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Last Refuge of a Politician in Trouble

“Patriotism,” Samuel Johnson observed, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Surveying the political landscape today, more than two centuries later, Johnson would find ample evidence to confirm his claim. But over the last decade or so, U.S. political leaders have carved out an even more ignominious retreat: family misfortune.

With whiffs of Enron wafting through the White House, President Bush resorted to the gambit last week. Having been caught misrepresenting his relationship with former Enron chairman and CEO Kenneth L. Lay, Bush tried a new tack, expressing shock and indignation at the company’s callous--and possibly criminal--irresponsibility. Adopting the posture of aggrieved family member, he announced that the victims of Enron’s perfidy included his own mother-in-law.

Unlike thousands of other Enron employees and investors, Bush’s mother-in-law, who saw an $8,000 investment go up in smoke, will not lose her home or retirement income. But however hollow it rings, the president’s melodramatic gesture commands our attention, for it offers a limpid illustration of an increasingly popular recourse among U.S. leaders. Put in the form of an adage: When the going gets tough, the tough talk about their family pain.

The strategy has been abundantly evident in recent days. After hasty consultations with a former Enron public-relations official, Linda Lay, wife of the company’s former chairman, appeared in a two-part interview on NBC’s “Today” show. Sitting in her elegantly appointed home, a tearful Lay portrayed her husband as a “decent” man duped by underlings, a “victim” of others’ deceit. Along with the couple’s five children (all from previous marriages), she insisted that the company’s collapse “has been a nightmare for the family .... We’ve all suffered right along with everyone else.”

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Even GOP Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, one of the primary beneficiaries of Enron’s political largesse and chief sponsor of the deregulation law that enabled the company to be more than a mundane energy supplier, has donned the mantle of victim. In an interview with a Dallas newspaper, Gramm announced that his wife, Wendy, a member of the Enron board, had lost more than $600,000 in deferred compensation when the company declared bankruptcy. The luster of victimhood, Gramm may be betting, will distract voters from questioning the propriety of him pushing sweetheart legislation on behalf of a company, then turning around and accepting, through his wife, hundreds of thousands of dollars from that company.

For those who savor irony, it is delicious to watch Republican leaders playing this victim-by-proxy game, after years of hearing them devalue the suffering of others with talk of responsibility and rugged individualism. But the game is thoroughly bipartisan. Former President Bill Clinton raised it to high art, routinely exploiting family trauma--his father’s death, an abusive, alcoholic stepfather, even, in the pivotal days before the 1992 New Hampshire primary, his own marital infidelities--for political gain.

Former Vice President Al Gore routinely indulged in the same practice, hoping, in the words of one political consultant, to “humanize” his image. But Gore, for better or worse, lacked Clinton’s confessional gifts, and his forays into family trauma--wife’s depression, son’s accident--invariably came across as inept and insincere.

One of the most unseemly examples of the practice came during the 1996 campaign. Not content merely to criticize Republicans’ dependence on the tobacco lobby, Gore recounted watching his sister, a smoker, die a slow and agonizing death from lung cancer. That searing experience, he reported, had confirmed his conviction about the fundamental evil of the tobacco industry and, by implication, of the politicians beholden to it. The problem, as with so many of Gore’s autobiographical stylings, lay not in the broad outlines of the story but in the details, specifically, the fact that he had continued to accept tobacco money for more than a decade after his sister’s death.

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While Gore plumbed the depths, the prize for cynicism surely belongs to the current president’s father. In a televised debate against Michael S. Dukakis during the 1988 presidential contest, the elder Bush was asked to explain his sudden shift from longtime supporter of abortion rights to righteous opponent of abortion. The correct answer, of course, was Ronald Reagan, who insisted that Bush change his stance as a condition for including him on the Republican ticket in 1980. Rather than admit the obvious, candidate Bush, clearly primed for the question, rehearsed a heart-wrenching story of his and Barbara’s loss of a 3-year-old daughter. Diagnosed with leukemia and told she had only four weeks to live, she landed up surviving for six months. Watching that child’s struggle, Bush explained, had persuaded him of the utter sanctity of every human life and, by implication, of the inherent evil of abortion. So, yes, he concluded, his position had “evolved ... evolved towards life.”

Like his son, the elder Bush lacked Clinton’s relish for self-revelation, but it was a poignant and plausible story, at least plausible enough to paralyze Dukakis. (Kitty and I lost a child, too, you know, he replied woodenly.) No one at the debate thought to ask why Bush had waited more than a quarter-century after his epiphany before reversing his stance on abortion. Either the elder Bush is, like Gore, a slow learner or his recounting of the family tragedy was what it appeared to be: political opportunism designed to deflect attention from an inconsistency. By contrast, the younger Bush’s melodramatic account of the misled mother-in-law appears almost charmingly innocuous.

No one would deny the anguish of losing a child, or even the outrage of seeing loved ones bilked out of their money. Even president’s feel pain. But there is a difference between pain and pandering, between acknowledging the grief and disappointments intrinsic to family life and parading them for political gain. Viewed in this context, President Bush’s declaration of victimhood bespeaks a plague in our political life.

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James T. Campbell is an associate professor of American civilization, Africana studies and history at Brown University.


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