At the risk of provoking another letter exposing my crypto-liberalism, I confess that I find the country's present mood of Clinton-worship more inspiring than disconcerting. Quite aside from my opinions of his policies, I welcome the unfamiliar sensation of living in a society which feels that respect and enthusiasm for our political leaders is acceptable behavior even for intellectuals.
Until now, both intellectuals and pop culture figures have promoted the notion that suspicion and derision are the proper attitudes of informed citizens toward their elected officials. Listening to our parents tell where they were when JFK died is the closest my generation has come to a youthful idealism which doesn't require contempt for those in power.
Now, however, Newsweek's portrayal of Bill Clinton as a knight on horseback conveys more hope than irony, whereas a similar picture of Ronald Reagan or George Bush would have been meant as a sneer at the president's delusions of grandeur. Perhaps some of this is due to the media's liberal slant, but not all. Both liberal and conservative politicians are routinely subjected to the sort of ridicule which Clinton is presently being spared. What, then, is the reason for this new optimism about politicians?
Simply put, our culture needs heroes. The very principle of democracy that gives us all the chance to be potential leaders is also the principle which instills in us an instinctive and often harmful mistrust of leaders or any figures who stand out from the common crowd.
Of course it is essential for citizens of a democracy to know that their superiors have feet of clay, but we seem to think we have been naive or apathetic citizens unless we think of them as clay from head to foot. It is also fashionable in intellectual circles to deride the police and the army as merely instruments of imperialism and authoritarian repression, a stance which makes respect for the executive branch of government even more difficult.
The treatment of candidates for public office also contributes to the government's loss of dignity and subsequent inability to inspire or lead the people. In the name of "the people's right to know" or "checks on government power," the dignity of a candidate is demolished by questions about his third cousin's sex life, sophomoric satires and photos of him in the bathtub with his rubber duckie.
Al Gore's alleged failure to loosen up during public appearances bothers us because we expect our leaders to jump through hoops on Letterman's "Stupid Pet Tricks" to prove they're just average guys like the rest of us.
Culturally, we have been bombarded with images of anti-heroes, vigilantes and glamorous villains, while traditional heroes of the American people are discredited as slave-owners (Jefferson), tools of class interests (the Founding Fathers) or "dead white males" (the philosophers on whose ideas our Constitution is based). The death of Superman is the ultimate symbol of the culture's inability to countenance the existence of even imaginary heroes who have not been defiled or humbled.
The end result of this debunking fervor is that we have no positive images of authority in the service of justice--in a word, no one to look up to--and we grow to imagine that an anti-social stance is more praiseworthy and intelligent than admiration for those above us.
Now that the country is in a crisis, we are in even more need of an antidote to the cynicism that paralyzes the political process and that played a large role in the decline of Bush's political effectiveness. Hopefully, we are starting to realize that our government functions better when we refrain from assuming it is guilty 'till proven innocent.
As long as we criticize the president's every move, we discourage him from taking any action and following through on his promise of change. For the sake of the national morale, I hope Clinton proves worthy of the trust we have decided to place in him.
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