HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 5, 2007
From Liberty Street

Guile Enough

John Turner


Over the weekend I talked with a friend who admires Hillary Clinton for precisely the characteristics that are now winning her the sharpest criticism -- the practice of seldom fully committing herself and hedging on every controversial issue. This, he said, is the price of getting elected. And unless one wins office he, or in this case she, cannot govern.

My friend is a believer in the ancient doctrine that successful politicians must be practitioners of lesser evils. Governing well involves committing minor immorality in order to head off major instances of it. When we look for pure or consistently heroic politicians, we're chasing after something that can't exist in human society.

Though I sometimes have contrary impulses, I know he's right. It's foolish to sign on with the cavalcade of yammering liberals who rise up, outraged and indignant, against every minor indiscretion. There is no habit more supportive of continuing Republican rule. As Socrates said, if you want to be a truth-teller, remain in private life. Truth in office will get you killed.

On the other hand -- and there always is the other hand -- flirting with wickedness in order to do good is a perilous habit. You start off concentrated on good and, then, gradually, ever so gradually, you find yourself swept up in behavior that once would have disgusted you. You thought you were going to use it but you find it using you. This, too, is an ancient tale.

I wish I were more confident that the entire Clinton operation has not stepped over that line. And I hope even more that they're aware the line exists.

Senator Clinton's vote to allow the president to stick a terrorist tag on a major Iranian military unit is certainly extremely close to the divide. It helps the president engage in additional name-calling, which he has already done so much we're ridiculous in the eyes of the world. And worse, it gives him an opening to launch military attacks which in our current condition would be close to disastrous.

Willingness to risk developments of that kind in order to gain an advantage in the general election is skating close to the brink. I'm sure Senator Clinton and her advisors think they have a better read on the American electorate than anybody else. They know Americans have been trained in belligerency and general yahooism for quite a while now and are not going to be weaned from them overnight. One needs the votes of millions of dopes in order to become president. Any successful campaign has to be scheming every minute to get them.

Even so, there's such a thing as over-scheming. An astute politician must scheme but she also has to avoid being seen as a schemer. That's clearly the label Senator Clinton's Democratic opponents are going to try to paste on her before she sweeps them into the campaign's dustbin. They, too, are playing a dangerous game. Every charge they bring against her now will be resuscitated by the Republicans in the general election. Maybe some of her rivals think that Clinton is just a bad as a Republican, but if that's their position they're dead wrong.

There is, of course, no way finally to resolve the tension between idealism and worldliness. We live with it; we manage it; we don't find a way to escape. I'm convinced, however, that in dealing with that strain most politicians are in greater danger of getting pulled too far towards worldliness than they are of succumbing to naive principle. In the case of Senator Clinton, I suspect that some time over the course of the next six months, she is going to have to stand up forthrightly for something controversial she genuinely believes and take the hits that come with that stance. I hope she doesn't think she can hedge her way right through the doors of the White House.

She needs to choose her positions carefully, but she does need to choose, and, having chosen, to straight-arm the phalanx of goons who will be sent to drag her down. She has said that if we want somebody who knows how to deal with the right-wing smear machine, she's our girl. Before too long, she'll be called on to prove it.


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