It’s true that for people with a reputation for brains the Clintons are amazingly inept at (as editorial writers say) “getting the facts out.” They apparently cannot bring themselves to admit that their actions are less than noble, even when their actions, like avoiding the draft or making a quick buck in the commodities market or lying about an affair, are merely human. Since their hearts are in the right place, what does it matter where their hands happen to be? The arrogance is a little exasperating. But politically, Clinton is an accom- modationist. There is no point of view he cannot share. Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, he informed the grand jury on August 17, were both telling the truth. What is there in America that doesn’t want to be accommodated?
Gore’s answer was striking for its dispassion. After all, the ques¬tion of whether, if he inherits Clinton’s legacy, he will also inherit Clinton’s enemies can never be far from his mind. He must, in his man-of-God mode, he distressed at finding his own carefully tended ambitions threatened by the moral negligence of his brother Bill. In his star-quarterback mode, he must be ready to strangle the guy. But he took a very, very long view of the situation.
He began, with great deliberation (throughout our conversation, the speed dial was turned way down), by suggesting two reasons for the present toxicity. The first is political. “I view our efforts as be¬ing rooted in a longer and larger Democratic tradition,” he said. “Franklin Roosevelt would have recognized the kind of outreach and broad-based coalition building that we have engaged in. So would John F. Kennedy.’’ In those days, he said, the Democratic Party was the dominant party in America, and that is the party he and Clinton have been trying to resurrect. “The success of the 1990s version of the Republican Party,” he said, “really depends on a cartoon image of the Democratic Party, rather than a rebuilding of the Democratic Party at its best.” The Republicans understand that if the new DNA takes, they are doomed to minority status forever, so they cannot merely oppose Clinton. They must deny him legitimacy.
The other poison, Gore suggested, is cultural. “There is a deep well of cynicism in the culture today,” he said. The country has suf¬fered, over the last forty years, “a whole series of body blows to the self-confidence necessary to self-governance.” That government doesn’t work has become the premise of every political dispute, and all the Republicans need to do to discredit the administration’s poli¬cies is to drop their bucket into this well.
From one point of view, of course, this was an answer from Mars. Surely one did not need to go back forty years to look for the source of cynicism about politics; one could just go back to Monday. If you were writing a book on cynicism, the sentence “It depends on what the meaning of‘is’is” would make an excellent epigraph. Still, Gore’s analysis was a reminder that he and Clinton really do think of their mission as a generational one, and that they have to be under¬stood in a generational context.
Clinton was born in 1946, Gore two years later. Both men essentially started running for office when they were in grade school. This meant that for both of them the romance of politics was repre¬sented not by Eugene McCarthy or Tom Hayden or Daniel Cohn- Bendit, but by John F. Kennedy. The photograph of Clinton shaking hands with Kennedy in the Rose Garden, taken just a few months before the assassination, is a well-advertised piece of Clintoniana. Gore’s connections were much more personal. He is the only son of Senator Albert Gore, Sr., and he was introduced to Washington pol¬itics as a small child. The Kennedys were not just distant icons; they were, in effect, his dad’s business partners. They came to the house.
So that Clinton and Gore are not, in the general sense, sixties Democrats; they are, much more specifically, Kennedy Democrats. For all their futurist-sounding talk about the New Democrats and the Third Way (a distinctly Toffleresque phrase), they are really try¬ing to go backward, to reknit a raveled tradition. They think that the Democratic Party went down the wrong road after 1963, and per¬sisted on it for almost thirty years. A national majority party trans¬formed itself into a minority party. From 1963 to 1992 was the Interregnum. Clinton and Gore mean to be the Restoration.
Like most Kennedy Democrats, Clinton and Gore are defined by their antagonistic relation to Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s Great Soci¬ety policies, in the view of many Kennedy Democrats, set an impos¬sible standard for the role that government should play in the effort to achieve social progress, and helped to polarize the electorate, to the disadvantage of the Democratic Party. But those policies might have been successfully moderated. Johnson is the villain because of his prosecution of the war in Vietnam. It was the war that created the culture, as Gore had described it to me, of political enmity: it dug the “well of cynicism” about government, and it destroyed the Democratic Party. It gave us Nixon, Watergate, and the degradation of the public service ideal.
For Clinton and Gore, the issue was not just political; it was per¬sonal. To young men who had been grooming themselves for a polit¬ical career on, as they imagined it, the Kennedy model, Johnson’s war presented an impossible dilemma. It forced them to choose be¬tween duty to country and duty to conscience, and in the most con¬crete way: they had to face the draft. The draft was a crisis for both Clinton and Gore, and nothing shows up the contrast in their per¬sonalities better than the difference in their strategies for coping with it.