What do the Clintons have on Obama?

What experience does Hillary have to run State? Plus: Avoiding the Muslim issue on Mumbai, and anti-Proposition 8 activists threaten to set back gay rights.

Published December 10, 2008 11:48AM (EST)

Roads and bridges! What joy. Last week's announcement by President-elect Barack Obama of his massive public works initiative to stimulate the economy won loud applause from me. Not only does the decaying U.S. infrastructure need emergency attention but construction commissions will be far more substantive and enduring than the half-mythical 5 million "green" jobs that Obama was airily promising before the election.

But then I gulped when Obama also pledged educational reform by putting state-of-the-art computers in every classroom. Groan. Computers alone will never solve the educational crisis in this country: They are tools and facilitators, not primary conveyors of knowledge. Packing his team with shiny Harvard retreads, Obama missed a golden opportunity to link his public works project with a national revalorization of the trades. Practical training in hands-on vocational skills is desperately needed in this country, where liberal arts education has become a soggy boondoggle, obscenely expensive and diluted by propaganda and groupthink.

The plurality of moderates and conservatives on Obama's appointments list didn't surprise me, because I never thought he was the flaming radical socialist portrayed on right-wing talk radio (which I listen to and enjoy even when I disagree). As an Obama supporter and contributor, I've been very gratified by his dignified deportment and steadiness at the helm to date. But I must admit to puzzled disappointment with his recycling of Clinton era veterans, who reek of déjà  vu. Surely we might have expected a better mix of fresh faces and progressive voices? Obama's team may have underestimated the labyrinthine personal interconnections and habit-worn loyalties of that cliquish crew.

As for Obama's appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, what sense does that make except within parochial Democratic politics? Awarding such a prize plum to Hillary may be a sop to her aggrieved fan base, but what exactly are her credentials for that position? Aside from being a mediocre senator (who, contrary to press reports, did very little for upstate New York), Hillary has a poor track record as both a negotiator and a manager. And of course both Clintons constantly view the world through the milky lens of their own self-interest. Well, it's time for Hillary to put up or shut up. If she gets as little traction in world affairs as Condoleezza Rice has, Hillary will be flushed down the rabbit hole with her feckless husband and effectively neutralized as a future presidential contender. If that's Obama's clever plan, is it worth the gamble? The secretary of state should be a more reserved, unflappable character -- not a drama queen who, even in her acceptance speech, morphed into three different personalities in the space of five minutes.

Given Obama's elaborate deference to the Clintons, beginning with his over-accommodation of them at the Democratic convention in August, a nagging question has floated around the Web: What do the Clintons have on him? No one doubts that the Clinton opposition research team was turning over every rock in its mission to propel Hillary into the White House. There's an information vacuum here that conspiracy theorists have been rushing to fill.

Meanwhile, an area where too many in the mainstream media have been oddly AWOL is in the response to the attack on Mumbai, India, two weeks ago by a squad of Pakistan-based terrorists, who killed nearly 200 people. Reaction in the U.S. was somewhat muted because the protracted standoff occurred over the Thanksgiving holiday, when many Americans were traveling or absorbed in family business. But I was troubled by a persistent soft-pedaling of the identification of the attackers as Muslims --as if the mere reporting of that fact would be offensive and politically incorrect.

Because seven years have passed since 9/11 without another attack on native soil, many Americans, particularly urban professionals, seem to have been lulled into a false feeling of security. But jihadism as a world movement -- even if its membership is a tiny fraction of young Muslim men -- will continue to pose a serious threat to every open democratic society over the next century and more. Anyone who has studied ancient history knows that great civilizations, from Egypt and Persia to Rome and Byzantium, broke down in stages separated in some cases by many superficially tranquil decades. Because of the unprecedented fragility of our intertwined power grid and complex transportation system, the technological West is highly vulnerable to sabotage and chaos.

The tragic fate of so many innocent victims in Mumbai deserves our pity. But what should live in special infamy was the ruthless execution of the Lubavitcher rabbi, Gavriel Holtzberg, and his lovely wife, Rivka, who was 5 months pregnant. These were two idealistic young people of obvious warmth and humanity, who sought only to serve. The rescue by their Indian nanny of their orphaned 2-year-old son, Moshe, crying and smeared with his parents' blood, is already legendary. Was this zeroing in on the Chabad Jewish Center in Mumbai about Israel, or was it simply a gruesome eruption of the medieval tradition of anti-Semitism? Why have Muslim organizations, very quick to protest insulting cartoons, been mostly silent about the atrocities in Mumbai?

The slaughter of the Holtzbergs and other Jews at Chabad House should be a wake-up call to Western liberals who believe that jihadism can be defeated through reason and happy talk. Only other Muslims can launch the stringent internal reform necessary to stomp this barbaric extremism out. But the events in Mumbai confirmed my opinion about the looming problem of a nuclear Iran: While I oppose all American military operations and bases in the Mideast, I continue to believe that Israel, whose security is directly threatened, has every right to take preemptive military action against Iran.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin's rehabilitation has been well launched. Step by step over the past five weeks since the election, headlines about Palin in the mainstream media and some Web news sites have become more neutral and even laudatory, signifying that a shift toward reality is already at hand. My confidence about Palin's political future continues, as does my disgust at the provincial snobbery and amoral trashing of her reputation by the media and liberal elite, along with some conservative insiders.

Once the Republican ticket was defeated, the time had passed for ad feminam attacks on Palin. Hence my surprise and dismay at Dick Cavett's Nov. 14 blog in the New York Times, "The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla," which made a big splash and topped the paper's most-read list for nearly a week. I have enormous respect for Cavett: His TV interviews with major celebrities, which are now available on DVD, set a high-water mark for sheer intelligence in that medium that will surely never be surpassed.

However, Cavett's piece on Sarah Palin was insufferably supercilious. With dripping disdain, he sniffed at her "frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences." He called her "the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High," "one who seems to have no first language." I will pass over Cavett's sniggering dismissal of "soccer moms" as lightweights who should stay far, far away from government.

I was so outraged when I read Cavett's column that I felt like taking to the air like a Valkyrie and dropping on him at his ocean retreat in Montauk in the chichi Hamptons. How can it be that so many highly educated Americans have so little historical and cultural consciousness that they identify their own native patois as an eternal mark of intelligence, talent and political aptitude?

In sonorous real life, Cavett's slow, measured, self-interrupting and clause-ridden syntax is 50 years out of date. Guess what: There has been a revolution in English -- registered in the 1950s in the street slang, colloquial locutions and assertive rhythms of both Beat poetry and rock 'n' roll and now spread far and wide on the Web in the standard jazziness of blogspeak. Does Cavett really mean to offer himself as a linguistic gatekeeper for political achievers in this country?

My conclusion was that Cavett the Nebraska native had gotten far too processed by his undergraduate experiences at Yale, at a time when Yale was stuffily insular and a bastion of WASP pretension. An incident from 40 years ago flashed into my mind: During my first semester as a graduate student at Yale in 1968 (10 years after Cavett had graduated from Yale College), I was taking Anglo-Saxon from a dashing young professor with one of those classic WASP dynastic names -- like "The Philadelphia Story's" C.K. Dexter Haven. He was an affable fellow, a medievalist who went on to become a popular master of one of the undergraduate residential colleges.

But the cultural blinders in the Ivy League world through which this professor so serenely sailed were quite obvious in an incident that no one in the class, including me, responded to with the protest that it deserved. We were too paralyzed by our novice status and by Yale's genteel code of etiquette. One day, completely out of the blue, the professor produced a clipping from the New York Times, which he laughingly read and then tossed down on the seminar table for us to pass along and share.

The article, a wedding announcement with photo, was burned in my memory, but I never looked for it again until now. The date was Dec. 8, 1968. The headline: "Daphne C. Murray Wed in Westbury; '67 Bennett Alumna Bride of George Napolitano, Jr." The picture showed a handsome young Italian in a stylish black Nehru jacket leading his radiant bride down the aisle after the ceremony. She came from a family of high social standing: She was a descendant of the founder of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; she was the grand-niece of a noted polo player and the granddaughter of a U.S. senator. He, on the other hand, worked in his father's automobile body shop in Mineola, Long Island.

The professor, pointing out the bride's billowingly full white gown, declared, "Of course he knocked her up!" Ha, ha! We students were clearly expected to share his mirth, which we politely did. But what did any of that have to do with Anglo-Saxon? And why was a graduate seminar being used as a forum for coarse frat house humor? My blood still boils at that episode. I'm not sure what was worse -- the smug sexism, class prejudice or ethnic calumny.

Yes, that is the lordly Yale that formed Dick Cavett's linguistic and cultural assumptions and that has alarmingly resurfaced in the contempt that he showed for the self-made Sarah Palin in "The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla." I am very sorry that he, and so many other members of the educational elite, cannot take pleasure as I do in the quick, sometimes jagged, but always exuberant way that Palin speaks -- which is closer to street rapping than to the smug bourgeois cadences of the affluent professional class.

English has evolved, and the world has moved on. There is no necessary connection between bourgeois syntax and practical achievement. I have never had the slightest problem with understanding Sarah Palin's meaning at any time. Since when do free Americans subscribe to a stuffy British code of veddy, veddy proper English? We don't live in a stultified class system. In the U.K., in fact, many literary leftists make a big, obnoxious point about retaining their working-class accents. Too many American liberals claim to be defenders of the working class and then run like squealing mice from working-class manners and mores (including moose hunting and wolf control). What smirky, sheltered hypocrites. Get the broom!

Another hot-button issue: After California voters adopted Proposition 8, which amended the state Constitution to prohibit gay marriage, gay activists have launched a program of open confrontation with and intimidation of religious believers, mainly Mormons. I thought we'd gotten over the adolescent tantrum phase of gay activism, typified by ACT UP's 1989 invasion of St. Patrick's Cathedral, where the communion host was thrown on the floor. Want to cause a nice long backlash to gay rights? That's the way to do it.

I may be an atheist, but I respect religion and certainly find it far more philosophically expansive and culturally sustaining than the me-me-me sense of foot-stamping entitlement projected by too many gay activists in the unlamented past. My position has always been (as in "No Law in the Arena" in my 1994 book, "Vamps & Tramps") that government should get out of the marriage business. Marriage is a religious concept that should be defined and administered only by churches. The government, a secular entity, must institute and guarantee civil unions, open to both straight and gay couples and conferring full legal rights and benefits. Liberal heterosexuals who profess support for gay rights should be urged to publicly shun marriage and join gays in the civil union movement.

In their displeasure at the California vote, gay activists have fomented animosity among African-Americans who voted for Proposition 8 and who reject any equivalence between racism and homophobia. Do gays really want to split the Democratic coalition? I completely agree with a hard-hitting piece by the British gay activist Mark Simpson (which was forwarded to me by Glenn Belverio), "Let's Be Civil: Marriage Isn't the End of the Rainbow." Simpson, who has been called "a skinhead Oscar Wilde," is famous among other things for a riveting 2002 Salon article that put the term "metrosexual" into world circulation. I appreciate Simpson's candor about how marriage is a very poor fit with the actual open lifestyle of so many gay men, which is far more radical. Marriage may be desirable for some gay men and women, but at what cost? Activists should have focused instead on removing all impediments to equality in civil unions -- such as the unjust denial of Social Security benefits to the surviving partner in gay relationships.

And now for our usual pop finale, I've assembled a series of musical interludes by colorfully suffering divas, an ever-shrinking class in this era of bland celebutards. First, Renata Tebaldi singing "Poveri Fiori" in an exquisite 1955 recording of Francesco Cilea's opera, "Adriana Lecouvreur." Next Morgana King, who played Carmella Corleone in the first two "Godfather" films, doing an eerie version of "A Taste of Honey" that borders on witchcraft.

Check out Dusty Springfield tamping herself down for a bout of wispy bossa nova on Burt Bacharach's "The Look of Love," from the soundtrack for the 1967 James Bond film, "Casino Royale." (Nicole Kidman to play the soulful Dusty in a future biopic? Pass the smelling salts.) Next is Toni Braxton giving "Un-break My Heart" the grand treatment (that's model Tyson Beckford playing her slain Adonis). This was one of 20 songs on my playlist for the New York Times Book Review's music feature, where I attributed Braxton's vocal and theatrical virtuosity to two centuries of African-American church singing.

Rounding out our passel of divas, here's Jim Bailey, the brilliant impressionist, doing late period Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow," which at that point had become a tragic lament. And let's not forget Bailey's comically spirited Barbra Streisand, singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" on the Carol Burnett Show in 1972. The video ends with Bailey singing the same song 30 years later, this time clad in the dashing suit jacket and slit skirt of the more mature Streisand in her Bill Clinton period.

Finally, a holiday treat. I've often complained about my childhood oppression by saccharine Christmas carols, which were forced on us at school and in Girl Scouts. (The narcotized "Silent Night" was the worst torture of them all.) So I was delighted to find this anti-carol on Nickelodeon, the children's cartoon network. The ominous scenario ("Brave New World" meets "Metropolis") wonderfully expresses the commercialized fascism of this hectic season. All year long, these hypnotic lyrics have become a standard chant at my house: "Bow down, bow down, before the power of Santa -- or be crushed, be crushed by his jolly boots of doom!" What gifted team created this witty fantasia? Congratulations for popular art at its best!


Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

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Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton Proposition 8 Sarah Palin