January 19, 2001

Our President - Embracing the Middle Class at the Expense of the Poor

By Richard Rodriguez

Bill Clinton came from the trailer-park American South, from people that genteel southerners like to call "trash." But however often late-night comics scorned him as "Bubba," William Jefferson Clinton transformed himself into the president of America's middle class — that was his triumph and his limitation.

Other recent American presidents have come from backgrounds as humble as Clinton's. Think of Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter. But Clinton's home life was never less than what pop psychologists call "dysfunctional." Mama had several husbands who became stepfathers with fists and red eyes.

Who can blame the boy for running so far from such a past? Who can guess what the child knew, very early, about losers in America and about standing on the outside, nose pressed against the glass? The boy we see, young Billy Clinton of the photographs, already was fixed on his hero, the golden John Kennedy.

The price that the man, President Clinton, would pay for running so far and so fast is that he would never achieve a great presidency. To become a great president, one must touch the lives of all people, most especially the very poor and hopeless.

Clinton lacked the secular populism of Lyndon Johnson. He also lacked a religious language about poverty. It's hard to imagine him, in retirement, working alongside Jimmy Carter, building houses for the destitute in Tijuana.

Eight years ago, the novelist Toni Morrison called Clinton America's first African-American president. Her's was an interesting conceit. But Clinton, more truly, was our first "middle-class African-American president."

I do not mean to diminish Clinton by saying this. Truly, Clinton crossed some new racial border. But one sensed that his ability to trespass the racial border in America allowed Clinton to ignore the border of class in America.

In fact, at the start of Clinton's presidency, there were nearly a million persons in American prisons. As his presidency ends, that number has grown to more than two million. Is it necessary to add: Most of those in America's jails are black and lower class?

We of the middle class don't go to jail in America. We get several months of "community service" or we get methadone treatment centers. Or we get good lawyers.

For all of his intimacy with black America and maybe because of that intimacy, Bill Clinton never challenged the black bourgeoisie's support of programs like affirmative action. In my opinion, what is flawed about affirmative action is that it benefits the non-white middle class, lets the middle class benefit from being "minorities," because of a numerical tie to the excluded lower class.

On the other hand, perhaps the best thing Clinton ever gave the poor in America was a lack of sentimentality. Just as it took the anti-communist Nixon to make a diplomatic breakthrough to China, it took a president with a distinctly unsentimental regard of the working class to reform welfare so radically.

One sensed the cruel depth of Clinton's lack of sentimentality also in his sexual treatment of white southern women with big hair. He used them, and then he debased them, and then, when he couldn't get rid of them, he paid them off. He allowed his henchman, James Carville, to wonder aloud about all the things a hundred dollar bill might pick up in a trailer camp.

Clinton's sexual appetite turned middle-class in the course of his presidency. He ended up playing Big Daddy in the Oval Office to an over-ripe daughter of Beverly Hills. Then he lied to America; then he apologized to America. Then he bombed a foreign country to help us forget.

And just as Clinton's black civil rights supporters downplayed the growing numbers of incarcerated Americans during his tenure, middle-class feminist groups wanted to turn to other matters than presidential misbehavior. Feminist groups were more interested in abortion and glass ceilings.

His best friends were movie stars — gaudy, vulgar, and noisy. And the Lincoln bedroom seemed always occupied by some nouveau riche, someone like himself, who had re-invented himself.

The Republican party, especially its fierce Protestant right flank, never understood the affection Americans of the middle class had for him. Clinton was a scoundrel, yes, everyone agreed. But just as we do not expect to be judged harshly for our misbehaviors, we would not judge Clinton harshly. Maybe he should "seek treatment" for his sexual misbehavior?

In the end, he became a globalist who rarely evoked a sense of home. Who knows where he will live after the White House? What matters to most middle-class Americans is that he made money for us. He flattered our needs and so we flattered him. We called him a genius.

So self-preoccupied are we as middle-class Americans we assume that what benefits us must benefit the nation. And besides, any discussion of class bothers us. We prefer to talk about identity politics — about race and sexual identity. It is hard for us in the middle class in America to care that the population group with the lowest level of participation in the recent presidential election was the poor.

We of the middle class think little about them, as little as Bill Clinton talked about them. Truly, he was our president, the president of the American middle class. And we are going to miss him!

Richard Rodriguez is author of "Days of Obligation: An Autobiography with my Mexican Father" and the forthcoming "Brown."

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