The American presidency came to an end on October 15, 1992 during a Town Hall debate between Bush I, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton. The stage of the Town Hall seemed more like a place for Phil Donahue or Sally Jesse Raphael to strut around, biting their lips, and dragging out tawdry tales for audience applause, than for three presidential candidates to discuss the future of the country.
The audience had more in common with the one that usually showed up to cheer or boo Sally or Phil’s guests, and the high point of the evening and the end of the country came when one of those guests rose and with the distinctive painstakingly slurred pronunciation of the semi-literate demanded that the candidates tell her how the “National Debt” had affected them personally.
Bush I stumblingly tried to turn her stupidity into some kind of policy question, but the WW2 vet was completely out of his depth on Phil Donahue’s talk show stage. The moderatrix however demanded that he answer how it had affected him personally. Forget the country or the consequences, feelings mattered more than policy. It was a Phil Donahue moment and the Donahue candidate stepped into the spotlight.
Bill Clinton understood that the Sally Jesse Raphael audience member did not have a clue what the National Debt is or anything about the economy. But he also knew that it didn’t matter. This wasn’t about the facts, this was an “I Feel” moment. The questioner did not want to know how a problem would be solved, she only wanted to know that the people on top “cared” about her, and Clinton did what he did best– he told her that he really cared.
The draft dodging hippie who had boasted of his drug use and gone to Moscow to defame his country, a man who was at the time every bit the extreme impossible candidate that Obama would become 16 years later, went on to the White House. And the American presidency ended.
Bush II made sure that he would never repeat his father’s mistake. He ran as the “Compassionate Conservative” and the “Uniter, Not the Divider”. He ran as the man who could never be caught flat-footed by an “I Feel” question. Bush II always felt things and insisted on sharing them with us.
The American presidency existed the age of policy and entered the age of empathy. Competency no longer mattered. The man in the grey suit who understood the issues had no place on the stage. To get there he would have to get in touch with his inner child and talk about it. He would have to spill his feelings out so that people really believed that he cared.
Without October 15, 1992, there would have been no Clinton. And without Clinton there would have been no Obama. The Democrats had nominated bad men before, but they came with the patina of experience and credibility. Even the sleaziest and least inexperienced Democratic President, JFK, spent decades polishing his resume and countering his weak points in a calculated plan to get to the top. But Clinton, reeking of sleaze like the back seat of a beat up Chevy, grinned his way through a primary that no one took seriously because the Democratic Party didn’t believe Bush I could be beaten, and then felt his way through a national election. It was a small step for one man, but a great step for sleazy tricksters everywhere with charisma and no ethics. America had become Louisiana and every Huey Long could aspire to be its king.
The current qualifications for an office holder include the ability to chat on The View, read Top Ten lists for David Letterman and make fun of yourself on Saturday Night Live. Most of all it’s the ability to emote in public, a skill that was once the province of an actor that with the advent of reality TV and the instant internet celebrity has become a basic life skill for everyone.
Bush I was unable to cross the “I” bridge. Obama lives under the “I” bridge. Even more than Clinton, he is the “I” candidate. Conservatives assail him for egotism, but that same shallow self-centered “I’ness” is the lightning in a bottle of modern politics. Only the truly self-centered can fully emote to the back rows. It’s a skill most common to egocentrics who feel their own pain so loudly that they can make it seem like your pain.
Actors can project their emotions, stirring our empathy, but it isn’t our pain they feel, it’s their own. The star shedding tears on the deck of the Titanic, in a concentration camp or the unemployment office isn’t feeling the pain of those people, he’s thinking about the time his dog died or how that nail keeps digging into his foot.
It’s not empathy that’s on stage, but the solipsistic ego that doesn’t offer empathy, but demands it. Billy did not feel the pain of his idiot questioner or anyone’s pain. He made us feel his pain, but mostly he made us feel his undiluted joy at running things and being the center of attention. That was why so many people loved him and still love him. He was the star of the raunchy comedy who kept making more and more sequels, and though the audience knew that it should despise him, it was glorying too much in his revels to be able to break free of that emotional identification.
Clinton made it inevitable that the perfect “I” president would appear to live his life in public, offering constant coverage of his life, his tastes, his family, his pets and his thoughts on every subject. He would not be a private man, he would be a public spectacle. He would be able to talk about himself, not only at debates, but all the time. He would always be an “I” and thought he might screw up the country, the Sally Jesse Raphael audience would live through him, feel his pain, share his joys and cheer him on in the great collective noise of a celebrity and the fans who live for him.
The American presidency ended. The American celebritocracy began. The process that began with televised debates ended with government as entertainment. There was no more room for the ugly or for men and women with private emotions. A man who could not empathize with the national debt at a drop of a hat, who could not abandon the habits of a lifetime of thinking in practical terms, instead of emotional terms, was no longer a plausible candidate.
And so we have a towering national debt that keeps adding trillions to it and a great many feelings. We have a surplus of politicians who cannot stop spending money and cannot stop talking about how they feel about it. They could bring Sally Jesse Raphael or Phil Donahue out of retirement to host a show on, “Politicians Who Love Spending Money And Can’t Stop” that would end with everyone feeling better about their feelings. But it’s redundant because we already have that show. It’s called the national government and you can catch it on CSPAN. It’s not very exciting, but give it time and there will be a makeover.
October 15, 1992 changed the conversation from a politician’s ability to discuss what he would do about a problem, to talking about how it made him feel bad. And now we and our politicians feel bad about a variety of things. But they all blame everyone else and there’s no objective way to settle the debate because feelings aren’t objective, they’re subjective.
Voters are slowly dragging themselves out of Obama’s “I-Sphere” because of the practical necessities of survival, such as having a job, which is difficult to come by in an economy run at the whim of a boy-king who throws handful of money into the air and waits for them to turn into magic green jobs. And to do that they have to untangle themselves from their emotional entanglement with his image, his race and the vicarious life that they have lived through him. They have to realize that feeling things is not nearly as important as doing them.
But Obama’s defeat, if it comes, will not restore what was. Obama is a symptom of the problem, not the problem. And the problem is that we have stopped asking the hard questions and instead looked for soft reassurances. Instead of holding politicians accountable for their actions, we have held them accountable for our emotions. And that has led us into unmitigated disasters on numerous fronts.
With all of that it was no surprise that the first question in the Town Hall debate was an “I Feel” question directed at Romney or that Romney handled it glibly with “I Feel” material delivered in the soothing voice usually reserved by doctors for calming down upset patients. And that is the function of a qualified politician now, to speak softly and soothingly reassure everyone that nothing is wrong. There’s no reason to be upset. Yes the ship is sinking, but while it does, let’s stand on deck, listen to the orchestra play a song and talk, talk about our feelings.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.