EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (including some colleagues who need to have it read to them),
It’s hard being a Clinton. And while I have every confidence that I could get a solid 300 words’ worth of Viagra jokes out of that statement, I’m not even going to go there.
Often, when I say the Clintons are liars, I hear from people who reply, “So what? All politicians lie.”
That’s true, to one extent or another. But it also misses the point.
It’s Who They Are
Let me take a stab at explaining what I mean. One of my closest friends really likes college football — particularly Nebraska football — beer, and chicken wings. One early afternoon about 20 years ago, back when we were both single, I swung by his apartment. He was in his living room. Spread out on the floor was a newspaper opened to the sports page, a copy of Sports Illustrated, and some other intelligence he needed for his wagers. Alongside that: a pile of chicken bones next to what was left of a large order of chicken wings, and a beer, and some assorted chips. On the TV: the pregame chatter for the big Huskers game scheduled to begin soon.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“JG, you see this?” he asked, as he waved his hands across the full bounty in front of him, sort of like an overly expressive interior designer describing his vision for the curtains, the carpets, the ceiling fan, the wall paint, etc. “You see this?” He asked again, still waving his hands over the wings, the beer, the TV: the whole spread. “This is what I am about.”
When my dog caught a rabbit at Hillsdale College a couple years ago, I was horrified. I’m no hunter and I don’t like seeing cute things kill other cute things. But when I yelled at my Carolina swamp dog, she looked at me with a single clear conviction she wanted to impart: You don’t understand — this is what I am about.
Lying is what the Clintons are about.
And, no, I’m not talking about Bill Clinton lying about his “relationship” with Monica Lewinsky, or the numerous credible accusations that he was a sexual predator. Bill earned the name “Slick Willie” long before he questioned the meaning of “is” or claimed that while Lewinsky had made sexual contact with him, he had not had sexual contact with her.
Bill lied with half-truths, whole lies, whole truths wrapped in deceptive contexts. He was like the air-traffic controller in Airplane! when handed a weather bulletin just off the wire. Lloyd Bridges asks, “What do you make of this, Johnny?”
Johnny replied, “I can make a hat! I can make a broche! I can make a pterodactyl . . .”
Well, like the replicator in Star Trek that just moves molecules around to make you any meal you want, Bill Clinton can pluck nouns and verbs from the air and serve them as if they were hot steamy piles of truth.
When a political consultant asked Clinton how he would explain his past pot smoking when he ran for president, Clinton replied that he would simply say he broke no U.S. laws (he smoked weed at Oxford). When Raymond Strother told him that wouldn’t fly, Clinton came up with his “I didn’t inhale” line.
I’m going to ignore all of the political lies — for the Second Amendment, against the Second Amendment, for welfare reform, against welfare reform etc. — because they are boring and typical of other politicians. I prefer the lies that more directly reflect his character. The ridiculous, utterly unnecessary, Trumpian boasts that even he couldn’t possibly believe. He was like Dr. Evil’s father, making outrageous claims just to make them. He didn’t say he invented the question mark, but he did tell a farm conference that he knew more about agriculture than anyone who’d ever occupied the White House — which would have been news to, among others, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter. He told educators in New York, “I suppose that I have spent more time in classrooms than any previous president,” which would have surprised professor Woodrow Wilson. One of my favorites was when he was asked whether Al Gore had really invented the Internet. Clinton replied, something like, “Well, you know, he came a lot closer to inventing the Internet than I did.”
Now I am being a bit unfair to Hillary Clinton. She is not a born liar the way Bill is. Bill is the Michael Jordan of lying. Lots of people can score baskets. But Jordan was in a class by himself both for his skill and his ability to make it look fun.
With the possible exception of barking like a dog, Hillary Clinton doesn’t make anything — anything — look fun. She even makes being married to a fun guy seem unfun. (I should say, he’s probably more to blame for that.) Hillary lies as much as Bill, but she’s more like Larry Bird; she gets the job done, but no one would call it graceful. (Caveat: Sports analogies are not my forte so my apologies if this misses the mark like a volleyball falling short of the goalposts.)
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Bill, is like Good Will Hunting, the savant who knows the answer to the math problem just by looking at it. Hillary has to show her work. When Michael Jordan dunks over you, you might say, “How did he do that?” When Larry Bird does it, you say, “I see what you did there.”
So that brings me to Hillary’s CBS interview Thursday.
SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS: You know in ’76, Jimmy Carter famously said, “I will not lie to you.”
HILLARY CLINTON: Mm Hmm. Well, I will tell you, I have tried in every way I know how, literally from my years as a young lawyer, all the way through my time as Secretary of State to level with the American people.
PELLEY: You talk about leveling with the American people. Have you always told the truth?
CLINTON: I have always tried to.
PELLEY: Some people are going to call that wiggle room that you just gave yourself “always tried to.”
Jimmy Carter said, “I will never lie to you.”
CLINTON: You’re asking me to say, “Have I ever?” I don’t believe I ever have. I don’t believe I ever have. I don’t believe I ever will. I am going to do the best I can to level with the American people.
First of all, she is lying about not believing she ever lied. It’s like an Escher drawing of hands drawing themselves, a Mobius strip of deceit, where, in an effort to seem like she’s telling the truth about lying, she’s lying even more. (Even PolitiFact, the hackiest and most biased of the fact-checking outfits, which bends over like a Bangkok hooker to defend Democrats, has a long list of her more recent lies.)
What I love is the way she phrases it as a struggle. She’s tried “every way I know how” not to lie. It’s a burden, a task, a chore to make statements that can plausibly count as truths. This isn’t how truth-tellers talk, it’s how sociopaths talk about how hard it is to deny their urges.
Her problem is quite simple: Hillary Clinton is a lawyer who lies. Bill Clinton is a liar who’s a lawyer. (Or at least he used to be a lawyer. He had to forfeit his license because — wait for it! — he lied under oath.)
When cornered, Hillary always talks as if she’s being deposed. She needs the wiggle room, the caveats, the “to the best of my recollections.”
It’s all of a piece with Hillary’s larger problem. As I keep saying, simply because you marry someone of great skill doesn’t mean that skill becomes community property. Bill Clinton, despite his flaws — nay because of them! — was a great politician. Hillary Clinton merely married one. Mrs. Jordan can’t dunk. Mrs. Clinton can’t lie — convincingly.
Prepare for the Trumpian Tornado
In 1997, a year before he died, James McDougal was interviewed by NBC. For those of you who don’t remember, McDougal was an Arkansas business partner of Bill Clinton’s, who’d gone in on the Whitewater land deal. His life was largely ruined by his association with Clinton. He was asked if he felt betrayed by the Clintons. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “I think the Clintons are really sort of like tornadoes moving through people’s lives. I’m just one of the people left in the wake of their passing by, but I have no whining or complaining to do, because I have lots of company.”
He added, “I just got sick and tired of lying for the fellow, you know.”
The F6 Cometh
Tornadoes were long measured on the Fujita scale. An F1 tornado was the weakest and an F5 the strongest, which some call “the Finger of God.” Tetsuya Fujita allowed for an even stronger tornado, an F6, which would have “inconceivable” winds.
Yesterday, watching the coverage of Donald Trump’s spat with the pope (by Crom, I just wrote those words), I had the sickening feeling that we are in the early stages of the political equivalent of an F6, the Middle Finger of God.
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Now, to be fair about all this, I think this whole thing was overblown. Much of the controversy is attributable to a lot of things being lost in translation and partial information being conveyed in a loaded question. I will even add that, to the extent there’s a clear argument about public policy here, Trump has the better of it.
But, as the pope might say, you reap what you sow. An increasingly irrational cadre of supporters have defended Donald Trump’s “middle-finger politics” as if the man is a disciplined, serious-minded politician who is brilliantly exposing the failures and hypocrisies of the American political system. I simply don’t buy it. A politician who had no idea what a “ground game” was until days before the Iowa caucuses and who has no idea why campaigns do their own polling is not a brilliant political craftsman. His failed flirtation with the Reform party was not a key part of his long game.
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You can make the case that he’s a kind of natural, another political Will Hunting, who has “tapped into something,” and I’ll concede there’s evidence on your side. But the notion that there’s some rigorous method to the seeming madness strikes me as nothing more than magical thinking. Even to find coherence in his statements and consistency in his positions is an act of faith.
The fact that the ranks of Trumpian faithful are swelling is not evidence I am wrong. It is simply proof that political math really isn’t math at all. As I put it ten years ago, when Donald Trump was still a Democrat:
Politics has a math of its own. Whereas a scientifically minded person might see things this way: One person who says 2+2=5 is an idiot; two people who think 2+2=5 are two idiots; and a million people who think 2+2=5 are a whole lot of idiots — political math works differently. Let’s work backwards: if a million people think 2+2=5, then they are not a million idiots, but a “constituency.” If they are growing in number, they are also a “movement.” And, if you were not only the first person to proclaim 2+2=5, but you were the first to persuade others, then you, my friend, are not an idiot, but a visionary.
Of course, idiocy and its distribution in the population isn’t the point. You can build a movement out of true observations — i.e., 2+2=4 — as well. The point is that political power flows from numbers and, more importantly, that such power becomes self-justifying for those who enjoy its effects. Passion becomes more “legitimate” as more people share it, no matter what the content or object of that passion is. Any unified field theory of politics would have to include this basic law of the political universe. It is true in democracies and dictatorships alike. Like the laws of gravity or thermodynamics, it can be exploited or minimized. But it cannot be repealed. It is a constant of the human condition.
Arguing with some ardent Trump supporters (I’ve argued with some perfectly rational ones, I should note) can be exhausting simply because they don’t really care about the things we normally care about when measuring a politician’s merits. Consistency is no concern. Temperament is for lesser mortals. Good character is for chumps. Intellectual rigor — or even coherence — is the fixation of “the smart set” that allegedly got us into this mess. Trump is a blind, crazed, bull in a China shop smashing and stomping everything to bits, and his fans stand on the side and salute his genius and care.
The smart — or at least smart-sounding — argument for Trump is that he’s a “disrupter,” breaking up the calcified and sclerotic political establishment, yada yada. Left out of these rationalizations is the fact that “disrupter” is a morally and intellectually neutral concept. A chimpanzee running around a hospital ward with a hand grenade is a disrupter.
It’s like the fetishization of the word “contrarian.” “Ooo he’s a contrarian, he doesn’t bow to the conventional wisdom!” is a sentence you can use for Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, and Gandhi. But it’s also a sentence you can apply with equal accuracy to Charles Manson, Lenin, and some guy taking a dump on the counter at McDonald’s.
If you run into a room spinning around like a helicopter of fists, you very well may punch some noses that deserve to be punched, but you will also hit some that don’t. The dismaying thing about so many Trump supporters is the way they get the moral cause and effect backwards. The proof that someone deserved to be punched in the nose is the fact that Trump punched them.
The rush to insist that Trump can do no wrong is not merely intellectually incoherent and morally indefensible, it is poisonous.
This rush to insist that Trump can do no wrong is not merely intellectually incoherent and morally indefensible, it is poisonous. Imagine if, in 2008, Barack Obama had ridiculed John McCain for being captured and tortured. Every single member of Trump’s amen chorus would have denounced the comments unequivocally. But when Trump does it, the response is to marvel at how he survived the statement. That’s not moral or intellectual seriousness, it’s blatant power worship. And it is disgusting.
Speaking of disgusting, here is Ann Coulter defending her American Bismarck in classically Bismarckian terms, insisting that Marco Rubio is a pawn of his master in Rome. This nativist garbage pales in comparison to the racist and anti-Semitic bile that washes up in my inbox and Twitter feed every day, all in the name of defending Trump. And, no, I am not saying that all or even most Trump supporters subscribe to this garbage. I am saying that when you celebrate bomb throwing, you shouldn’t be surprised by what gets dislodged by the explosions.
Let us stipulate that we have been and are in dire need of some disruption. Can we also stipulate that some of the pieties and hypocrisies in American politics are a function of necessity, not corruption?
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I’ve talked enough about the virtue of politeness and persuasion in politics. But how about a little disdain for unrestrained political carelessness? Trump’s total lack of ideological or intellectual rigor and consistency is making fools of people who once claimed they cared about such things.
Trump’s schtick as a sprinkler system of insults is getting everyone dirty. He throws mud on anything and anyone in his way. But that muck washes off quite easily. What stains down to the soul is the eagerness to apologize for, or even celebrate, the filth.
In his professional life, Trump has left a trail of wreckage. His own James McDougals are strewn about like victims after a tornado. And his defenders celebrate this as proof he’s a great businessman. Now the F6 is heading for Washington. His fans remind me of the naïve fools in Independence Day who welcome the aliens with cheers and handmade signs on rooftops, incapable of fathoming that they will be greeted with a death ray.
The analogy breaks down because the dupes on the roof didn’t pave the way for the invaders. Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters have been crucial in bringing the Middle Finger of God to our doorsteps.
Various & Sundry
My column from yesterday is on how the world is falling apart but everyone wants to talk about the Iraq War.
Earlier in the week, I wrote about how Obama’s lip service to civility was exactly that – lip service. If he really cared about such things he would think twice about replacing Justice Scalia.
Speaking of my column, I learned this week that Hillsdale’s student newspaper dropped my column. This is fine. I never thought college papers should carry syndicated columnists and I told the students that when I was out there “teaching” a class. What I didn’t know until this week was that the student editor who made the decision was none other than Jack Butler, who is now my research assistant at AEI (and the compiler of most of the odd links in the V&S section). He made the decision when he was still on the paper last year and failed to mention it during the job-interview process. But they forgot to actually notify the syndicate so I was getting paid all this time. Still, I think as a matter of principle, I have to punish Butler. I may simply require him to remove the tip of a finger, Yakuza style. But I’m open to other suggestions.
I will be speaking next week at Furman University. Details here.
On March 8, I will be speaking at the James Madison Institute in Florida. Details here.
On March 11, I will be the dinner speaker at the Pacific Research Institute’s Baroness Thatcher Gala. (Details here.)
I will then be going on a family vacation, so I’m not sure if I’ll be “news”lettering. I should also say that I am starting to freak out about getting my book done, which may mean some extended hiatuses in 2016. I will try very hard – even harder than Hillary Clinton’s effort to tell the truth – to honor this commitment. I hope you will appreciate that when it comes time to, you know, buy the book.
Doggie Update: Not much to report this week. The Dingo is still the boss of the Spaniel, who is becoming more and more of lapdog (though sometimes under protest) when not outside. Zoë tolerates Pippa’s antics to a point. But every now and then she puts her paw down and tries to eat the poor girl.