The other day, I speculated that Al Gore’s flip-flopping on matters of war and peace might be something new in our political history. However, my cousin George Chimes, who knows more about American history than I can ever hope to, reminds me that “Gore’s weasel words on issues of war and peace are part of a long Democratic tradition.” He cites Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 campaign pledge to “keep us out of war” and FDR’s 1940 Boston campaign speech in which he vowed never to send troops abroad. George notes that both Wilson and FDR were actively trying to involve the U.S. in war “but wouldn’t own up to it for fear of offending elements of their electoral coalitions.”
I take George’s point. Still, there seems to be something different about Clinton and Gore, though less than what I tentatively claimed. Wilson and FDR were trying to hide the ball. With Clinton and Gore, it’s not apparent that there is a ball. For them, issues often seem to lack reality other than as play-things to be manipulated for political purposes. Consider Clinton’s response to the question of how he would have voted on the 1991 congressional resolution concerning Iraq. Clinton said he would have supported the pro-war resolution if the vote was close, but that the opposition had the better arguments. It’s hard for me to imagine Wilson, FDR, or any other elected high official from the past making a statement like this on the issue of whether to go to war. The statement betrays a lack of seriousness that no past politician could admit to and that, I suspect, few could consciously entertain.
What I take to be the Clinton-Gore lack of seriousness about issues has parallels in modern (or should I say post-modern) intellectual and academic thought. In that world, “texts” (e.g., great literature, philosophy and even laws and judicial opinions) are not valued in their own right, but rather exist only to be appropriated by creative “scholars” for whatever purposes they see fit. Everything is up for grabs. The only limit on valid interpretation is the imagination, and political correctness quotient, of the interpreter. I fear that we are starting to see this sort of “deconstructionist” approach spilling into our politics (recall “it depends on what the meaning of is is”). And if this approach works as well for Gore as it did for Clinton, Republicans are likely to adopt it. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to work very well for Gore. The reason may be that Clinton actually enjoyed the deconstruction game; Gore just seems driven to play it.
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