"Just one question: Are you going to cheat on America like you cheated on your wife?"
The smile didn't waver by so much as a millimeter; it just moved on, to meet the lavender eye of a video camera on a truck, as Clinton waved a symbolic sprig of broccoli for viewers of the local evening news.
FOR THE RECORD - Los Angeles Times Sunday October 11, 1992 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Editor's note: Since some readers criticized the length of Raban's article, we shudder to note that five paragraphs dealing with Clinton's family background were inadvertently omitted from the story.
Ambushed by a 50-strong band of Brown-ites--who drowned him out with a war chant of "Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!"--the candidate seemed to move in his own soundproof bubble. His lips continued to frame the word \o7 hello\f7 , the complex musculature around the sides of his mouth continued to manufacture the how-nice-to-meet-you Dale Carnegie smile, while the Brown-ites roared and the policemen unsheathed their nightsticks.
Whenever the motorcade stopped or the plane landed, there was another speech. Each one was different, but each one devolved on the same slogan. Within a day of joining the campaign, I could hear it coming from three sentences away, and took to lip-syncing along with the candidate when he announced that it was time to turn America around to become a "high-growth, high-wage, smart-work society."
It was hard to imagine how anyone could endure the pummeling of the primaries for the sake of such a clunking call to arms. It was an attempt to collapse a quite complex economic idea into a memorable catch-phrase. The idea itself was all right. Robert Reich, the Harvard economist and Clinton's longtime friend and adviser, stated it clearly in his useful 1988 essay, "Dick and Jane Meet the Next Economy":
"In a world where routine production is footloose and millions of potential workers are eager to work for wages far lower than Americans are willing to work for, we can no longer expect to be competitive simply by producing more of the same thing we produced before, at lower cost. As the production of commodities shifts to other nations, America's competitive advantage correspondingly must shift towards work the value of which is based more on quality, flexibility, precision, and specialization than on its low cost. . . ."
The trouble with the Clinton version was that it sounded like pie in the sky rehearsed in pseudo-specific jargon. The word "society" at the end was a specious substitution for "economy"--it was a feel-good word, designed to reassure you that there was something, well, moral about this high-growth, high-wage, smart-work arrangement. The meter--that solemn spondee, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom--attached a pompous weight to words that were 100% polystyrene.
The slogan lodged itself in my head and would not be exorcised. I kept on hearing it in the engines of the campaign plane and in the wheels of the press bus. It got tangled up with a snatch from Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe":
\o7 When you're lying awake with a dismal headache,
and repose is tabooed by anxiety,
I conceive you may use any language you choose
in a high-growth, high-wage, smart-work society.\f7
With a softball whizzing past my ear somewhere over Pennsylvania in the small hours, I took to scribbling variations--
\o7 When your luck's on the wane in a major campaign,
and you're stuck for a suitable piety,
You can always fall back on our desperate lack
of a high-growth, high-wage, smart-work society.\f7
OFF-CAMERA, IN THE LIMO, THE SMILE WAS STILL INTACT, though the youthful pink of the candidate's skin was going to gray, and big bags under his small eyes looked like the early stages of an ambitious origami project. He was fighting sleep, occasionally hyphenating words with yawns, yet he spoke patiently, thoughtfully and at characteristically copious length.
"I'm still struggling to find a way--a distilled way--to convey the whole ball of wax," he said, when I complained of his rattletrap economic slogan.
I'm not the first person to come away from talking to Clinton feeling flattered, not only by the attentiveness with which he listens to each question and meets it directly with a careful answer, but by his genius for signaling that you and he are on the same wavelength, that he's eager to hear your view, that he cherishes criticism.
"Oh--absolutely!" is how he likes to begin an answer. Or, "I agree with that." Or, "This goes back to the point you were making earlier." Or, nodding seriously, "Yes, I think that's true." Sixty or 70 words later (by which time he has worked himself around to a very different position), he appears only to be teasing out the implications of what you've been saying. He is a study in conversational good manners.