of initiatives, failures and achievements.
The story we get is merely the official story. And for a public figure as deeply colored by the unofficial story as Clinton, the strategy can only seem like retrospective denial.
In writing about his reactions to Gary Hart’s fall from grace in 1988, on page 332, Clinton remembers, “After the Hart affair, those of us who had not led perfect lives had no way of knowing what the press’s standards of disclosure were.” The line leaps out because in the preceding 331 pages, no mention has been made of this particular brand of imperfection. Women, as objects of desire, do not exist in My Life, other than Hillary Clinton and a single, goofy, off-message joke about Dolly Parton.
Similarly, the winter of 1995 passes by with no mention of Monica Lewinsky, although Clinton’s affair with her began during the Government shutdown that year and continued through the first part of 1997.
In Clinton’s rendition of the time-line, Lewinsky surfaces only some 100 pages later, in 1998, as Clinton is recalling his deposition in the Jones case. The presentation re-creates for the reader the moment Lewinsky came into public view, rather than when she came into Clinton’s view.
Clearly, Clinton intends this narrative structuring as a lesson to the reader: If it hadn’t been for the extreme legal maneuvers of my enemies, you would never known about these private aspects of my life, and that would be a better state of affairs, so to speak, for all of us.
And it’s a point well taken.
But ultimately it’s also a point beside the point. When you’re writing for an audience who knows certain segments of your life intimately from other sources, deliberately ignoring that sub-stratum creates a looming sense of the undiscussed, the avoided, the repressed. Combine that with the dry, sanitized nature of what is recorded, and the contrast is occasionally devastating.
Clinton has always been far more impressed by statistics and historical firsts and state rituals than the average person, and so those things are listed unto death, until the reader just stops caring.
Even in writing of his enemies — Newt Gingrich, to pluck one out at random — Clinton seems deliberately to drain the drama from their interaction. Sure, he will refer throughout to his “last great showdown” with the forces of intolerance, racism and special interest that he’s battled throughout his life. This line, which Clinton draws directly from the segregationist Dixiecrats of the early ’60’s to the Republican majority that impeached him, occasionally has some narrative energy behind it.
Yet, for the most part, Clinton remains in unrealistically optimistic campaign mode: in My Life, Newt wasn’t such a bad guy, really, and Clinton and the Republicans got down to the people’s business after a rocky start.
Of course, many other sources describe Clinton in a state of near-catatonia after the midterm elections that swept Gingrich and Dole into their respective majorities; they describe a quintessentially Clintonian/New Age search for purpose that dominated the first half of 1995, with self-help gurus streaming in and out of the White House.
But again, in his autobiography Clinton is seeking to exert retroactive control over all of the uncontrollable events that made his story so riveting, and so those fascinating human moments simply do not exist.
This brand of full control is easiest to maintain if no one else is allowed to talk. George Stephanopoulos and Robert Reich both wrote highly entertaining memoirs of their Clinton years, and both used a very simple formula: create dramatic scenes in which readers meet important people at crucial moments, scenes in which those characters speak.
Stephanopoulos describes his meeting with Clinton, and Clinton’s later first meeting with Jessie Jackson, and you feel as though you’re present. Reich paints a beautiful picture of his first meeting with Clinton, on an ocean-liner bound for England, one that captures Clinton’s voice and early naiveté. Bob Woodward has made a cottage industry out of this sort of re-created Washington dialogue.
But very rarely does anyone other than Clinton speak in My Life.
One notable exception to this rule is Nelson Mandela, who is allowed to compare Clinton’s impeachment with his own long years in prison: “I realized that they had already taken everything from me except my mind and my heart. Those they could not take without my permission. I decided not to give them away. And neither should you.”
(This Mandela Defense, by the way, was reprised by Martha Stewart last week at her sentencing hearing, so clearly Clinton’s memoir is having an impact.)
And Al Gore — the faithful retainer, the go-to-guy for eight long years — is finally allowed to make a joke at his boss’s expense, one of the few funny lines in the book’s many, many pages. When Clinton offers to help Gore’s 2000 campaign by standing in the doorway of the Washington Post and letting Gore lash him with a bullwhip, Gore’s quip is choice: “Maybe we ought to poll that.”
There are bright spots here. The final sections on Clinton’s attempts to strong-arm Yassir Arafat into a final resolution of the Palestinian conflict are engaging and enlightening, as are some of Clinton’s early stories about Arkansas campaigning. After he was thrown out by the voters in 1980, Clinton ran again in 1982, and no campaign of his life would ever make clearer the one-to-one equation in his psyche between votes and love, electoral percentages and self-esteem.
When he lets himself shine through without quite meaning to let himself, Clinton does shine. Ultimately, however, My Life reads like a great American novel with all of its most interesting plot-lines meticulously pared away, like Elmer Gantry with nothing left intact but the sermons.
[This piece appeared previously in The Burlington Free Press.]
You know how some people can’t go into a public restroom without dragging a piece of toilet paper out on the heel of their shoe? They’ve combed their hair and washed their hands, and then, yes, there it is, flickering at their heel like a nasty little flag of incompetence.
It’s not like it’s the end of the world: you whisper in their ear, and they pick it off with a cocktail napkin, and life goes on.
But after watching them fall victim for the third or fourth time, you do begin to wonder about their mental candle power. And their overall karma.
This is Martha Rainville, every time she leaves the GOP’s disastrous set of leadership PACs. Every time she goes in, she comes out tagged by some nasty, embarrassing little . . . connection.
Shay at the Vermont Guardian has the latest, and it’s beautiful: the Randy “Duke” Cunningham connection. Key grafs:
“WILLISTON — A powerful GOP leader who donated $2,000 to Republican hopeful Martha Rainville is now the focus of a federal probe into a growing corruption scandal linked to defense contractors.
“In a May 11 story, the Los Angeles Times reported that Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-CA, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was being investigated by federal prosecutors.
“Rainville, who returned a $1,000 donation to Rep. Don Sherwood, R-PA, because of allegations that he abused a former mistress, is not ready to give back Lewis’ donation, a spokesman said.
“It is too early to speculate, and we will wait for more information to be released from the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Nathan Rice, Rainville’s campaign manager.
“The U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles has issued subpoenas in an investigation into the relationship between Lewis and a Washington lobbyist linked to disgraced former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-CA, the Times reported.”
Suddenly, it’s not enough that Rainville’s taking Roy Blunt/Tom Delay money, much of which originated with Big Tobacco.
Now she’s getting into the cash that seems to have fueled defense contractor scandals, and what has come to be known as “Hookergate” (Watergate parties, prostitutes, and Homeland Security misappropriations).
These are scandals that continue to push the envelope of even the most jaded corruption investigators.
A piece of toilet paper on the shoe, again? Or something even more damaging, and even less attractive? Time will tell.
But Martha’s people are leaving nothing to chance, Nathan Rice in particular. They apparently want to make sure the incident hobbles their campaign, by doing nothing for several weeks or months.
This hesitation has been, of course, the camp’s general modus operandi: “We will wait for more information.” They’ve done this wait-and-muse trick with every major decision thus far, and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory every time.
Nothing like sticking with a game plan.
But on a final, more serious note: there will come a moment sometime this year or next when Vermont’s media players all gather in a ball room somewhere and hand one another awards for their coverage of this election cycle.
Chances are good that all of those awards will go to three or four very well-funded outlets.
But VDB would like to go on the record now: Shay Totten at the Guardian deserves one of those plaques, for the coverage of the Welch/Rainville race if nothing else. He’s broken story after story, come up with documents no one else could seem to uncover.
Whether he ever receives this plaque will depend on the honesty of the mainstream media. But whether he deserves it cannot be questioned.
To quote Shakespeare in Love, the Guardian has shown the state and the nation that they “are men of parts.”
So, at the very least, says VDB.
May 17th, 2006
More Politics, More Mothers
by Philip Baruth
David Budbill, one of VDB’s favorite poet/activists, publishes a regular cyberzine called THE JUDEVINE MOUNTAIN EMAILITE: An On-line and On-going Journal of Politics and Opinion. It’s always a political rabbit-punch, but this time out his theme is “Mother’s Day In a Time of War,” and the contributors are all women.
It’s intriguing reading, and much recommended. You’ll find David’s website on the sidebar.
May 16th, 2006
The Gaming of America
by Philip Baruth
I’ve written more than one piece over the last few years about the mainstreaming of gambling, critical pieces. It’s not that I despise gambling; I don’t. I actually enjoy it every once in a while.
But what offends me, deeply, is the State’s decision not simply to retail lottery tickets and other games of chance, but to use taxpayer money to advertise those products, and thereby grow the pool of committed gamblers.
As social policy, that’s sheer lunacy. And the “pro-education/our kids win, too” meme is the biggest budgetary shell game of the modern era.
So when I heard that the New York State Lottery was moving a special scratcher in honor of Mother’s Day, I couldn’t resist.
Notes from the New Vermont Commentary #182: Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes
My luck with Mother’s Day isn’t the best. Earlier in my life, I was liable to miss it far too often; and now that I’m older, I’m determined to make amends, which makes me far too picky as far as presents go.
I’ll spend hours shopping and not buying gifts because they all seem, I don’t know, insufficient. Then, because I’ve burned so much time agonizing, I have to pay about $85 for overnight mail to get it there on time, because if I don’t then I’m really still my younger self and haven’t matured a bit.
That’s why I was so relieved to find the perfect gift this year, and to find it early. I was driving to work, and I heard this commercial for a Mother’s Day Lottery Ticket.
Isn’t that a beautiful idea? It’s a scratch-off, and your Mom can win up to $250,000. I know, it sounds a little tacky, but the ticket comes with its own little pink flowery envelope. And that totally sold me.
Or almost totally.
There was this little nagging thought that maybe Mother’s Day and vice didn’t completely mesh somehow. But what is vice, after all? Okay, traditionally, it’s gambling, drinking, smoking, drugs, and prostitution. But today the State itself is one of the biggest players on the gambling scene, with full-bore marketing to take their product ever more mainstream.
And what’s more mainstream than Mom?
When you think about it, “vice” only describes things that people really, really enjoy doing. And although my Mom’s never been much of a gambler, I figured that was only because she’d had to save money to feed me growing up.
So finally, I gave myself a gut check: if my mother could bring me into this world, clothe me, shelter me, raise me to manhood, the least I could do was get her . . . hooked.
But then, more bad Mother’s Day karma: it turns out the commercial I’d heard was for the New York State Lottery. Vermont wasn’t participating in the Mother’s Day promotional.
We have Megabucks, and Powerball, even a game called Freezing Your Bucks Off, but apparently the people at the Vermont Lottery are a bit too hoighty-toity for the Mother’s Day scratchers.
So I did what I had to do: I paid sixteen bucks to take the ferry round-trip to New York, where a son’s love for his mother still means something. And I got the ticket, in the pink envelope.
I was gloating all the way home, and then bad karma again: I got on the New York Lottery’s website and found out that they’re offering an even better Mother’s Day promotion, a way to subscribe your mother’s favorite lottery numbers for the entire coming year.
I almost started crying when I heard that. What could be more intimate, more thoughtful?
Maybe a lottery subscription plus a fifth of vodka, and a tin of chewing tobacco. Which maps out next year’s gift pretty exactly.
Because if vice is the new name of the Mother’s Day game, there isn’t a woman out there in America today who deserves to wallow in it any more than my mother, Diane Marie Fountain. Scratch well, Mom.
And by the way, baby still needs a new pair of shoes, if you know what I mean.
[This piece aired previously on Vermont Public Radio.]
May 16th, 2006
Dubie Does Nothing: Boring Film at 11
by Philip Baruth
So let’s get in the Wayback Machine, and dial up late January, 2006. January 31st, 2006, to be specific.
If you’ll remember, the President’s warrantless wiretapping program had just been uncovered by the New York Times, Bush had denounced the Times as fellow terrorist travelers for doing so, and everyone in America was trying to figure out where they stood on something so disturbing and so secret that it made Nixon’s enemies list seem like a silly whim.
And in that moment, 104 Vermont legislators drafted a letter to Brian Dubie, who chairs the Governor’s Homeland Security Advisory Council. Among the signatories were Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate leaders, back-benchers, concerned Progressives and agitated civil-rights advocates.
Matt Dunne, Dubie’s competition for the Lite Governor’s seat, was a prime mover behind the letter. Peter Welch signed; Gaye Symington signed.
The letter asked, in so many words, What in holy hell is going on?
The response to date: Nada.
That’s right. Dubie has never put pen to paper to answer that letter, and Douglas has never pressured him to do so. Both have acted, for the last three and a half months, as though no query had been lodged.
Of course, warrantless wiretapping of international calls related to al queda has morphed into indiscriminate domestic data mining, spying at all levels, against activists, journalists, and some 250 million Americans.
Now let’s not overestimate the capabilities of Brian Dubie: if he’d responded to the letter months ago, we’d still be where we are today, no doubt. No doubt at all. It’s not like Dick Cheney would have dialed the pliable General Hayden and barked, “Look, Dubie’s all over my ass. Let’s scale back the data trolling and limit ourselves to people on the terror watch list, get me? You don’t know this guy. He’s an animal.”
But that’s not the point. The point is that Dubie didn’t respond, at all. To an urgent query by over 100 elected representatives of this state.
Which begs the question: who, to put it bluntly, does Brian Dubie think he is?
Only because of the additional revelations does it look truly awful, but his dismissal of the issue and the letter was both childish and reprehensible before the disclosures of last week.
At VDB we like to think we’re not naive. Dubie no doubt viewed the letter as a partisan stunt, given that his main competitor had helped to draft it. But think about that for a moment: if wanting to investigate warrantless wiretapping, or writing to Vermont’s Homeland Security arm for clarification is a Democratic thing, rather than an American thing, then nothing could say more clearly that we need Democrats in the top seats from 2006 forward.
So make up your mind, Brian. If you want to identify yourself with Bush and Cheney and their increasingly evident disregard for civil liberties, say so; if you want to identify yourself with neglect and inefficiency, then say nothing, and do nothing.
But if you want to represent the people of Vermont, as you swore to do, then pick up a pen and do what a polite person does when they receive a letter: answer the damn thing.
May 13th, 2006
Breaking Rove News — Sort of
by Philip Baruth
Happened to catch the last 10 minutes of the Randi Rhodes Show on Air America, heading home. In the midst of taking a call, she burst into laughter and stopped the caller to read a breaking news story: that Karl Rove has informed the White House that he will be indicted this week, and will resign immediately thereafter.
Just finished a quick check around the news outlets, including the real leading edge sites, and no confirmation so far. But Randi sounded pretty convinced.
How appropriate that the news would come out on Mother’s Day weekend.
Lord knows Rove is the biggest mother of them all.
It’s 7:37 pm, May the 12th, 2006. And VDB’s fingers are now officially crossed.
Late Update, Saturday, the 13th, 11:51 am:
Still no word out anywhere that we can see, and it’s fully possible that Rhodes was hallucinating. It didn’t sound like it, though, and VDB remains hopeful beyond all logic.
Even Later Update, Sunday the 14th, 10:28 pm:
Multiple reports by email now, to the effect that Truthout.org is the source of the Randi Rhodes Show’s ahead-of-the-curve Rove report. Here’s that link. Whether it’s credible or not, at least it feels good not to be the only person running the story at this point.
If you haven’t stocked your Fitzmas decorations and sparkling wine, you might want to do that early in the week. A word to the wise.
Please log out from VDB now. We just feel like we have to be alone.
May 13th, 2006
Danziger: The Decider Now The Pouter
by Philip Baruth
May 12th, 2006
The Militarization of America
by Philip Baruth
Yesterday’s (yawn) bombshell — that the NSA and George Bush deliberately misled us about the extent of their data mining — served to obscure an equally disturbing story: Donald Rumsfeld now has permission, via the Homeland Security Department, to deploy troops on US soil.
Not to aid in a disaster, or to evacuate following an earthquake.
No, no. These troops would be semi-permanent border guards.
In other words, a small but standing army deployed primarily in Southern (read, Conservative) states.
CNN but here are some key grafs:
“In back-to-back moves this week, the Pentagon began exploring ways to lend support at the Southern border, while the House on Thursday voted to allow the Homeland Security Department in limited cases to use soldiers in that region.
“At the Pentagon, Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, asked officials to offer options for the use of military resources and troops — particularly the National Guard — along the border with Mexico, according to defense officials familiar with the discussions.
“Thursday’s House vote allowed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to assign military personnel under certain circumstances to help the Homeland Security Department with border security. The vote was 252-171, and the provision was added to a larger military measure.”
So let’s get all of our paranoid little ducks in a row here:
* The President has the right to arrest American citizens, on American soil, and detain them without trial indefinitely. Theoretically, these individuals can then be moved to a secret island prison, a place declared a law-free zone by Government officials. There, they can be tortured, abused, or simply disappeared.
And if the secret island prison should prove, ironically, too public, these individuals can be spirited to a network of more secret prisons in Eastern Europe.
* The President can suspend any legislation Congress passes, at his own discretion.
* The President can order the NSA to suspend warrants for the collection and examination of telephone records, not in the case of a handful of suspects, but in broad groups of hundreds of millions of Americans.
* The President has proposed moving an active-duty General to head one of the most crucial civilian counter-balances to the military, the CIA.
* And finally, the Secretary of Defense can now deploy troops within US borders, and these troops will be slowly woven into the fabric of American life in peace time.
Even CNN seems mildly disturbed by this, which says a great deal, given their recent deep bows to the Right Wing.
“The search for a military solution strikes a familiar chord. After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush pushed for a stronger military role in disasters, saying the Pentagon was best able to launch massive operations on a moments notice.”
And of course not only does Bush prefer the military over FEMA in times of natural disaster — you’ll remember that the new plans for an avian flu pandemic call for extensive deployment of military forces, to enforce quarantine, among other things.
Let’s face it: Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney are in bunker mode, and anything like due process or public scrutiny scares the mortal piss out of them. Increasingly, the military is the solution to all of their problems, because no one can investigate, and everyone salutes.
Hence, the military becomes the solution to all of our problems.
And in Vermont, this trend has real resonance: we’ve been hosting Federal agents on our soil now for several years, and it’s always raised my hackles.
Here’s a piece I wrote a few years back, just after being stopped by a Federal patrol — not at the border of my country, or at the border of my state even, but at an utterly random location deep in the heart of Vermont.
And keep in mind, this was written before any of the above revelations, about rampant spying, selective deference to the law, or military forces taking up residence along the Southern border.
Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #140: Vermont’s Secret Border
A few years ago, I wrote a little spoof about the political differences between New Hampshire and Vermont. In this spoof, New Hampshire had erected a border between the states, just outside of Hanover, and this barrier was patrolled by tough-talking New Hampshire troopers.
Their purpose? To screen out Vermonters who might want to move into the Granite State and hike taxes.
Whatever humor the piece generated came from the absurdity of the concept itself: a Federal-style border controlling movement not between countries, but between states. After all, the United States is built on freedom of movement.
In America, we move; therefore we are.
So imagine my surprise a few months back when I got onto Highway 91 South, headed to Chester for a reading. I was running a little bit behind, but 91 is forgiving in that way — it’s a lovely and lonely highway, the south end of it in particular, with a long ten miles and a hundred thousand trees between every exit.
But before I could get up to speed, I saw a scattering of fluorescent traffic cones, and signs that told me to prepare to stop. I got into a long line of cars, and we crept forward.
As I got closer to the hold-up, I saw that four tall men in green uniforms — I had to assume they were Federal agents — were quizzing drivers and then waving them slowly ahead.
I thought, okay, so there’s a manhunt on for an escaped prisoner. But when I pulled to the head of the line, the agent leaned down to my window and asked the $64,000 question: “In what country were you born?”
Now, when guys wearing pointed hats and carrying guns ask me questions, my normal impulse is to answer first, and get indignant later.
So that’s what I did. I answered, “The United States of America,” and the agent immediately straightened and waved me on.
It was only after I’d gone around the bend and lost sight of the check-point that I really started to feel creepy about the experience. First of all, I don’t like routine stops by guys in uniform, and I mean for any reason. I don’t even like it when small towns put smiling policemen out at red lights with donation cans. It’s an abuse of power, however small, however well-meaning.
And what kind of a question is “In what country were you born?” Granted, I’m a layman but isn’t the real question citizenship, not country of birth? Since when do we separate out life-long Americans and naturalized citizens?
All of this came to mind again a few days ago, when I drove down south and hit the same checkpoint.
This time the agents didn’t even bother to ask me anything; they were joking to another, just flicking a glance or two into each car before waving it on. It couldn’t have been any clearer that by now the checkpoint was simply to check license plates, faces, skin colors, profiles.
Clearly someone at the Federal Level wants to sample the flow of traffic moving south from our state into the rest of the country. Maybe they’re thinking arms smugglers, terrorists, drugs, whatever the palette of current threats happens to be.
But understanding the purpose isn’t the same as supporting the strategy. It still seems to me an overly casual assertion of Federal power.
And just speaking for myself, I don’t like it, not one little bit.
[This piece aired previously on Vermont Public Radio.]
A last note: All of these developments make Congressional candidate Martha Rainville’s muddled thinking on the role of Congress with respect to the military all the more alarming. Rainville professes to believe that it’s “counter-productive” for members of Congress to speak out on issues such as these.
At this point in time, that attitude on the part of a Congresswoman would be more than merely timid — it would be an actual dereliction of duty.
Congress desperately needs to reassert itself, and the Vermont delegation must be able to speak with one strong voice, even if for a short while longer it remains a voice in the wilderness.
In my last novel, The X President, I wanted to create a three-part portrait of Bill Clinton: a 109-year-old BC, the 16-year-old who shook JFK’s hand in the Rose Garden, and then — after putting those two contexts in place — the President Clinton we all thought we knew so well.
And so it became a politics/time-travel novel. It wasn’t what I set out to do, believe me, but there it is.
At one point in the narrative, Sal Hayden — Clinton’s only authorized biographer — gets to thinking about time travel itself, and she realizes that it’s a useful category for thinking about other sorts of ways that people mentally reconcile past and future.
Here’s Sal on the 2000 election, Gore v. Bush, for instance:
“The 2000 election wasn’t about qualifications or issues or character, or any of the other things normally thought to decide an election. It was about sending BC a message of displeasure, but a message of an amazing sort. It was about returning to a forked moment in history, and choosing the fork untraveled.
“Here was George W. Bush, so much like a younger and more politically agile version of his father that he might have been genetically engineered, running against Al Gore, which is to say against the entire BC era. In the minds and the emotions of the voters it was Bush vs. BC, the 1992 election, all over again. And they chose Bush that time around, not by a landslide, not even by a clear plurality, but they chose him. It was like putting the whole BC era under a strange kind of erasure.
“That was what galled BC, what ailed him decades later, that the voters had gone back in time and revoted the election that swept BC into the White House as the candidate of change. The 2000 election was about time travel, I realize.”
I thought about this quote yesterday, as I was reading the results of the latest NY Times polling. The numbers are enough to set GOP consultants hair afire, of course, but what jumped out at me was a quote from a follow-up interview with one Bernice Davis, a Republican from Lamar, Missouri.
Bernice had this to say of The Decider:
“We should have stayed out of Iraq until we knew more about it. The economy is going to pot. Gas prices are escalating. I just voted for Bush because he was a Republican, even though I disapproved of the war. If I could go back, I would not vote for him.”
If I could go back, I would not vote for him.
That’s when it hit me: the 2008 election will be a double-reverse in emotional political time-travel, assuming that Al Gore throws his hat in the ring — and if you think Gore intends to let an election with no Republican incumbent slip by, you don’t know the man very well.
Think about it: Bush was brought in mostly out of displeasure with Bill Clinton, and the feeling that maybe 1992 hadn’t produced the best outcome (impeachment, Starr reports, etc.). And magically, there was another Bush on the ballot, like ‘92 all over again.
Now, after two terms of Bush — two terms marked by rampant cronyism, two major American cities devastated, two wars, the last of which grinds on and on, as well as the disappearance of trillions in surplus, these replaced by hundreds of billions in deficits — how many of the American people share Bernice Davis’s yearning for something that feels, emotionally speaking, like time travel? How many want to re-reverse their decision one more time?
In discussing a Gore candidacy, I’ve heard many people wonder what the US would be like today if all the votes had been counted in 2000.
It’s an imaginative premise that would make the foundation of a dynamite speech to the 2008 Democratic Convention. A speech delivered by Obama, in his soft, trademark tone, and introducing the party’s nominee: Al Gore, who takes the stage and bows his head.
And then all of those millions and millions of people who derided Gore in 2000 — as a fabricator, as stiff, as too desperate for election, as too aggressive, too timid — all of those people will be touched by more emotion than they would have thought possible, and no one will really be able to say why.
Late Update, 11:20 am:
Apparently Ann Coulter shares VDB’s vision of the future. She called Gore the Democrats’ “perfect candidate in 2008″ — which she meant by way of insult, of course. But really, if Ann Coulter is already trying to ridicule him, Gore must be on radar screens somewhere in the vast Right Wing.
May 10th, 2006
WCAX Poll: Welch Schools Rainville
by Philip Baruth
By now you’ve no doubt heard the results of the WCAX poll: Welch’s bid preferred by a sizeable number of Vermonters over the increasingly disoriented Rainville campaign. Welch did substantially better with men and women, north and south.
Why? A few guesses: Welch came out of the gate early, ran fast, spoke clearly, with energy and purpose. Rainville has banked almost entirely on her uniform, and once the uniform came off, so did the wheels on the campaign.
But one other slight detail to notice about this early poll. Here’s the $64,000 question:
“QUESTION: If the 2006 election for Congress were held today, for whom would you vote for if the choices were between, Peter Welch, the Democrat, and Martha Rainville, the Republican?”
Okay, we made it easy. But VDB would be willing to bet that a single word in that formulation — the very last one, in fact — represents the ball-game in a nutshell.
It’s going to be a horrific year to be a Republican, in most of the country but nowhere more so than in Vermont.