Each time John McCain stoops to commit some purely, nakedly political act, like campaigning for George W. Bush’s reelection or giving his okay to the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools, I cringe. There are so few national politicians wired to speak candidly, from the heart and the hip, that I have a soft spot for almost all of them—Bob Kerrey, sure, but also Bob Dole and Bill Weld, even nuts like Jesse Ventura. So when McCain behaves like a normal politician, it’s a disturbing departure from my Frank Capra script for him.
The same kind of gesture from Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, simply confirms what one thinks already, since the script for her (more Cukor, less Capra) is all about cool calculation and calibration in service to the main chance. She is, after all, the feminist who at age 35, seven years married, started calling herself Hillary Rodham Clinton in order to give her husband a better chance at winning back the governorship in old-fashioned Arkansas. So when she announced the other day that she was signing on as a co-sponsor of a new anti-flag-desecration bill—Look at me! I’m jerking right!—it seemed in character. It was one more fragment of evidence, unattractive but inevitable, that she is not really running for reelection to the Senate from New York.
Duh. But I still found it disheartening. Not because I imagine the Flag Protection Act poses any serious jeopardy to free speech. Rather, as an exemplary gesture by the presumptive 2008 nominee, it was a vivid small example of the routine, ritual dishonesty that infuses our political discourse so thoroughly.
All bills about this faux issue are, of course, a waste of time, the statutory expressions of an apoplectic comic-book politics that fantasizes America-haters fighting patriots in the public square, with Old Glory aflame. Hillary’s law is especially pathetic, like one of those “funny” nineteenth-century statutes, but updated with weenie-ish 21st-century hate-speech pieties. Desecrating a flag, the bill declares, “causes more than pain and distress to the overwhelming majority of the American people and may amount to . . . a direct threat to the . . . emotional well-being of individuals at whom the threat is targeted.” And the statute has been crafted so narrowly, in an attempt to meet constitutional muster, that it will criminalize only the destruction of government-owned flags, or of flags on federal property—so you’ll still be free to desecrate your own flag unless your “primary purpose and intent [is] to incite . . . violence.” In other words, the Flag Protection Act of 2005 will make destroying government property and inciting riots, well, you know, even more illegal than they already are.
But Hillary, being a Clinton, has a too-clever-by-half escape hatch ready when the civil libertarians object: She can say she’s still against amending the Constitution to outlaw flag-burning. Someone should ask her exactly how those positions jibe. Hers is a distinction without a difference.
It’s not like with gay marriage, where she can at least have it both ways logically. It is coherent to oppose gays’ marrying (as Hillary does) yet also to oppose (as Hillary does) a constitutional amendment to outlaw it—she could make a states’-rights case that Massachusetts should remain free to codify personal morality in ways she disapproves of. She doesn’t make that argument, though, since she doesn’t really disapprove of gay marriage but only feels obliged to oppose it because most Americans do—because, as her husband wrote of his own moral sail-trimming when he was young, she wants to maintain her political viability within the system.
Lacking her husband’s uncanny knack for finessing left and right, however—the famous triangulation strategy—she plays the game awkwardly, like a very earnest Vulcan who has closely studied Earth politics. When Governor Clinton returned to Arkansas just before the 1992 New Hampshire primary to preside over the execution of a black brain-damaged cop killer, it was an act of evil political genius; a few months later, when he gave a speech to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition criticizing the rapper Sister Souljah’s apologia for murderous black L.A. rioters, it was not even evil. In any case, his I’m-no-bleeding-heart signals worked to fix him in voters’ minds as moderate, comfortably quasi-conservative—that is, happy to let the state kill but unwilling to excuse black thugs who do.
All Americans are powerfully attuned to issues of race, consciously or not. But Hillary’s silly flag-protection move looks lose-lose to me. Members of her base feel dismayed, yet anyone for whom flag desecration is a real issue isn’t going to vote for Hillary Clinton anyhow. And to people in the great, vast middle, gambits like these make her look (even more) craven, not instinctively moderate and mainstream. Yet she actually is moderate and mainstream. Ironically, maybe even a little tragically, her strenuous attempts to demonstrate it may diminish her chances of becoming president.