I watched two politically themed programs on PBS last night, the episode of The Contenders about Mitt Romney’s and Michael Dukakis’ hapless Presidential campaigns and The Choice 2016, the special episode of Frontline PBS shows every Presidential election year dealing with the major-party nominees for President and their backgrounds and histories. This one proved more interesting than usual, especially one day after the debate during which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had at each other, looking less like aspirants for power in a representative republic than like medieval knights jousting for possession of a kingdom. Clinton and Trump emerged from Frontline’s treatment as fascinating figures, though it got off to a bad start when it attempted to locate Donald Trump’s “Rosebud” moment — the time he actually decided to run for President and be the person who assumes power when Barack Obama relinquishes it as per the Constitution on January 20, 2017 — as the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2011. This occurred right after Obama, following years of urging from Trump and other Right-wing conspiratologists, finally released his “long-form” birth certificate indicating that, as no one outside of the circle of Right-wing nut-cases Trump had been palling with seriously doubted, he had been born when and where he always said he was: August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawai’i. With Trump in the audience, Obama said, “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. [laughter] And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? [laughter] What really happened in Roswell? [laughter] And where are Biggie and Tupac? [laughter] All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. [laughter] For example— no, seriously, just recently in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice [laughter] at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so, ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. [laughter] You fired Gary Busey. [laughter] And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. [laughter and applause] Well handled, sir! [laughter] Well handled. Say what you will about Mr. Trump, he certainly would bring some change to the White House. Let’s see what we’ve got up there,” showing a slide of the White House with an upper extension built on top and a sign hanging from it reading “Trump Resort Hotel and Casino.”
While the opening of this show seemed really to be reaching — the fact is that Trump was flirting with a Presidential run as early as 1980 and had booked a rally in New Hampshire in 2000 to announce either that he was running or he wasn’t (and of course he didn’t) — the allegation is certainly believable as an example of Trump’s bizarre pettiness, his unwillingness to roll with any punch or take any insult, no matter what or from whom. And coupled with that is his equally bizarre insistence on never apologizing, never admitting he’s wrong about anything, never even acknowledging that he’s ever made a mistake, much less that he’s learned from one. I’m currently working on an article on last Monday’s Presidential debate between Clinton and Trump for my Zenger’s Newsmagazine blog, http://zengersmag.blogspot.com, and one of my arguments is that much of Trump’s rhetorical strategy comes from George Orwell’s 1984, particularly the concepts of doublethink and “the mutability of the past.” In plain English (instead of Newspeak, the language the rulers of Orwell’s dystopia invented to make dissent literally impossible because the words to speak or think heretical thoughts would not exist), doublethink is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head and believe in both of them at once. “The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision,” Orwell wrote, “but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a sense of falsity, and hence of guilt. … Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge: and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one step ahead of the truth.” The related concept of “the mutability of the past” holds that the past has no objective existence; we know what happened in the past only via public records and our own memories, and if the records are altered and our memories lost or changed, the past itself has changed — and yet the past has never changed, because only one version of the past can be “true” at any moment.
Orwell worked out these concepts observing the totalitarian governments of the 1930’s — Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and especially Soviet Russia under Stalin — and in particular their ability to throw out entire histories once they became politically inconvenient, as Stalin did in 1939 when he decided it was politically convenient to ally the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, and again in 1941 when the Nazis invaded anyway and forced him to shift sides, whereupon he proclaimed that he’d always been anti-Fascist and got the two other major powers in the anti-Nazi coalition, the U.S. and Britain, to accept him as an ally. Trump’s portrayal of his own history is full of doublethink and the mutability of the past; he’s been able to “sell” his business record to the American people as an example of one sparkling success after another, when in fact virtually his entire empire came crumbling down in the early 1990’s after his mega-casino in Atlantic City, the Taj Mahal, bombed financially. Trump’s first reaction was to use his clout on Wall Street to get Marvin Roffman, the analyst who first published evidence of the weaknesses in Trump’s operations, fired. Then he had to deal with the banks who’d loaned him the money to build the Taj Mahal and other casinos, to buy the Trump Shuttle airline, the Trump Princess yacht, and other investments that now seemed big-time money-losers. “As quickly as the banks loved him, that’s as quick as they saw him as a pariah,” recalled Abraham Wallach, a vice-president in the Trump Organization from 1991 to 2003. “He was, like, ‘Oh, it’s Donald Trump!’ They didn’t want to have anything to do with him. They wanted their money, and they wanted to be rid of Donald Trump.” The only thing that saved him was that the banks suddenly realized that if they did the obvious thing and foreclosed on Trump, they’d be stuck with a lot of white-elephant casinos no one would go to and they’d ultimately have to close them down themselves and get stuck with the losses.
So they cut a deal with Trump by which he got to keep his name on the various buildings because the bankers figured they’d be more attractive to customers with Trump’s name on them than without it — and this led Trump to change the whole modus operandi of his business from actually building housing developments, hotels and casinos to selling the rights to his name, so he could have the thrill of seeing people drawn by his name and receive hefty royalties without actually having the bothersome business of building or running the buildings. (This may help explain the argument he had with editors of a magazine that estimated Trump’s wealth as $4 billion, and he contacted them to say it should be $10 billion. When they asked the obvious question — where did the extra $6 billion come from? — he said, “That’s the value of the Trump name.”) Then he got the offer to host the NBC-TV “reality” series The Apprentice, a political Godsend in being able to merchandise himself as a businessman of infinite sagacity and skill, and therefore just what this country would need as it came out of the Obama years with a deeply troubled sense of itself: a person with tested leadership skills — albeit in a totally different field from politics — offering himself not only as a person uniquely qualified to sweep the cobwebbed institutions and their sclerotic officials from power and to take over, but the only one who can do so. ““We defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries,” Trump said during last Monday’s debate. “They do not pay us, but they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service and we're losing a fortune.” “There’s certainly an argument that U.S. allies should spend more money on defense, including higher subsidies for U.S. bases in their countries,” Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus wrote in the paper’s September 28 edition. “But do we really want to convert mutual defense treaties into contract-for-service agreements? There’s no sign that Trump has spent even a minute weighing the consequences of such a shift.” That’s an example of Trump’s inability or unwillingness to understand the difference between running a business and running a country — between being in it to maximize returns for your investors and being in it to serve the people of your nation and your world.
Not surprisingly, the Frontline segments on Hillary Clinton — in previous years they actually did one candidate’s profile and then the other’s, but more recently they’ve followed a more chronological approach and intercut between both — aren’t quite as interesting because we’re simply more familiar with her story than his: as the wife of a President (and a state governor before that) and later as a U.S. Senator from New York (where her tenure and her husband’s in the White House overlapped by 17 days, a product of the quirk in the U.S. Constitution that the new Congress takes office January 3 and the new President not until January 20) and as Secretary of State during President Obama’s first term. The most interesting thing this documentary had to say about Clinton is an attempt to explain her obsession with secrecy, saying there were a lot of arguments in her family home when she was a child. “There was a lot of fighting in the Rodham household, and I don’t think she invited many friends home,” author and Clinton friend Gail Sheehy said in the program. “That’s when her whole penchant for secrecy and privacy began.” The show tracks Clinton through to her first public appearance that got noticed nationwide — her controversial speech at Wellesley University’s commencement ceremony in 1969, where she followed Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke (an African-American, a Republican and only the second Black U.S. Senator — Hiram Revels of Mississippi, elected in 1870 during Reconstruction and also a Republican, was the first; an African-American Democrat would not serve in the Senate until Carol Moseley Braun was elected in Illinois in 1992, and she would be defeated for re-election six years later), took notes throughout Brooke’s speech and then got up and blasted him for telling the young people graduating there that politics was “the art of the possible.”
Hillary said that politics should be the art of “making the impossible possible” — which clearly echoed Robert F. Kennedy’s famous remark that “some people see the world as it is; I see the world as it could be and wonder, ‘Why not?’” — and, needless to say, the makers of this documentary couldn’t help but notice the irony that in 2016 Clinton was basically taking Brooke’s side in this debate and marketing herself to Democratic primary voters as “the progressive who can get things done.” (Then again, it’s not uncommon for young firebrands who get elected to office or thrust in the political public eye to move towards the center and appear to contradict the beliefs they started with; just compare John Kerry’s plaint in 1971 about how could the President ask the last man to die for a mistake in Viet Nam with his vote for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq 30 years later.) No doubt Clinton’s penchant for secrecy got a major push when she became part of the staff of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and, as part of her job, she was obliged to keep mum and not tell anyone about its inner deliberations — and her career got thrown a curveball when, after Nixon’s resignation and with the legal world of D.C. seemingly open to her for the asking, she failed the D.C. bar exam and took that as an omen that she should accept the marriage proposal of her on-again, off-again boyfriend, William Jefferson Clinton, even though that meant moving with him to the backwater state of Arkansas. She was viscerally hated once she got there for not being Southern (she even affected a bit of a twang in her voice for a while, shaking it only when she got back to D.C. as First Lady), for dressing like a hippie and wearing big glasses, for not having a child and for insisting on using her family name, Rodham, instead of Clinton. Bill Clinton got elected attorney general of Arkansas and then won the state’s governorship in 1978 — only to lose it again two years later; under the tutelage of sometimes-Democrat, sometimes-Republican political consultant Dick Morris, both Clintons revamped their images. The next time Bill Clinton ran for governor in 1982, Hillary had a baby, Chelsea; she dressed more demurely and lost the big glasses; and she solemnly gave a press conference at which she announced that from then on her name was Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bill won back the governorship and held it until he ran for President in 1992.
The rest of the story we pretty much know: the “bimbo eruptions” and the scandal over Bill’s affair with Gennifer Flowers that threatened to sink Bill’s Presidential candidacy even before it really started; the big election victory in 1992; Hillary’s appointment as head of the administration’s task force on reforming health insurance (and the total secrecy she insisted on, to the point where nobody knew what was in the plan until it was unveiled — and promptly sank in Congress thanks to a Republican disinformation campaign that used some of the same tricks with which they tried to derail Obamacare 16 years later, notably one appearance in which a Republican Congressmember held up Franklin Roosevelt’s original Social Security Act and noted it was only 38 pages long versus the 1,342 pages of Hillary Clinton’s health care proposal); the crushing defeat of the Democrats in the 1994 midterms that (like their equally crushing defeat 16 years later after Obamacare passed with no Republican Senators or Congressmembers voting for it) served notice that health reform was a majority-killer for the Democratic Party; Bill Clinton’s Morris-inspired retreat to “small ball” initiatives and the alienation of many progressives (including Robert Reich, UC Berkeley professor and longtime friend of Bill Clinton, who was Secretary of Labor in the first Bill Clinton Cabinet but eventually quit in disgust and returned to academe; he’s interviewed extensively here about the Clintons’ history but not, surprisingly, about his eventual break with them and his endorsement of Bernie Sanders over Hillary in this year’s Democratic primary campaign); the renewed allegations about Bill Clinton’s sex life that led to his impeachment and near-removal from office (like the only other President to be impeached, Andrew Johnson, he was saved only by the Constitution’s insistence that a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate be required to convict a President and remove him or her for office — and I say “or her” because I think there’s an excellent chance that if Hillary wins the election this year, the Republicans in Congress will immediately file articles of impeachment against her over the e-mail scandal and its alleged threat to U.S. national security, and Hillary could very well become the third President in U.S. history, and the second one named Clinton, to face an impeachment trial); her immediate plotting of a U.S. Senate race from New York as soon as Bill Clinton was acquitted in the impeachment trial and her subsequent adventures and misadventures as Secretary of State in President Obama’s first term.
The end of the story feels rushed — there’s no mention of Bernie Sanders and he’s visible only in a brief still — and it’s an indication that even in the relatively objective precincts of PBS, the filmmakers, director Michael Kirk and his co-writer Mike Riser, are far more interested in Trump than Clinton (he’s a novelty, she’s old hat), beginning their discussion of Trump with the lesson he learned from his father that some people are winners, some people are losers, and it’s the job of the losers to do what the winners tell them to and otherwise stay out of their way, and ending it with this comment from Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump’s best-selling 1987 autobiography The Art of the Deal, suggesting that, like Alexander the Great, Trump had run out of worlds to conquer. “His deepest hunger has always been for attention, and he had exhausted the ways in which to get attention,” Schwartz said. “He’d gone so far beyond what most human beings can even imagine that he was at the end of that road, still hungry. He wanted the attention of the nation. He wanted the attention of the world. And he’s gotten it.”