One of Bill Clinton’s favorite movies, according to the newspaper, is High Noon. It’s one of my favorites, too, a classic Western about a lone man standing up against evil. I watched it again the weekend before the inauguration.
As finely chiseled as the lines on leading man Gary Cooper’s face, High Noon is the story of Will Kane, the surprisingly decent marshal of a small, frontier town. (Do they make heroes this good anymore?) On the day of his retirement as marshal and his wedding to a Quaker woman, Kane learns that a gang of gunmen who once terrorized the town are returning on the noon train to kill him. His bride urges him to run while there’s still time, but Kane won’t run. As the big grandfather clock in his office ticks off the minutes until noon, Kane tries to round up a posse, but nobody will help him. Even his deputy refuses to fight unless Kane agrees to a deal, but Kane won’t compromise. In the end, he faces the gunmen alone.
High Noon portrays the hero at his finest hour, making his stand in broad daylight: the perfect photo-op. But for the new president, and for most of us, evil must be fought when we’re tired and discouraged, in the precincts of the long shadow and in the corridors of power, where deals are made and vows are broken: no gunslingers here, just a lobbyist nodding, and a spokesperson coughing, and someone bringing in more coffee and danish because the fight has just begun.
Only a year older than Clinton, I, too, grew up worshiping heroes who blazed paths of righteous destruction. During the campaign, I wanted Clinton to be a hero, an insider with integrity, a political warrior who would follow through on his promises. I wanted to believe again in the possibilities of democracy.
Mostly I wanted George Bush to be defeated. After twelve years of Republican rule, the country was like an accident victim waiting for the ambulance to arrive: better late than never, and so what if the driver wasn’t the man of our dreams? I was willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt — even though, depending on the day of the week, he came across either as a centrist friendly to business or as a populist beholden only to the working class; as a genuinely compassionate man, someone who really listened, or as an opportunist who had learned to fake it, another minor god of television talk-show voodoo who knew just when to bite his lower lip.
Regrettably, the inaugural address was a letdown, a speech by someone trying to sound like a hero — always a mistake. I wasn’t moved by his reassuring images of hope and renewal, his faith in the future, his call for “a government for our tomorrows, not our yesterdays.” (Clinton is so fond of the Fleetwood Mac line “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” he wants to have it put on a sign in the Oval Office.) For politicians, tomorrow is always a clean, white sheet: no scribbled sentences, no messy past, no slave ships or napalmed Vietnamese. Today, America has night in its eye — but tomorrow can keep its dark side hidden. Today, America is the world’s largest arms merchant — but tomorrow the lie of peace rolls easily from its lips. As Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn observed, “The great thing about tomorrow is that it never comes, and by the time it does you can reschedule the rhetoric, claiming that it is necessary to adapt to new circumstances. . . . Tomorrow is an endless alibi.”
But I, too, seduce myself with the untrammeled future. How much easier to start a new list or a new diet than to confront my outlaw emotions. Faced with more work than I can possibly finish, I pretend that if I reorganize my desk, tomorrow I’ll get more done. At the dinner table, I reach for seconds and thirds, promising myself that tomorrow I’ll eat less. The roll around my middle is a fact, just like the country’s inflated budget. But facts are hard to live with, for politicians and everyone else: better the curvaceous future, the new year’s resolution, the new economic plan. Is it any wonder that changing the simplest habit — not eating between meals, for example — can seem as intractable as reducing the national debt? As I stand in front of the refrigerator reaching for a late-night snack, the power brokers in me shake hands, pass out cigars: they know who really governs.
I’m not surprised, therefore, that Clinton hasn’t kept all his promises: that he ran against Washington insiders, then named Washington insiders to key positions; that he campaigned against the Bush policy of sending Haitians back without a hearing, then adopted the policy himself. Now that he’s in the White House, I hope Clinton runs harder in the morning, arrives at his platitudes face flushed, out of breath. I hope he stops trading the present moment — which is all we have — for abstractions about the future. I hope he remembers that if eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, he needs to keep one eye on the face in the glass.
Clinton did follow through on one promise. If elected, he said, he would invite to his inauguration fifty-three ordinary citizens whose lives and stories touched him during the campaign, unsung heroes he called the Faces of Hope. US Air donated $200,000 in first-class tickets to fly the Faces of Hope and their guests to Washington. Bloomingdale’s contributed $100,000 in evening wear to outfit them for the black-tie inaugural balls. Certainly, even in the Clinton era, you couldn’t expect ordinary men and women to arrive by bus, to mingle in their Sunday best with show-business celebrities and millionaires.
To assure the success of an inauguration that sometimes seemed more like a coronation, nearly two hundred wealthy individuals, labor unions, and corporations — including General Electric and the Tobacco Institute — wrote big checks. Party-goers toasted the new president with $50,000 worth of champagne donated by Korbel, and drove from one ball to the next in five hundred new cars donated by Chrysler, Ford, and GM.
The president and the people who worked for his election deserved a party. But Clinton got elected because millions are out of work and Depression is a headline again. Did that keep the Democrats from spending $30 million to celebrate their victory? Will the decaying inner cities and the homeless and the dispossessed keep the Democrats from proving that they, too, can be a party of excess — that they, like the Republicans, can drive through burnt-out neighborhoods, chatting amiably about “enterprise zones,” while dishing out billions for what we still call, with no hint of irony, national defense?
If I sound churlish, I’m sorry. I wish the president well, and I really don’t expect him to cut as noble a figure as Gary Cooper. That’s what the movies are for. Still, I’d like to see him learn to drink from the cup of power without spilling a drop, walk a straight line from his great ambition to our great need. When the clock strikes noon, when he’s up against the bad guys — not the tyrants of faraway lands but the tyrants in our midst, the real enemies of freedom — I’d like to see him make a stand. If shaking hands with John F. Kennedy inspired the youthful Bill Clinton to a life of public service, we’ll take his measure now by whose hand he refuses.