Last week, Hillary Clinton made a ridiculous gaffe in which she praised Nancy Reagan for her “low key” AIDS activism. She was immediately corrected by the gay community which pointed out that while she was First Lady, the Reagan administration didn’t do shit about AIDS and was often actively hostile to the gay community.
For a little context:
Clinton’s remarks came after an extended explanation of Nancy Reagan’s efforts to expand stem cell research after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimers. Then, in a bizarre turn, Clinton began talking about AIDS in the 1980s, a topic anyone looking to remain civil and complimentary would go far out of their way to avoid at the funeral of Nancy Reagan:“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that really appreciated, with her very effective, low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’”It’s almost tempting to interpret this as withering, devastating sarcasm—the Reagans “started a national conversation about AIDS” in the same sense that George W. Bush “started a national conversation” about Iraq.
Hillary (relatively promptly) issued a correction and clarification.
David Atkins at Washington Monthly offered this, compassionate, interpretation:
One take on this mess would be to give Clinton some credit: she was at Ms. Reagan’s funeral, felt compelled to say nice things about her, and had probably recently conversed with the Reagan children. Within that context, Ms. Reagan was probably viewed as a more progressive force and was given the benefit of the doubt.
He went on, however, to make what I think is a trenchant critique:
But that’s also ultimately the problem. The Reagans were responsible for a host of terrible things for the country; the negative repercussions of Reaganism are being directly felt today in our inadequate infrastructure spending, our cowboy-style interventionist foreign policy, and the Republican Party’s move away from a responsible actor for governance to a directly anti-government insurrectionist force. If Nancy Reagan truly felt angered and upset by her husband’s callousness on the issue, she should have spoken out directly. But she did not. Those actions had consequences. People who lost loved ones to the AIDS epidemic are angry, and they have every right to be.
When we look at the populist movements taking hold of both of the left and the right in America, a common thread is anger at elites who seem to be more interested in maintaining a comfortable duopoly than in actually solving problems. There’s a sense that America is governed by a set of wealthy and entrenched incompetents who are so socially and economically enmeshed with one another that they’re incapable of holding one another to account or feeling the pain of normal Americans.
As I have watched her in the public eye since the 1992 election, I have come to respect Hillary Clinton as a fundamentally decent human being. I believe her comments about Nancy Reagan arose from that place of fundamental decency – saying something nice about the dead. But it also allowed her to buy in a fake myth about the Reagan era – namely that he wasn’t a puerile and disconnected mouthpiece for a massively damaging set of policies Atkins concluded:
Contra the opinions of hand-wringing bipartisan advocates and Michael Bloomberg aficionados, the worst impulses of American elites tend to emerge when Republicans and Democrats are chummy with one another. That’s often when the worst policies are born, and when the most damaging myth-building takes place.
In this case, our instincts should be to tell harsh truths about the Reagan legacy, not to wrap it in the gauze of revisionism.
This morning, I saw a pained post from Maria Shriver calling for decency and civility and respect. She engages in the worst sort of “both sides do it” blandness:
That got me thinking. About where we are politically and personally today. About the loss of civility and manners. About our inability to listen to opposing views. About our extremism and where we are headed. Where are we headed, in fact, when people can’t say anything in the public arena without the other side screaming them down? Where are we headed when everyone thinks everyone else is the enemy? Where are we headed when people can say all kinds of brutal and/or untrue things on the Internet without any recriminations for what they say? Where are we headed when people running for President say things that if our kids said them, we would put them in a time out?
I haven’t heard the Democrats claim that we should ban all Muslims or claim the Republicans don’t represent real America. I haven’t heard of violence at Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton rallies. I haven’t heard of Sanders supporters assaulting protesters. In fact, Bernie invited Black Lives Matter protesters to speak and he listened to them.
I understand people are angry. I understand people don’t feel seen and/or heard. And they think the best way to achieve that might be to protest or bully the other side. Perhaps what we need is to create a safe space so that we can listen. Hear the pain that is bubbling underneath. All I know is that whenever I have stopped on a personal level to listen, I have made progress. All I know is that whenever I’ve been involved with trying to outdo another, I’ve never gotten anywhere.
It’s hard to stop. To pause. To hear.
That’s what happens at a funeral like Mrs. Reagan’s. You stop, you think about your country, you think about what was, and yes, what can be. If we all took a deep breath, assumed the best instead of the worst, challenged our leaders and ourselves to find common ground and common good, if we did that, perhaps leaders could and would emerge that had all our best interests at heart.
But I get it – the myth that we just all need to get along is appealing and powerful. It’s the decency trap. If we were just “decent” we could solve all our problems. It’s an appealing lie. (And no, Maria Shriver, I don’t think you understand that people are angry. I think you’re saying it because you have to, but you have no comprehension of the real depth of anger and frustration in our country right now.”
The instinct toward bipartisanship isn’t necessarily harmful but there is often no middle ground between the parties – in fact, the middle ground is smaller today than ever before. The Republicans have clearly gone completely nuts. There’s no middle ground between their lunatic policy proposals and those of the Democrats who have, at the least, managed to stay in touch with reality. The Republicans have, apparently, decided that no Democratic politician is legitimate, certainly not as President. They’ve gone out of their way to attack the legitimacy of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. There’s no middle ground between “build a wall” and “common sense immigration reform.” There’s no middle ground between “nuke ’em till the sand glows” and “make an agreement with Iran.”
There’s no middle ground between being a decent human being and support Donald Trump and his proposals. There’s no middle ground between “kick ’em all out” and “Muslims are our friends, and neighbors, and good citizens.”
Right now, Americans don’t even agree on the nature of the problem, let alone how to find solutions. The Republicans have spent 8 years now pouring gasoline on that fire. Pretending that if only we could just “get along” everything would be fine is a monumental folly, an act of self-delusion suited only to people who have refused to pay attention to the reality of life in America.