This article originally appeared in the July 20/27, 1992, issue.
I’ll admit that my realistic chances of becoming President are right down there with Quayle’s I.Q. On the other hand, Nixon, Reagan and Bush have removed all sense of humility I might otherwise have felt when approaching high office, and pioneers like Chisholm, Farenthold, Ferraro and Jackson have taken the “white males only” sign off the White House lawn. This year, Ross Perot is proving that becoming a presidential candidate can be part of almost anybody’s career track.
But in spite of these new possibilities, I’m still pleased to announce that I am not running. Although Bill Clinton is the candidate of my choice, I wouldn’t wave an autocratic magic wand to put him in the White House, even if I could do that. Process is everything. Here’s why:
Having spent most of my adult life in social justice movements–from living in post-Gandhian India to working in the civil rights, farm worker and peace movements here, and most of all, in the feminist movement–I’ve seen constant proof that revolutions are like houses: They can’t be built from the top down. Leaders can issue blueprints, which we then adapt to our needs or quietly sabotage. They can prevent us from following our own plan, divide the work force against itself and otherwise slow or stop progress. But what they can’t do is create organic and lasting change from the top. Attempts to do so, even in the most authoritarian of systems, eventually end in reversion to old ways, as we see in the countries where Communism and artificial national boundaries were once imposed by Moscow.
In this country, the presidency becomes mainly a bully pulpit. Wisely, legislative and administrative processes slow things down enough to leave time for persuasion, pressure and organizing. As Franklin Roosevelt often told citizens after they had made their impassioned pleas, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and force me to do it.”
The truth of any governmental system is this: What we are “given” by leaders, even with the best of intentions, we are too weak or uninformed to use. We can’t benefit from change that we haven’t been part of making, a fact that women especially can testify to after centuries of paternalism, and a crucial truth that top-down-style liberals ignore. (One could argue, for instance, that the difference in success between Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s War on Poverty was that Washington poverticians didn’t exist during the former, and so local initiatives were supported instead. Certainly, trickle-down economics–the idea that if you’re nice to the rich, the rich will be nice to you–is the opposite of the Keynesian theory of pump-priming at the bottom that got us out of the Depression.)
Even more than our tangible problems, this country’s ailment is an almost terminal passivity, cynicism and expert-itis. Along with obstructionist registration laws and voting procedures, this is the reason we have a lower voter turnout than any other democracy in the world. Instead of learning in depth about organic solutions from people who are experiencing the problems, for instance, we learn about our leaders, from their smallest habits to their most grandiose plans. Centralized media help make the disease worse.
I’m not arguing that the presidency is unimportant–on the contrary. But I do believe that social and political movements are equally Important. In other words, I’m happy where I am.
What we need, however, is a consciousness of this less hierarchical view when we choose leaders. Especially in a President, we need someone who sees herself or himself as part of a process instead of as the fount from which all policies flow. Bush’s centralized use of power has made him far more dangerous than his issue positions would otherwise have done–not only to us but to the fragile world in which he is a loose cannon on deck. Perot’s preference for neat boss-ism over messy consensus-building is what makes him such a dangerous temptation. Even when Perot supports what appears to be an individual right–for example, safe and legal abortion–he gives an autocratic reason: It’s cheaper to allow abortion than to support unwanted children. Thus, if his view on economics were to change–if he decided we needed more workers to compete with the Japanese, say, or more soldiers to become Green Berets–then our fundamental human right of reproductive freedom would disappear. Even his emphasis on electronic town meetings allows a simplification of issues, an avoidance of existing democratic process and the probability that his administration would be the interpreter of results. It’s important to remember that German beer halls were town meetings, too.
Add to this hierarchical view Perot’s moral certitude, judgmental record and salesman’s gift for persuading himself as well as others, and his potential for down-home fascism begins to emerge. As one of his own executives is quoted as saying, “A part of his genius is that he can be self-delusional when most of us are only hypocritical.”
So part of my pleasure in not running for President is that I am able to vote for someone who will listen. That’s the quality I’ve been most impressed with in Bill Clinton. In a speech to mostly African-American high school students, he talked about the hard times of his own growing up, and asked them about theirs. Speaking to a similar audience, Paul Tsongas delivered a lecture on foreign trade. During a hectic New York appearance where a woman reporter from a minor radio station asked him questions there was no time to answer, Clinton came back an hour later to respond–because he had remembered. Shown art work by kids, Clinton notices and asks about its content; asked about economic development, he supports and knows in detail those few examples that empower workers; taken backstage by friends to see a folk singer who clearly hasn’t the foggiest notion who he is, Clinton is secure enough just to watch and enjoy the scene.
In addition to being so much the best of the three candidates on racial and sexual equality, the environment and other basics of survival that it’s like comparing a friend trying to get you out of prison with a guard whose future depends on keeping you in, Clinton sees himself as a catalyst of change from the bottom up. Though he’s a 1990s combination of Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy, Clinton can’t and shouldn’t make change for us. Unlike Bush (who, with Reagan, is the first President to turn back the clock on equality), Clinton won’t stop us–and that’s what’s important. By listening, he will help citizens to know that we are worth listening to. This election year we can begin to take back the country if we stop saying, “Can he win?” and start saying, “We’re going to make him win.”