PRINT January 1995


the Election Season

THE DELIGHTFUL TRUISM that sign supersedes that which is signified, and, consequently, that image rules in America, received additional support during the unusually self-conscious midterm election. This time around, the most popular political special-effect was the morph that transformed Democratic congressional candidates, despite their best efforts, into a sinister image of President Bill Clinton. Late ’94 was a political season when the likelihood of the comprehensive national medical plan that was to be the Clinton administration’s chef d’oeuvre vanished even as NBC’s high-powered hospital series ER proved the most successful new TV drama in 18 years—“A Health-Care Program That Really Works,” per Newsweek’s enthusiastic cover story. (Note: While the conventional tele-wisdom has it that medical shows usually appeal to women, network savants determined that ER’s numbers were swelled by the male viewers who believed it to be an action show.)

When not avidly immersed in ER’s benign cathode rays, one half of the national brain agonized over the dystopian vision put forth by Professor Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein in their bestseller The Bell Curve: America, apparently, is becoming a society hopelessly polarized between a “cognitive elite” arid a growing, irredeemable underclass of criminal types with submoronic 75 IQ’s. Meanwhile the brain’s other hemisphere continued to dote upon the mentally retarded hero of Forrest Gump—a movie repeatedly cited for its positive counter-countercultural values at a “conservative summit” on Hollywood part-sponsored by The National Review. (Note: Murray’s antisocial underclass is overwhelmingly black, while the virtuous Forrest Gump of course is white.)

No sooner had the election results arrived than the allegedly liberal mass media joined their triumphant opponent, Rush Limbaugh, in characterizing the hapless Clinton as the first half-term president in American history. Then they punished themselves further by transferring their attention and. hence the trappings of power to another glad-handing silver-haired scamp, a fellow bubba-boomer—our new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Never mind that this improvement on Clinton had himself, once upon a time, been a deferment-seeking draft-dodger—he was an authentic tough guy, not to mention a divorced and remarried deadbeat dad. (Note: Republican support was overwhelmingly white male.)

Like his demographic cohorts Clinton and Gump, Gingrich was raised, at least initially, by a single mother. And he no less than they was once a countercultural fellow traveler: his youthful indiscretions include opposing the Vietnam War, leading a student protest over an attempt to censor nude photos in a college newspaper, cocoordinating the Louisiana effort supporting Nelson Rockefeller’s foredoomed campaign to beat Nixon to the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, starting a program in environmental studies at West Georgia College, and maintaining his sideburns into the mid ’70s. But Gingrich, who had no interest in feeling anybody’s pain, was far more successful in the presidential role of designating enemies than was affable empathetic Bill.

In a reference to another current Hollywood movie, released under the rubric “The children of America need heroes” and concerning the abrasive rascality of an unpleasant, win-at-all-costs Georgia baseball player, former Clinton aide turned telephone-industry lobbyist Roy Neel warned that our “national politics [was] now a sport played by the Ty Cobbs, not the Forrest Gumps.” At the same time, Gingrich taunted Clinton as a Gump wanna-be, warning the President that it would be “very, very dumb” to attempt to obstruct the Republicans’ vaunted Contract with America. (Clinton’s reflexive response was to sign onto the Contract’s most magical clause—the return of school prayer as the cure for the epidemic of teenage violence, sexuality, and anomie.)

Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans had grasped the electorate’s desire to inflict punishment. They also understood the irrational power of denial: defending Gingrich’s belief in so-called family values, his openly lesbian half-sister remarked that she was “surprised” to see the press demanding of the new speaker “that he be his vision. I don’t think anyone is. I think it’s to his credit that he aspires to be better than he is.” Something old was being reborn, as Republican icon Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated to millions of his fellow Americans over the long Thanksgiving Weekend in Junior, his latest monster hit.

Was the fantasy of a macho white man with the ability to impregnate himself merely one more symptom of mass regression? Was it an idealized corrective of single motherhood? Or was it the poster image for the Contract with America, a tantalizing promise of a Reaganism without Reagan? Indeed, in the midst of the campaign, that old charmer briefly surfaced with his own recovered memory that he, too, was having difficulty remembering.

J. Hoberman’s “42nd Street” was recently published by the British Film Institute. He writes regularly for The Village Voice, New York.