Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Boomer Pharisaism

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Boomer Pharisaism

Article excerpt

I live in a capital city. As in every capital in America, the city's chief business is government. Government agencies are everywhere-large and powerful ones, small and unnecessary ones; departments, commissions, boards, authorities. Nearly every one of these entities has its own public information officer, or PIO, a person whose job it is to explain the agency's acts to the public. In most cases, these PIOs don't actually do much of anything, for the simple reason that the public usually doesn't care very much what the agency does. The occasional press release and response to a Freedom of Information Act request are about all that's required of these "communications" specialists.

There is one circumstance, though, in which it matters what a PIO writes or says, and that is when there has been some scandal or fiasco. When an agency director has been arrested on drug charges, say, or when there has been a dramatic failure to provide some essential service, the PIO must stretch his expressive gifts to the limit. What's needed is a certain style of expression, and the moderately competent ones know instinctively how to generate it. The style is guarded but prolix, conceptually empty, abstract, grammatically contorted, unforthcoming, but technically correct. "We are looking into the situation and will apprise the public and news media of the situation as we learn details. The interim director has asked a team of investigators to get to the bottom of what went wrong and why. From the beginning it has been this agency's policy to give taxpayers the answers they deserve, and we will make those answers available as soon as we have them." And so forth.

The point is to say nothing or to restate what's already known, to give the impression that somebody is doing something, or at least that somebody cares, and to avoid saying anything demonstrably untrue.

That, I think I can say without too much exaggeration, describes the style of Hillary Clinton. It's not just that her writing is horing and tends toward empty word-level justifications of her own conduct, though it does. In both her logorrheic memoirs, Living History (2003) and Hard Choices (2014), she writes in the anodyne crisis mode of a government spokesman during an agency meltdown-carefully and dryly, never conceding wrongdoing and always interpreting past decisions in the best possible light. Most political spokesmen and many politicians express themselves in this way under pressure, but Clinton has adopted it as a style of communication-and, it seems, as a way of thinking.

When she discusses the scandals and debacles of her own career, she typically relays her side of the story (as is her right) and then concludes by lapsing into some truism that doesn't make sense in context but affords an easy transition to another topic. Living History deals, for instance, with the early Clinton administration scandal stupidly known as "Travelgate." It seemed fairly clear-and later evidence confirmed this-that the Clintons wanted the White House travel office staff fired and replaced with cronies from Arkansas. Not an impeachable offense, though a nasty one. The dismissed head of the travel office, Billy Dale, had to deal with trumped-up charges of embezzlement. (He was eventually acquitted.) Clinton concludes her very brief version of the story with this sentence: "'Travelgate,' as it came to be known in the media, was perhaps worthy of a twoor three-week life span; instead, in a partisan political climate, it became the first manifestation of an obsession for investigation that persisted into the next millennium."

Banal, grammatically weird, not quite falsifiable. The controversy did happen "in a partisan political climate," true enough. When are politics not partisan? But it's unclear to me what Clinton intends by calling the episode "the first manifestation of an obsession for investigation that persisted into the next millennium." She seems to mean the press is still trying to dig up stuff on her, as if that observation has any relevance to the controversy she's purporting to relate. …

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