Public demonstrations measured by crowd sizes are not absolutely reliable epistemological demonstrations of public favor or disfavor. There were moments in the events that followed the death of Ronald Reagan that gave the tribute to his memory a special force. Indeed, the recognition of the special qualities of the man and the president disarmed most of Reagan’s conventional critics. But the naysayers weren’t silenced. One of them was driven to remind us, and, one supposes, The Guinness Book of World Records, that the death of Warren Harding brought out more people to line the streets of sorrow than the death of Ronald Reagan. From which one is supposed to deduce something. I guess, that Reagan may in the future emerge as a lesser figure than Warren Harding.
But only two weeks after the Reagan funeral we had the Clinton book. New York is a pretty blasé city, but grown men and women swooned with admiration, love, and reverence when Mr. Clinton came to town to sign copies of his book. One observer once again relied on comparisons. He said that the crowds, and the intensity of their devotion, exceeded what was done for the Beatles back then, or could be done for Madonna today.
What were they looking for? People who have read the book and reported on it haven’t unearthed what the worshipers are after, but then that’s because they are not after anything at all. They are, simply, full-time altar boys in the cathedral. They want to love Bill Clinton, who wants to be loved, and would probably be president today but for the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. You can spend all year shaking that tree hoping for droplets of reason or wisdom, but they wouldn’t come down, wouldn’t, even if the book were ten times the unreadable length it now is.
Then too, there are crowds not of Reagan/Clinton size but large on the scale on which critical event crowds are measured. Notable is the critical crowd attendant on the release of the movie-documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. It is the production of comic ideologue Michael Moore. Its thesis is, approximately, that Bush and Cheney are war criminals, and capitalist tools engaged in war-for-profit.
Left-leaning columnist Christopher Hitchens is given to wayward excesses, but he devotes sharp attention to the Moore crowd pleaser in Slate magazine, in an article titled, “Unfairenheit 9/11.” It makes pretty good reading, and it’s unfair to go to the last chapter, but life is short, and therefore I disclose it. “Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery.”
You got that?
But the article isn’t mere obloquy. It is analytical.
Consider the golf scene. “The president is captured in a well-worn TV news clip, on a golf course, making a boilerplate response to a question on terrorism and then asking the reporters to watch his drive.”
Moore’s idea, of course, is to communicate President Bush’s insouciance by juxtaposing war & golf. Here is how Hitchens handles that: “Well, that’s what you get”–boilerplate response–”if you catch the president on a golf course. If Eisenhower had done this, as he often did, it would have been presented as calm statesmanship. If Clinton had done it, as he often did, it would have shown his charm.”
Yet those who are impatient, who were dismayed by the crowds that sought the inside story of the Kennedy assassination by viewing Oliver Stone movies, reasonably refuse public despair. The display of thoughtful grief over Mr. Reagan’s death is a better measure of ultimate sobriety than Clinton at Barnes & Noble, or Michael Moore, prophet of Bush showing off his golf drive, and revealing his soul.
George Bush keeps saying that he has confidence in the good judgment of the American people. This isn’t just political obsequiousness. The American people can’t be counted on for unerring political judgments, but they are ever so much more reliable than Michael Moore, and they can weather, in the longer seasons, even the charm storms of William Jefferson Clinton.