For a while, last Thursday, a headline on realclearpolitics.com read: “Clintons Spurns Calls To Quit.” Eventually someone caught the typo and made the noun singular.
I preferred the first construction. “Clintons” as a singular noun. A unitary force. A whole that is vastly greater than the sum of its parts — Hillary and Bill. There should probably be a verb, as well. To “Clinton” something or other. Or, you could be “Clintoned” as Obama surely must have felt he’d been many times during the last few months. Anyone who has been “Clintoned” isn’t likely to forget it. And that’s sort of the point, don’t you see?
Not everyone in politics becomes a household part of speech this way. It is difficult, in fact, to come up with many examples. There is “Nixonian,” a modifier that has saved many a pundit the trouble of elaborating on some pol’s shiftiness, lack of scruples, and chilly unlikability. “Nixonism” would be “Clintonism” without the charm.
When you think about it, Nixon and Clintons actually have a fair amount in common. Both ran for president three times and, if current trends hold, both will finish two out of three. Both were distinguished for actually having impeachment proceedings launched against them. Clintons, being tougher than a blowtorch, hung in and survived the impeachment attempt. Nixon beat it out of town ahead of the posse. Barely.
Both the Nixon and Clintons presidencies will be remembered, mostly, for the impeachment business. (The only other member of that club is Andrew Johnson and there is no part of speech named after him.) Nixon, though, did accomplish a few things. He went to China, something which, for a generation, he had helped make impossible for anyone else in American politics to do. He imposed wage and price controls. And he generally made the government bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive.
Clintons’ lasting accomplishments were in the nature of shrinking the government … sort of. With the passage of NAFTA, Clintons lifted the government’s foot off the neck of free trade. (Though in Clintons’ campaign against Obama, this was downplayed and denied.) Clintons also reduced the government’s custodial responsibilities by going along with welfare reform. Nixon, it should be said, accomplished nothing to compare with this.
Still, the legacies of both Nixon and the Clintons are pretty thin. Nor do we remember either Nixon or the Clintons for great oratory or memorable figures of speech. Neither requires much space in Bartlett’s. When you think about Nixon, just about the only phrase that sticks in the memory is, “I am not a crook.” Which is both inelegant and … well, a lie. But that’s what we’re left with. Not a call to greatness or a stirring appeal to our better natures. Merely a crude denial.
Which is also just about the only thing Clintons will be remembered for when it comes to rhetoric. There was, “I did not inhale.” And, then, that line for the ages: “I did not have sex with that woman.” Like Nixon’s celebrated denial, this one turned out to be untrue.
The other half of Clintons will likewise not be remembered for any spectacularly felicitous phrase. There was a famous denial, of sorts. Something about not being Tammy Wynette or making cookies. She did come up with “vast right-wing conspiracy,” which has a certain lilt, but wasn’t really accurate. The movement — or whatever it was — turned out not to be especially vast or very conspiratorial. And it certainly wasn’t sinister since Clintons, during the third presidential run, welcomed the conspiracy’s chief financier.
There was a moment when some of us felt the kind of thrill that can be stimulated by a well-tuned political phrase. “The era of big government is over.” Now that’s good stuff that can make you sit up straight during one of those tedious state-of-the-union rambles. It came early in Clintons I, so some of us were naïve enough to buy it. But it was merely the con of the day, just another rhetorical sop.
Nixon once told the press they wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around any more. But, typically, his word wasn’t good. Now we are told that Clintons are finished. The people saying it now were telling us, just a few months ago, that Clintons was inevitable. Believe what you will. But one more thing that Clintons and Nixon have in common is extraordinary durability. One of many dismaying things about the arc of the American experience is the fact that we started with a president who was reluctant to serve, knew when to go away, and wouldn’t come back. Now we have the other thing. Now we have people who spend a lifetime in pursuit of the office, cling to it until their fingers are bloody, and can’t be counted on, ever, to leave town for good. Clintons clearly don’t know when to quit and will come back endlessly. There is already talk of a 2012 scenario. Obama loses to McCain who stumbles and will be vulnerable …
“Clintons Spurns Calls To Quit,” indeed. The phrase is neither grammatical nor news.
– Geoffrey Norman is editor of vermonttiger.com.