For those who were not of political age in the early 90’s, it is hard to conjure up for you the bright feeling that Democrats, especially Boomer Democrats, had at the election of Bill Clinton. Our Associate Pastor and a psychiatrist friend – both respectable citizens and fathers - drove down overnight and slept in the car, just to be present in Washington during the inauguration. People spread banners at workplaces reading “FINALLY!” Just before the election, an attorney friend had described to me (thinking I was still a Democrat) “We’ve been more popular for years. When people vote in their home districts, they vote for Democrats. It’s only been in the national elections that the Republicans have been able to mislead people. We’re finally getting over the last hurdle.” He then laughed and started singing We Shall Overcome.
An AP writer at the inauguration, distressed at the traditional jets flying over, reassured himself by remembering “Those are our planes now.” Think about that. Whose planes did he think they were before? But we all knew exactly what he meant. Boomer liberals felt vindicated, as if they had finally come into their rightful place. Feminists felt vindicated because Hillary was seen as a “co-president,” to use Bill’s phrase. It seemed a marker of women moving into places of power. Ms Magazine gushed over her frequently. The campaign strategy of alternately hiding her and using her was seen as a simple political necessity – just politics. Easily forgiven.
The enthusiasm was not entirely for Bill and Hillary per se. They were seen even by their supporters of the time as somewhat flawed representatives of the tribe. Yet even their weaknesses were seen as a more appropriate set of flaws: chuckling hypocrisy about drugs and sex, philosophical incoherence with good intentions. That they were opportunistic and relied on charm were only “what all politicians did.” The Clintons were “one of us,” the New Generation (the Now Generation), finally displacing all those evil old authority figures. And we all knew he was a liar, even then, but people thought his intentions were good. And he was from the right tribe.
Yes, even intelligent people older than 20 thought like this and talked like this. What we now call the mainstream media, so much more dominant then, was chockablock full of ‘em. This is the election of the famous Gallup poll that started examining the beliefs of the media itself, because it had become so obviously and thoroughly partisan. That poll revealed that 92% of the journalists covering the White House had voted for Clinton.
People would say openly at gatherings “Maybe this country is going to finally join the 20th Century now,” and “I feel such a relief at this.”
Contrary to the current mythology of the left, conservatives did not have this abiding hate for Clinton from the start. The idea that there were dark forces already at work to undermine his presidency is just crap. Rush Limbaugh had said several nice things about Clinton early on, and even when he was annoyed at his election, took pains to point out several good things that were likely to happen in a Clinton presidency. National Review was grudging in its praise, but had some, and reminded readers to give a duly-elected president a fair shot. There were indeed people who didn’t like Clinton, but not because he was seen as too liberal – Dukakis in ’88 was seen as farther left, and Jerry Brown, a major primary opponent was seen as much further left – but because they thought he was a weasel. Clinton ran as and was elected as a New Democrat: centrist, pragmatic rather than doctrinaire.
Much has been made in retrospect that a few wealthy conservatives, Richard Mellon Scaife, for example, gave money for people to investigate unsavory rumors about Bill, and contributed to organizations that were vowing to work against his policies. This has been somehow interpreted as dark, unamerican forces, undermining the democratic process. No, that is the democratic process. We hold leaders accountable and we advocate for our positions. It is seen as sinister only because that Children of Light/Children of Darkness framework was already in place among the Boomer Democrats. If someone were trying to unseat them from their Rightful Place, that was by definition not Rightful.
When the Republicans won a majority in Congress in 1994, liberals saw it not as a defeat, but a robbery. The natural order of progress had been upended, and the old authorities – Dad telling everyone that dope was bad and to keep their pants zipped – had somehow manipulated the voters through fear and anger. The numerous –gate scandals that the Clintons kept obliging us with were seen as no worse than what politicians, especially Republicans, always did. This sense that no matter what scandal came forward, it was just a put-up job by the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, animated all discussion from the left. Because they believed the right-wing was capable of such things, they believed they had simply not gotten caught. Actual verifiable events of dishonesty were seen as less important than the suspected events of the Clinton critics.
Conservatives believed that the level of corruption and dishonesty in the Clinton administration was something beyond politics as usual and grew increasingly angry at a media which pursued the scandals half-heartedly. When the Lewinsky scandal broke, conservatives thought “We finally have something provable to pin on the bastard. Perjury. About time.” Liberals thought “See, it’s always about sex with conservatives, just as it has been since 1967.” (If you think it is unfair of me to repeat the criticism that Boomer liberals are still equating current politics to their own sexual coming-of-age and issues with their parents, I have evidence as recently as this week of comments from coworkers that can be interpreted no other way.)
The current sense of robbery you can find in The Nation, or Daily Kos, DU, or HuffPo does not come from the 2000 election. It comes from 1994. Or, if you prefer to trace it back further, it comes from Ralph Crumb, National Lampoon, and Mom complaining that skirts are too short. The elections of 2000 and 2004 were only interpreted through that prism, and all subsequent actions of the Bush admin have been seen through that same lens. There must be conspiracies, because Cheney is known to be capable of it. They must be lying because we already know they are liars. They are deceptive and misleading because that’s who they are. Even contrary evidence is regarded as evidence, because that’s how dishonest they are.
Irony: One of the great complaints against Bush is that he went into Iraq on the basis of inaccurate intelligence, overzealous to see only one possibility, already determined to attack Iraq before 9-11. That is actually a pretty good description of liberals attitude toward Bush: inaccurate intelligence, overzealous to see only one possibility, and already determined to attack him for something, even before Iraq. Classic projection.