A change is in order. In the past eight years the American people have built and fueled a miracle: the greatest economic engine in the history of the world. Income up, standard of living up, investment up. The deficit has become a surplus. We are fat and almost happy. Once Rabbit was rich; now Rabbit is rolling, with a Rolex, with a Beemer and a Benz.
It happened once before in our time: the years 1983 to 1989 marked the greatest peacetime economic expansion to that point in all of U.S. history. President Reagan took steps that encouraged growth, and while the American people produced it, he directed the rollback of communism, the fall of the Wall. By the end, an amazing thing: a more just and peaceful world, with America known not as a bully but as a friend to freedom in the world.
What have Clinton-Gore done in eight years? Have they inspired us, made us proud, done the brave, tough things that needed doing, shown commitment and vision?
Sadly, no. They’ve dithered and ducked, coasted and claimed. They squandered their opportunities to create a coherent American agenda in the world. They failed to make us safer from nuclear, chemical or biological attack. Domestically their attitude came down to this: Reform the entitlements? We’d rather go to a fund raiser. Bring new life to dead schools? Rather go to Hollywood. Our children are poisoned by a sour, searing culture? Let them eat something else. Let them eat cake. Clinton and Gore have been unserious in their stewardship. What most characterized their two terms was summed up by the Vice President in famous words: “No controlling legal authority.”
The scandals have been as humiliating for our great republic as they have been historic in scope and size. Filegate, Travelgate, hidden e-mails, lying under oath, hell to pay, abuse of the FBI, of the personnel system; a health-care task force that violated federal law; grand juries, billing records; Lincoln bedroom, troopers, bimbos, coffees, lies. Most terribly, foreign agents carrying cash meet with our President in the Oval Office; they stand in their shiny shoes on the great seal of the United States and later receive what they want: military technology. As a result, China now has weaponry that one day, perhaps, may be used against your children and mine. If there were a word in English that stood for “the shame we feel for others who should feel shame and don’t,” that word would be their legacy, the big vivid thing that they gave us.
A change is in order. We have Gore, whose victory would represent an endorsement of the Clintonian ethos. And we have Bush, who asks, “Where’s the wisdom in America? I believe it’s with the people. I trust the people.” Those are the simple words of a common man who has been lucky in life—who made the most of his chances, made his mistakes, corrected them, became serious, began to love God, came to trust him. The trust spread within him and became a habit; in time it gave shape to his policies.
George Bush is a compassionate conservative. He sees the needs other, older conservatives did not always see, or did not always think they must or could address. But he applies conservative solutions to these needs: more freedom, more choice, the inclusion in the public sphere of faith-based approaches. All the money in the world, he knows, cannot and will not turn around a troubled child’s heart. But God can, and his workers are eager. Bush does not fear faith as an opposing power center to the state. He likes it as an opposing power center to the state. After all, faith freed Poland; perhaps it can free a tough 16-year-old in inner-city Detroit too.
Bush is sunny, ingenuous; he assumes good faith. His assumption of good feeling has a way of spreading it. That has been his history, in Texas, and in baseball, and in business. Gore, on the other hand, is a rather strange individual. He has seemed in the campaign like a rapper on MTV, all strut and no strength. He cannot summon the courage to break with his patrons (the unions, the White House) but is aggressive and cutting in the pursuit of power; he will divide to conquer. He is a sophisticated man, and yet he speaks the language of yesterday’s class warfare. He seems at times like an illustration of the idea that some modern men have become, in the great age of feminism, confused about what it is to be a man. The more he huffs and puffs and tries to dominate the less manly he seems. Powerful men don’t deride and intimidate; they speak the truth and lead. They don’t lie.
There is no nice way to say this: we can’t afford another famous liar in the White House. America is a strong country, but it may not be able to sustain another fabulist; one can be called an accident, a trick of history, but two would amount to a culture of governance, a way of being. It is by institutionalizing the acceptability of lies that a great power becomes a punch line.
“Don’t change horses in midstream,” Mario Cuomo tells us. But Clinton and Gore were not the horse that brought us across the stream—the American people made the great economic current that pushed Clinton and Gore safely to shore. And now the latter brag at how they used the spurs and whip.
A change is in order: the stream has been crossed, the horse should buck, throw off the old and get a new rider, one worthy of it. Of us. That man in this race would be Bush, the gentleman from Texas.