Off To The Culture War

For a few days last week, it almost felt like next year. The primaries were over; the candidates selected. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole wandered the country, disgorging sound bites, submitting themselves for photo ops (Clinton on a horse, Dole next to a cable car), stroking supporters and trolling for enemies. And a fine show it was, especially the enemies part. It's basic political tradecraft: you can use adversaries to define yourself. An inspired choice of foe is--next to ready money (pace Phil Gramm) -- every politician's fondest dream. This is particularly true for fuzzy, fudgy, compromising sorts--like Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. A good part of the president's problem during his first two years in office was his relentless crusade to wow all comers, to avoid making enemies. It was hard to know who he was because it was hard to know who he wasn't. That's changed some since Oklahoma City. Indeed, Clinton has verged dangerously close to popularity since he began attacking the National Rifle Association, right-wing talk-show hosts and assorted camouflage wearers--and he sought to reinforce his good fortune by going off to militia land last week, choosing Billings, Mont., for his first town meeting in more than a year.

Bob Dole has had a similar problem. His very name is a problem. According to Webster's, it is almost synonymous with wary moderation: "something portioned out or distributed, usually grudgingly." He has made his name his reality in the Senate, where colleagues of both parties consider him an almost magical deal-cutter. This, however, has not been an advantage in the heaving bosom of his chosen party, where the flagrant have overwhelmed the fainthearted. And so the senator has had to demonstrate that he has something more going for him than seniority; he has needed to show some passion, to do something primal. Last week, in Hollywood, he did--bombing and strafing some of the entertainment industry's more sordid trash purveyors to very great effect.

Judging by squeals elicited, Dole had a much more successful week than the president in the enemy-illumination department. Indeed, as Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition told The Washington Post, it may have been "a defining moment" for his presidential candidacy. Certainly, Dole's current, poky crop of challengers for the Republican nomination have to be wondering if they've got much, beyond the vice presidency and future considerations, to run for. "He's making all the right moves. He hasn't made a single mistake so far," says one of the other GOP candidates. "This makes it easier for Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition to move in his direction, which is what Ralph's been wanting to do all along. Right now, Dole's four touchdowns ahead and we're just hanging around, hoping for fumbles."

The Los Angeles speech was a curious event. Dole is, by nature, an indifferent campaigner. Left to his own devices, he will drift off into vague pastures, munching on bland, ill-defined declamations like "leadership is what it's all about" and "the bottom line tonight is that it's all about America." He will intersperse these with wry one-liners. The result often seems more like dealership than leadership. He did his usual song-and-dance in Los Angeles, too--but only after halfheartedly mumbling his scathing indictment of Hollywood mogul morality from a TelePrompTer. This TelePrompTer business seems a major campaign breakthrough.

But then, the notion of Dole reaching out to the "values" wing of the Republican Party is another unlikely masterstroke. "It's been the real surprise of our campaign," said a Dole staffer. "Who'd have thought we'd be able to steal the religious-activist wing of the party?" The Los Angeles speech--shepherded by longtime adviser Mari Will--was brilliantly written and tactically subtle. It didn't call for censorship. It didn't call for any sort of legislative remedy. It was, in that sense, less ambitious than Tipper Gore's effort to suggest a rating system for rock-music lyrics. It was, instead, an overt attempt to embarrass those who traffic in cultural trash--and it generated most of its heat through specificity. "Those who cultivate moral confusion for profit should understand this: we will name their names and shame them as they deserve to be shamed," he said and then, after singling out the executives of Time Warner's egregious music division, he asked: "Is this what you intended to accomplish with your careers? You have sold your souls, but must you debase our nation and threaten our children for the sake of corporate profits?"

The reaction from Hollywood was immediate, effete and lame. None of the usual suspects--Norman Lear, Ed Asner, Jack Valenti--would defend the films and lyrics Dole had attacked. Instead, they were left gasping about censorship and regulation, neither of which had been threatened, and tried to shift the subject to gun control (especially Dole's shameful efforts to reverse the assault-weapon ban). Asner mentioned a rather dubious study positing that "only" 10 percent of violent acts were media-inspired--in truth, the cascade of amorality from Hollywood is one of several perverse braids twining into the anomic culture of poverty and criminality in the nation's cities. Anyone who claims that rap lyrics cause violence is oversimplifying (Dole was careful not to); but anyone who doubts that Hollywood's violent, misogynistic messages have a profound impact on the lethal, parentless children prowling the streets has to be blind. Unlike the religious right, which has modified its public message significantly, the lifestyle left remains unabashed and unrepentant.

Perhaps the most effective response to Dole was the most oblique--from Bill Clinton, during his Billings town meeting, lamenting the "public officials only too happy to criticize the culture of violence being promoted by the media" but who are "stone-cold silent" when it comes to right-wing talk-show hosts who make "violence [against federal officials] seem like it's OK." Even Pat Buchanan was forced to admit the president had a point. Meanwhile, Dole quickly reverted to quasi coherence, stumbling through an interview with Dan Rather--unconvinced, it appeared, by his own arguments--while reassuring the troops, and perhaps himself, several times in the days after the speech, that he was "a moderate" who wouldn't "lead us over the edge."

Clinton seemed easier in the saddle than Dukakis in the tank. He was at his best in Billings, though he never found the confrontation with the overweight, camouflage-fatigued militia loony that he may have been looking for. There were no questions about "black helicopters" or U.N. troops preparing to overthrow the U.S. government, no criticism of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It was a more . . . Clintonian crowd. A young girl whose father worked for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said she was afraid for his safety. A woman said her friends were "tending toward the militias" and wanted to know what the president would say to them. A Native American was concerned about all the hate going around.

The president waltzed through these. He was in deep awshucks mode, even admitting twice--zounds!--that he lacked the information to answer obscure questions. For the rest, his message was calm, reasonable, more eloquent in tone than substance. "We have reached a point where too many of us in this country now are looking at each other as enemies," he said. "This country's meal ticket to the 21st century is our diversity, but it's a headache--right?" He was all for tolerance, and against the groups that organize and raise money "so that we'll hate each other even more than we did before." After a month of defining his enemies, he didn't even have to name them.

It was, in sum, a far more convincing performance than Dole's . . . but a less compelling message. The NRA and militia loonies are credible villains, but not quite so immediate or frightening as the threat symbolized by performers like Ice-T and Geto Boys--the threat of sociopathy triumphant (to say nothing of the more pedestrian battle that most parents fight every day against trash culture, the battle over what the kids watch on television and for how long). Bill Clinton has spoken out about those problems, too--but he's never quite distanced himself far enough from his party's Hollywood moneypot and extreme libertine-liberal wing. As Bob Dole found out last week, they're enemies worth making.