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Clinton's crisis: Viewpoint

Speaking for the American People...
How come we always seem to agree with whoever's doing the talking for us?

By Andrew Ferguson

TIME magazine

(TIME, October 19) -- Heavens, what a marvelous people we are! Or I mean you--what a marvelous people you are. Or us. Or are we an it? Maybe them. I'm not sure. But the American People: they're champs. Just aces. Absolutely top of the line. Every last person of them, the American People.

But so complex. The American People is--are?--are very complex. But simple too. I know this because I listened closely last week as our public servants in Washington went about their business, which as you know is the American People's business. As the House Judiciary Committee debated whether to pursue the President's impeachment, for example, the members mentioned the American People more than 50 times, and I learned the following:

The American People have a deep sense of right and wrong. The American People want the truth, and they want to see justice done, but they need to understand the parameters in which Congresspersons work, assuming the American People know what parameters means, which I do not. But the American People don't want to be distracted from the issues of this country. The facts are before the American People. They understand the basic denominator, which is somewhere below a parameter, and they also expect finality in these impeachment proceedings.

Still, the American People have interests--in what, they didn't say--and they are tired of lawyers who cover up the truth because they, the American People, hope for the truth, and they demand it. And they will know the truth when they hear it. Because the American People don't want open-ended fishing expeditions, and they don't want crud dumped on them. (Yuk! Who does?)

And finally, what the American People want is to bring this to closure. Oh, and bipartisanship: they want to see bipartisanship. Bipartisanship and closure. Same thing.

Many therefore seemed to agree with the Congressman who said at the hearing's close, "This has been a good day for the American People."

But are you sure, Congressman? No sooner had the hearing ended than I saw an ad put up by the group called People for the American Way (the American People for the American Way would be redundant). A maternal-looking lady was saying to the camera, "Let's move on. That's what the American People are saying loud and clear. But some in Washington are listening to the Religious Right--not the people."

Now I was confused again. Aren't the Religious Right part of the American People? How many American Peoples can there be? Fortunately, I was rescued by James Carville, who slithered onto Larry King Live and said, "I want to talk to the American People."

Speak, James! "The American People have a basic sense of fairness," he said. "The American People are a very forgiving people." (See what I mean? We're aces.) So fair, so forgiving are the American People that they agree with James Carville completely. I've noticed this about the American People. Their views are always identical to the views of whoever mentions them. "The President has the respect and admiration of the American People," Carville said.

And no wonder. No President has mentioned the American People as incessantly as President Clinton. (We talk about him an awful lot too.) He presents himself by turns as the American People's benefactor, slave and towel-snapping locker-room pal. In his rhetoric the American People, for their part, serve alternately as a goad, an inspiration, a shaming device and, of course, an excuse. "I need to go back to work for the American People," he notoriously said on Jan. 26, and then refused to discuss the Lewinsky scandal for almost seven months. Too busy. The American People's work really fills out a day.

And last week the phrase was never far from the President's lips. It was like a bad case of hiccups. "... when the feelings of the American People become apparent ... the American People made their voices heard ... the support of the American People ... stand up and fight for the interest of the American People ..." That's just one 10-minute speech!

Even the American people are starting to invoke "the American People"--read the letters column in your local paper. And why not? It is a phrase perfectly suited to the time. It is irresistibly pompous, containing seven luxurious syllables as against only three for its pedestrian synonym "the public."

More important, it is invaluable as a way of voicing an opinion without voicing an opinion. "The American People won't support ground troops," Senator Trent Lott said about Kosovo last week. What he meant was that he won't support ground troops. But it sounds so much better when the American People say it.

The problem, of course, is that the American People don't exist, not in any unitary sense and certainly not as our pols and pundits pretend. This is a tiny problem, though. The phrase exists, and in the postmodern politics of the Clinton era, that's the important thing. Politicians used to be called opinion leaders, but that burden has been lifted from them.

Now they follow the voice of a phantom only they can hear, drowning out the receding whispers of conscience or principle, overwhelming the demands of reason and argument. And the American people don't seem to mind.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 19, 1998

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