Everyone seems to have something to say about “Survivor,” and I don’t see why I should be any different. It seems to me the popularity of the show rests on two things. The first obviously is that it’s kind of fun, or at least not without interest, to watch sandy people in shorts squabble, scheme and eat rats. The other is that viewers can’t resist making unconscious connections between what they’re seeing on the screen and what they’re doing in their lives.
I don’t mean to sound like Al Gore, but I believe the power of metaphor is alive here. I think the wild popularity of Wednesday night’s show is due in part to people seeing the attempts of the folks on the island to survive as crude expressions of their own attempts to succeed, to achieve lives of satisfaction and meaning. Some of us are tough and assertive, like Susan; some are cold and calculating, like Richard; some resourceful like Rudy or sweet and kind like Sonja or a bit of a mixture, like Kelly. We don’t want to harm anyone, we just want to win. Sometimes we find ourselves caught in the snares of others; sometimes we throw a snare or two ourselves. I think people rooted for the person most like them, or the person most like what they’d like to be.
Last night Susan gave the most memorable speech by an American so far in this political year. Her—I’m paraphrasing—Richard, you’re a snake, and Kelly, you’ve become a rat, and I think we should do as nature intended and let the snake eat the rat is already famous and was talked about in offices across America all morning today. But Richard’s speech—again paraphrasing—I did what I felt I had to do, and I hope you can respect that—and Kelly’s—I’m not proud of all of my actions here, but I was trying to do well while also doing right—were also solid, and memorable.
No one was trying to be eloquent. They were just trying to get their point across. They did. Some politicians could learn from this.
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Since this column is called Hillary & Company, I think it’s time to discuss Mrs. Clinton. I have been thinking about her . . .
I have been thinking about a candidate for the U.S. Senate who was a nationally known figure, had never run for office before and was not in fact a native of the state in question. The candidate had been a central figure in a White House scandal and had garnered both a hard-core following of passionate supporters and an army of critics spurred to great effort by great loathing; they said the candidate was using the Senate run as a stepping stone to the presidency.
The candidate had a relatively weak opponent, one who already held state office but whose record was lackluster.
This candidate fought hard, with solid television commercials paid for in part by thousands of donors from outside the state who felt they had a stake in the election. Gales and torrents of money came in to help the candidate, gales and torrents of money sent in, too, to help the opponent. Everyone cared about this one.
The nation watched and waited; the Tuesday in November came. And when it was over, the candidate—Oliver North, a Republican—lost by 50,000 votes of two million cast to his opponent, the incumbent senator, Democrat Charles S. Robb of Virginia. (Final tally: Robb 46%, North 43%.)
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Interesting, yes? The North-Robb parallels to Clinton-Lazio aren’t perfect by any means, and we’ll discuss that in a moment, but one thing that is interesting about the North-Robb race is how broadly and deeply hated Ollie North was, and how the passion he inspired determined the election. More than half of Mr. Robb’s own supporters told exit pollers they were voting against Mr. North, not for Mr. Robb. I think it was Richard Nixon who observed that voters are motivated more by dislike than affection, and this race would seem to illustrate the point.
Mr. North was called dangerous, a threat to constitutional governance. When we think of him now, a lot of us see the smiling, thick-eyebrowed man who joshes with Paul Begala on commercials for their TV talk show, “Equal Time.” But a dozen years ago Mr. North was one of the goofier players in a goofy scandal about trying to get Western hostages out of Lebanon by offering U.S. arms to Iranian “moderates” in exchange and dedicating profits from the transaction to the contras of Nicaragua, a ragtag group who fought for and ultimately witnessed the ouster of the communist Sandinista government run by the vain and limited Daniel Ortega.
It was a scandal to be sure, and a disheartening one; America’s president was humiliated, his foreign-policy establishment rocked. To me it seems so long ago, a generation. But only six years ago, Mr. North was still castigated as a monster of history.
Here is a representative critique, from retired army colonel David Hackworth, in a piece published four months before the 1994 election in Playboy: “North’s career shows an undeniable streak of deceit and misuse of the trust of colleagues. . . . [He] would become a threat if he were to succeed in a bid for the Senate. . . . He’s smarmy. . . . He boasts that he was a can-do guy when he was in the White House, but the record spells no-can-do.”
Much the same of course has been said of Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Hackworth foreshadowed another frequent criticism of the first lady by targeting Mr. North’s Northern Virginia home, saying it was not a “plain old farm” as Mr. North maintained, but a million-dollar estate likely funded by campaign donors.
Among many people, Mrs. Clinton is rather roundly despised too. Even her supporters would agree she is a dramatic and divisive figure.
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So should she be discouraged by the parallels to the North-Robb race? And should Rick Lazio be encouraged by them? Not necessarily.
True Mr. North and Mrs. Clinton both raised and are raising record sums in their campaigns; and true, out-of-state giving is very high; and true, the rise of both Mr. North and Mrs. Clinton seems to their foes to represent unfortunate trends in our democracy. But the differences between the races are big. For one thing, there was a third candidate in the Robb-North race, Marshall Coleman, a Republican who disapproved of Mr. North and won 11% of the vote. Most of those voters were Republicans, who, had they been denied a third-party option, might have held their nose for Mr. North. If two-thirds of them had done so, he would have won.
Mr. Robb got almost 90% of the black vote and more than half of the women’s vote. Mrs. Clinton hopes to do as well, and still could. Mr. Robb ran as a relatively conservative Democrat in a relatively conservative state; Mrs. Clinton portrays herself as a moderate liberal in a liberal state.
Mr. North didn’t run with the glamour and apparatus of the White House behind him, as Mrs. Clinton does. Mr. North’s bid was complicated when the incumbent Republican U.S. senator from Virginia, John Warner, came out against him and backed Mr. Coleman. Mrs. Clinton has the support of Sen. Charles Schumer and of retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose seat she seeks.
But Mr. Moynihan is less enthusiastic than he was a year ago, when he said, “She’ll run, and she’ll win, too.” In a little-noticed-on-these-shores interview with Roy Hattersley, published in the Times of London on Aug. 11, Mr. Moynihan muted his trumpet. Here are the first three paragraphs of Mr. Hattersley’s piece:
At the mention of Hillary Clinton’s name the temperature in Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s office dropped by at least ten degrees. I had naively assumed that, after 24 years on Capitol Hill, and on the point of retirement, the Senior Senator for New York would enthuse about the Democratic Party’s choice as his successor. But he was uncharacteristically non-commital.
“I’m a Democrat. Of course I support her.” That seemed to me a less than enthusiastic endorsement. So I asked him if he had encouraged her to stand. “I was there when she announced that she was standing,” he replied in his strange, hard-edged New York accent. And that was as much enthusiasm as he was prepared to counterfeit.
He was equally half-hearted about Mrs Clinton’s prospects of success. All he would say about the First Lady’s chances of election was “We’ll see.” And, when he warmed to his theme, his faint praise was even more damning: “Somebody had to run. We took Bobby Kennedy from outside and he won. He got fewer votes than LBJ won in New York that year. But he won.”
Sen. Moynihan is a talker, a gentleman of delicious offhand eloquence who likes to share his doubts and enthusiasms, which are uniformly interesting and usually buttressed by historical references. Perhaps he thought his comments might go unnoticed in an English newspaper; perhaps he thought if they were noticed he’d say, “Ah, ah, the newspapermen of Britain are a rather exciteable lot, and I’m sure the interpretations of my comments by this particular fellow reflect that tendency, which is now a tradition. Except of course in the case of the Irish famine, whose ferocity they managed to downplay with startling uniformity.”
But that interview—that’s something Mrs. Clinton perhaps should worry about.
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We are deep into August; autumn beckons. But neither Mr. Lazio nor Mrs. Clinton seems to have distinguished himself or herself lately. He has nice soft commercials portraying himself as a warm caring spender of tax dollars. She has commercials portraying herself as a warm and friendly person who’d like us to know her, and to remember that her opponent is a hard-right ideologue.
Neither seems to be breaking through in any big way, not yet. Neither has given a speech half as memorable as Susan’s on “Survivor.” But few in life get to give a speech that memorable, at least in public.
The problem is that neither has given a speech to the tribe quite as persuasive as Richard’s or Kelly’s.
We are waiting, Mr. Lazio. We are waiting, Mrs. Clinton.
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I will end on a happy note. I had a moment of great affection for Americans last night as I watched the interminable post-”Survivor” special on CBS. Listening to all of them analyze the show and their parts in it, hearing them discuss the generational differences between the older survivors and the younger ones, I thought: If I were new here I would think modern Americans practical, tough, bright and funny. They have wit and irreverence and insight. They’re really quite hardy. They are the kind of people who could win a war. It was a happy thought.
So is this. In a country with 167 channels, with a fractured marketplace in which we’re all part of a niche, a sliver, a particular demographic at which is aimed particular programming, it was a relief last night to realize half the country was watching the same thing. Blockbusters still bust blocks; “Survivor” is a blockbuster, and every demographic from grandma to kids was watching.
It is good when these seemingly small cultural moments occur, and when we’re all talking about the same thing the next day. These things help hold us together, like the Evening News did in the 1960s and “Roots” did in the ‘70s. Or like big earthquakes in California, and murderous hurricanes back east. They are things we can refer back to, commonalties we share.
Politics does this too, when it works. It can hold us together with interest so that even the least engaged of us manage every few years to work up an opinion and vote.
This is good. It can make you feel gratitude you don’t fully understand.