For two whole days, earlier this week, a storm of cheers and hurrahs rang out across the liberal commentariat — your Brad DeLong-types along with columnists from The Atlantic and The Nation — for what was described as the persuasive force and uncommon seriousness of Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Liberal writers have occasionally turned a critical eye on the style of such televised events, with their gaudy solemnity and razzmatazz religiosity.
Generally, however, the likes of Eliot Weinberger reserve their scorn for one wing of the US state leadership. Few professional rewards are sacrificed nor any social standing risked with such efforts.
Rare is the non-radical who will portray with real venom an entire assembly of establishment creeps and crooks, as did Philip Roth in his description of Richard Nixon’s 1994 funeral — at which Clinton delivered one eulogy:
[The] whole funeral of our thirty-seventh president was barely endurable. The Marine Band and Chorus performing all the songs designed to shut down people’s thinking and produce a trance state: ‘Hail to the Chief’, ‘America’, ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, and, to be sure, that most rousing of all those drugs that make everybody momentarily forget everything, the national narcotic, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Nothing like the elevating remarks of Billy Graham, a flag-draped casket, and a team of interracial pallbearing servicemen – and the whole thing topped off by ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, followed hard on by a twenty-one gun salute and ‘Taps’ – to induce catatonia in the multitude.
Then the realists take command, the connoisseurs of deal making and deal breaking, masters of the most shameless ways of undoing an opponent, those for whom moral concerns must always come last, uttering all the well-known, sham-ridden cant about everything but the dead man’s real passions. Clinton exalting Nixon for his ‘remarkable journey’ and, under the spell of his own sincerity, expressing hushed gratitude for all the ‘wise counsel’ Nixon had given him. Governor Pete Wilson assuring everyone that when most people thing of Richard Nixon, they think of his ‘towering intellect’. Dole and his flood of lachrymose clichés. ‘Doctor’ Kissinger, high-minded, profound, speaking in his most puffed-up unegoistical mode – and with all the cold authority of that voice dipped in sludge – quotes no less a tribute than Hamlet’s for his murdered father to describe ‘our gallant friend’. ‘He was a man, take him for all and all, I shall not look upon his like again.’ Literature is not a primary reality but a kind of expensive upholstery to a sage himself so plumply upholstered, and so he has no idea of the equivocating context in which Hamlet speaks of the unequalled king. But then who, sitting there under tremendous pressure of sustaining a straight face while watching the enactment of the Final Cover-up, is going to catch the court Jew in a cultural gaffe when he invokes an inappropriate masterpiece? Who is there to advise him that it’s not Hamlet on his father he ought to be quoting but Hamlet on his uncle, Claudius, Hamlet on the conduct of the new king, his father’s usurping murderer? Who there at Yorda Linda dares to call out, ‘Hey, Doctor – quote this: ‘Foul deeds will rise / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes’?
Who? Gerald Ford? Gerald Ford. I don’t ever remember seeing Gerald Ford looking so focused before, so charged with intelligence as he clearly was on that hallowed ground. Ronald Reagan snapping the uniformed honour guard his famous salute, that salute of his that was always half meshugeh. Bob Hope seated next to James Baker. The Iran-Contra arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi seated next to Donald Nixon. The burglar G. Gordon Liddy there with his arrogant shaved head. The most disgraced of vice presidents, Spiro Agnew, there with his conscienceless Mob face. The most winning of vice presidents, sparkly Dan Quayle, looking as lucid as a button. The heroic effort made by that poor fellow: always staging intelligence and always failing. All of them mourning platitudinously together in the California sunshine and the lovely breeze: the indicted and the unindicted, the convicted and unconvicted, and his towering intellect at last at rest in a star-spangled coffin, no longer grappling and questing for no-holds-barred power…
The style of these official events has been honed to even more ghastly effect over the subsequent two decades, as the US president has actually acquired no-holds-barred power.
Since Washington made its strategic turn towards unrestrained belligerence to counteract the emergence of competitive rivals — and since the state’s executive branch arrogated for itself the right to conduct ‘military and national security operations’, such as killing people anywhere any time, without having to grant due process or ‘publicly disclose the criteria which guide its actions’ — the praetorian flavour to proceedings, the loving attention devoted to the murderous deeds of the ‘finest warriors in the history of the world’, has become more pronounced. So has the vicious gangsterism of the speakers’ language (see John Kerry, Joe Biden, etc.)
Witness the vice president’s extraordinary performance.
Faced with this, it seems reasonable to quote Walter Benjamin’s 1936 remarks on the aesthetics of imperialist war: on the historical emergence of a social order that allows ‘war to supply artistic gratification’, and encourages the population to ‘experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’
In Nixon’s day, US society had room for professionally-successful ‘progressive’ antiwar intellectuals, producing material like Roth’s Our Gang. But our own time is rather different. Special historical circumstances are needed to make possible something like the following scene from the TV series The Newsroom, created by the Democrat servant Aaron Sorkin.