Posted on September 07, 1992 in Washington Watch

In a presidential election year, almost anything can become “political”: even a hurricane, even a candidates’ wife.

When Hurricane Andrew hit southern Florida on August 24th, it devastated a fifteen mile-wide swath of land across the state. Two hundred and fifty-thousand people were left homeless by the storm and property damage has been estimated to be nearly $20 billion.

President Bush immediately declared Florida a “federal disaster area”, thereby entitling the state to federal emergency relief assistance. A team from the Federal Emergency management Agency (FEMA) went to the state to survey the extent of the damage, assess the needs of the population and make specific recommendations for relief work. On the 26th Bush himself visited the storm ravaged area and pledged additional aid.

At this initial juncture the press coverage of the President was quite positive. Bush had reacted quickly and decisively, and his new Chief of Staff James Baker was credited with a well-organized White House effort.

But the needs in Florida were great and complaints began to surface. As the President’s son Jeb Bush, himself a South Florida resident, noted “When you’ve lost your home and everything, nothing seems like enough.” On the 27th a local Florida official, in an emotional press conference, charged that federal agencies were not providing enough help. Florida’s Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles echoed the charge and requested federal military assistance to protect against looting, provide temporary shelter and dispense emergency meals and medical aid.

News broadcasters began to provide extensive coverage of individual hardship cases, people who complained, “When there is a crisis overseas the President responds, but we’re his people over here and he’s not doing anything.

On the 1st of September Bush returned to Florida, bringing with him an additional 5,000 military personnel. By now the White House was aware that it had a political time bomb on its hands, so they drastically increased their support. Instead of low-interest loans to those who lost their homes and businesses, the government agreed to provide outright grants. Almost $400,000,000 in clean-up assistance will be provided. By week’s end more than 20,000 military personnel were on duty in south Florida, erecting temporary housing, medical facilities and kitchens.

And to the relief of the community of Homestead, whose town had been completely destroyed, the President announced that the government would rebuild the demolished Homestead Air Force base (which employs some 3,000 people), even though the Pentagon scheduled it to be fazed out over the next few years. The cost is expected to range between $500 million and $1 billion.

The press reaction to these later developments has been, in a word, cynical.

The reason is simple. This is not just a hurricane and Florida is not just any state. George Bush needs to win Florida in November if he is to be competitive in the general election. It’s all political. The President is in a bind: he was damned when he responded judiciously with a careful eye toward proper procedure, and equally damned when he responded dramatically and, as some have charged, excessively.

The press reaction was much the same this week following President Bush’s visit to Texas (another must-win state for the President) where announced to workers at the General Dynamics Corporation that he would reverse a ten-year old policy and approve the sale of 150 of that company’s F-16 fighters to Taiwan (thereby saving 3,000 jobs). It was the same at another stop, when the President he reversed a position he had taken several months ago by announcing to farmers in South Dakota that he would support $1 billion in wheat subsidies to assist their export sales.

The press and the Clinton campaign immediately denounced these actions, charging that the President was using these incentives to buy votes. Bush was called “Santa Claus.”

Foreign policy considerations aside, the President’s action in Florida, Texas and South Dakota are viewed as purely political. They are playing well with their targeted audiences who will definitely benefit, but they are reaping pages of negative press in the rest of the country.

While George Bush continues to receive the lion’s share of hostile press coverage, Bill Clinton has been anything but immune from the “everything is political” syndrome.

For example, the treatment Clinton’s wife Hillary has received is actually a little bizarre. When the campaign began, Hillary Clinton was viewed as an asset to her husband’s effort. A strong and intelligent woman, she has established substantial credentials as an attorney and an advocate. She chairs the Children’s Legal Defense Fund, an advisory group that protects children’s rights. She was a Carter Administration appointee heading up a national legal services organization.

With charges of “womanizing” in the air just as he announced his campaign, it was important to Bill Clinton that his wife appeared with him as a supportive ally. She did.

Since many Democrats knew more of Hillary Clinton’s position on issues than the general public, some have argued half in jest that she would make an even stronger candidate than her husband. (Indeed, after Bill Clinton was elected Governor of Arkansas in 1978 at the age of 32, some Arkansans joked that maybe they’d elected the wrong Clinton.) And so it became quite common in some circles to say that with Clinton “you get two for the price of one.”

At that point the press and the opposition began to scrutinize Hillary Clinton’s views and her work. Significant attention was given to two particular aspects of her past work.

In the 1970s Hillary wrote a number of articles arguing for the need to codify laws regarding the rights of children. She asserted, correctly, that since there are times when the courts have intervened to protect children (e.g., incest, child-abuse, criminal parents), there ought to be a more precise definition in the law where a child’s rights can be detailed. In a paragraph written in 1979 where she suggested which areas might be considered for such a codification:

Decisions about motherhood and abortion, schooling, cosmetic surgery, treatment of venereal disease, or employment, and others where the decision or lack of one will significantly affect the child’s future should not be made unilaterally by parents. Children should have a right to be permitted to decide their own future if they are competent.

This has led opponents to make the extreme charge that Hillary Clinton would undermine the rights of parents and create a situation where children could sue their parents if they were ordered to take out the garbage or clean their rooms and refused to do so.

Another recent episode of Hillary-bashing was the work of the Nation Jewish Republican Coalition. She was the chairman of the board of a U.S.-based foundation that issued a grant to a U.S. charity which in turn made a grant to two women’s groups in the West Bank with pro-PLO tendencies. This tenuous was picked up by two major newspapers, the New York Post and the Washington Times. The Post went so far as to headline its editorial “Hillary’s PLO Connection.

After a series of episodes like these, the Clinton campaign sharply curtailed the more visible activities of Hillary Clinton, and relegating her to the role of supportive but less-opinionated wife. Why? Because it has become too “political” and is putting Hillary in visible roles only invites the raising of issues that the Clinton campaign wishes to avoid.

Both campaigns and the press can be faulted for frequently playing this cynical game of distortion.

Bill Clinton, for example, has charged that George Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge, when he knows full well that the President did so at the insistence of the Democratic Congress and as part of a compromise in which Congress promised to cut spending—a promise that it has not kept.

Bush counters with the charge that Clinton raised taxes 128 times as Governor of Arkansas, when he knows full well that the charge is, at best, an exaggeration and distortion. Most of the 128 were fees—not taxes—and many were actually part of a single piece of legislation. As critics have noted, using the same yardstick, the single tax increase signed by President Bush would become 73 tax increases.

Other charges and counter-charges have flown back and forth over health care, abortion, foreign investment, environmental policy, Clinton’s draft record and family values.

The tone of the charges has been harsh—often too harsh; and the truth-value of the charges has been slight—often too slight.

It is a game of political one-upsmanship which the campaigns play with one another for their own amusement and for the entertainment of the press. The public, and their feelings and concerns, are ignored.

One day the Bush campaign actually issued a press release making fun of Bill Clinton’s weight gain. For its part, the Clinton campaign never tires of making a joke of Dan Quayle and his spelling error. Clinton is termed a “skirt-chaser” and “draft-dodger”, Bush is called and “elitist” and a “failed President.”

The result of these juvenile games is an increase in public cynicism and alienation, and a degradation of the very political process itself.

Politics in its proper definition is the contest of ideas about government, a test to see which groups representing which interests and approaches to governing shall win the right to rule. By putting forth a program of ideas and winning an election, a group receives a genuine mandate on which to govern.

But as a result of the way politics has been practiced of late, its very meaning has been transformed. “Politics” has by now come to mean the cheapening of an idea or the cynical use of power to secure an advantage.

The issue is no longer how best to help the victims of Hurricane Andrew, but how to get one up on the other side. The issue is not how best to provide jobs for American defense workers or farmers, but how use their plight to attack the other side. The debate is not over Hillary Clinton’s real ideas or the important role that a candidate’s spouse play in shaping policy, but how to distort her views into something which is unrecognizable from their original form but nonetheless a useful club with which to beat her husband.

All of this is, of course, unfortunate, because beneath the surface of the ploys and charges are important differences in the political viewpoints and philosophies of the two candidates and their parties. But in listening to the campaign news this week, those opposing viewpoints and philosophies were not discernable. What was discernable was the other “politics”—and that is what Americans mean when they say they are tired of “politics as usual”.

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