Ronald Reagan was called the "Great Communicator." Bill Clinton should go down in history as the "Great Co-opter." I can’t count the times I’ve seen various constituency leaders charge into the White House like roaring lions and saunter out as purring kittens: "He really listened." "I think he understands us."
"You know, I think the president is on our side." The trouble is, another constituency with the opposing view meets with the president a few hours later and walks out of the White House feeling the very same way.
Of course most politicians are the same, with some notable exceptions. But Bill Clinton has taken political shmoozing to a new level and transformed the politician’s back-slapping and baby-kissing into an art form. Take, for instance, his political fund raising. Of course, all presidents spend good chunks of their time raising money, but none have been quite as crass and sleazy about campaign financing as this first president from my generation. Sometimes, I think my problem is that this guy just embarrasses me.
I’m even more embarrassed at how many leaders of religious and moral causes sidle up to Bill Clinton. What does he stand for that persuades people who really do stand for faith, justice, or compassion to trust him? Actually, it’s not what Bill Clinton stands for that makes people like and trust him, it’s about sitting—sitting down with them and everybody else is how this president wins people over. He’ll write you notes; he’ll call— it’s amazing how many people report that Clinton calls them "every few weeks"—he’ll have you over to the White House; he’ll ask your advice. Mostly, he will make you feel listened to and special—you and most of the population (or, at least, their key constituency leaders).
If anyone ever understood constituencies, it’s Bill Clinton. By this time, they should know him too. Social service providers know what a disaster Bill Clinton’s flawed welfare bill is for poor children. Conservative religious leaders know Bill Clinton is the most pro-abortion president in American history, and that he has no intention of making abortions "rare" as he promised. Labor leaders know that Bill Clinton just loves rich people and corporation presidents, and that he was never willing to make a move that might get Wall Street "nervous" during the entire budget debate.
Family values advocates know that most of the country (young people included) regard their president as a philanderer and seem to have decided that it doesn’t matter. Black leaders know that Clinton’s national conversation on race really is just more talk. Those concerned about peace and the environment know that Bill Clinton won’t touch the military budget, and that he and Al Gore have made critical choices that tip the balance toward powerful vested interests and away from the Earth. And human rights activists know that Bill Clinton looks the other way from political and religious persecution when things such as business profits in China are involved. Bill Clinton won’t even join in with most of the world’s other nations to outlaw land mines!
WHY DO SO MANY of the nation’s moral and religious leaders still want to be Bill Clinton’s friend? Do we still really think that somehow he is on our side? Bill Clinton doesn’t produce results on the things that many religious and moral leaders care about. What he provides is access, Washington, D.C.’s leading commodity. It’s the principal item sold and traded in this town. But hardly anyone asks what the access is for, what its end or purpose is. Most of the time, it is simply access without content.
Bill Clinton has lowered the art of access distribution to a new level. The Access Distributor-in-Chief has passed enough of it around to pacify even the people who potentially would be his greatest moral critics. Their access has virtually silenced them. I know a few who tried to say things to Clinton while they’re getting their access, but always to no avail. Their access never changes his content. It must therefore be asked, What is the point of the access? Are people expecting success but then are disappointed each time? Do they feel access, whether listened to or not, is better than no access? How many more examples do we need to conclude this president will do nothing but keep on "listening"?
With the Clinton administration, access has become a liability. Access preoccupies the keepers of moral conscience with talking in circles to the president, and thus keeps moral conscience quiet. Perhaps the time has come to kick the access habit with this administration. Sometimes it’s important just to walk away, especially when the silencing of moral conscience is the result of sticking around. Clinton doesn’t have our agenda; he only has his own. The nation needs to hear our agenda again, and to know that we are committed to it even when Bill Clinton stands in its way.