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Yokel no more.

Remember when Bill Clinton was, according to the pundits and the news media at large, a bumbling rube, a spineless, clueless, left-wing twit, the dumbest stump ever to inhabit the White House? My goodness, was that only eight weeks ago? How time flies.

Even the conservative Center for Media and Public Affairs documented that in his first four months in office, 64 per cent of all references to Clinton by network-news reporters were negative, as compared to 41 per cent for Bush during the same time period. But all that's changed -at least for now. Gone are Time cover stories on The Incredible Shrinking President and such headlines as A Question of Competence. The man who, pre-David Gergen, couldn't sneeze without getting bad press is now, as Juan Williams put it, "a terrific political animal" and, as Charles Krauthammer noted, "a problem solver."

What happened? Presumably under Gergen's tutelage, Clinton has learned how to give the press what it wants: neocon policies preserved under the occluding, malodorous shellac of symbolic politics. Finally, Clinton has learned how to pose, and with whom. In Japan, he walked around imitating the Pope, with his arms outstretched as if he could embrace and protect the world, while Hillary sported her latest Princess Diana look. And Clinton learned how to toss little rhetorical bouquets to the ever-present microphones as he said, in an off-camera aside everyone knew was being recorded, "We need to rescue the people."

And rescue them he did. He flew home early from Hawaii to survey the flood damage in the Middle West and to be photographed hugging some deserving, white, middle-America victims, and then went off to pose with the Joint Chiefs while announcing his sellout on gays in the military. All this prompted Juan Williams to gush, "Compassion is Clinton's best card." Only Carl Rowan was a spoilsport, asking why other Americans in desperate need of Federal funds for jobs and housing - those in our inner cities - weren't getting the same hugs, the same compassion. Geez, Carl, get with the program.

The pundits and the news media are now desperately clinging to Clinton like a life raft, and this is not surprising given the other big stories of the summer. Coverage of the floods, immigration, and gays in the military convey a deep panic about national identity, national direction, and the durability of our social fabric. There is a powerful symbiosis between these images of disarray and Clinton rising Phoenix-like from the ashes.

The summer's news has been rife with images of invasion and contagion. Everywhere borders and boundaries are violated and breached, conveying a sense of political and social chaos. The record-breaking floods, of course, have dramatized the folly of human efforts to control nature, and news stories have emphasized that the levee system itself may have made the flooding worse.

But the image of a nation drowning has dominated other stories, as in USA Today's headline High Tide of Immigration Overwhelms USA. This Week with David Brinkley devoted an entire show to immigration, with Brinkley wondering "how this country can survive incoming waves of poverty, disease, and crime." He also quoted a viewer who asked whether our entire social system will be "washed away in a flood of immigrants, legal and illegal." Once these immigrants arrive, warned Brinkley, they "disappear into the big cities and can never be found."

While there's no doubt that our national immigration policy is a mess, the victims here are not immigrants but helpless white Americans, their best weapon against such hordes of noxious river rats a shield of xenophobia and racism.

The ongoing coverage of gays in the military has contained this same sense of invasion and contamination, of some imagined core of "real Americans" corrupted by these deviant "others." In its report on Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" compromise, CBS used sensationalistic and completely irrelevant images of scantily clad gay men on the beach holding hands to illustrate the story, thereby fore-grounding their sexuality as their most dominant and, of course, dangerous feature.

Juan Williams reinforced this equation. Carl Rowan, a passionate critic of the current ban and the compromise, paraphrased the recent NIH study suggesting there may be a genetic component to homosexuality by insisting that "we're all God's children whether we're homosexual or heterosexual" and that the bigotry must stop. Williams retorted, "Well, we're all God's children, including killers, but we don't sanction that."

The other ongoing invasion is the infiltration of our Government - and femininity itself - by a new tribe of Amazons. In a front-page story in The New York Times profiling Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first thirteen paragraphs focused on how she doesn't smile enough and is "much less fun" than she used to be or should be. Was she "aloof" (a big no-no for us girls) or simply "shy," and is she as "dour" as one of her portraits? Does a woman who doesn't laugh enough have the temperament to be on the Supreme Court?

But at least she's not as bad as Dr. Joycelyn Elders, described by Time as a "verbal bomb thrower" and by Charles Krauthammer as "outrageous" because she, as a woman, has made the mistake of voicing her opinions about AIDS prevention and birth control. And look out for Tara J. O'Toole, nominee for Assistant Secretary of Energy, who was once a member of a study group that had been called (before she joined) Marxist-Feminist Group I. The M-word is even dirtier than the F-word, conjuring up images of sneaky un-American subversives whose only goal is to take over the country and turn it into a gulag where you can't buy bread or microwave ovens anymore.

Without saying so explicitly, the news media have given expression to a sense of helplessness, victimization, resignation, of being buffeted about by forces beyond our control. But these stories also form the context for the media reincarnation of Bill Clinton from local yokel to forceful world leader: They reinforce political resignation, cynicism, and apathy, and urge us to defer to those above us, the authorities, our leaders. We should just go stick our heads in some sand bags.
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Title Annotation:Bill Clinton in mass media
Author:Douglas, Susan
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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