The American presidency came to an end on October 15, 1992 during a Town Hall debate between President George H.W, Bush, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton. The stage seemed more like a place for Phil Donahue to strut around, biting his lips and dragging out tawdry tales for audience applause than for three presidential candidates to discuss the future of the country.
The audience had more in common with the ones that usually showed up to cheer or boo Phil’s guests, and the high point of the evening and the end of the presidency came when one of those guests rose and, with the distinctive, painstakingly slurred pronunciation of the semi-literate, demanded that the candidates tell her how the “national debt” had affected them personally.
Bush stumblingly tried to turn her stupidity into some kind of policy question, but the World War II veteran was completely out of his depth in the Donahue talk-show format. The moderator, however, demanded that he answer how it had affected him personally. Forget the country or the consequences; feelings mattered more than policy.
It was a Phil Donahue moment and the Donahue candidate stepped into the spotlight.
Bill Clinton understood the audience member did not have a clue about what the national debt was. But he also knew it didn’t matter. This wasn’t about the facts, this was an “I Feel” moment. The questioner did not want to know how a problem would be solved, only that the people on top “cared” about her, and Clinton did what he did best – he told her he really cared.
George W. Bush made sure he would never repeat his father’s mistake. He ran as the “compassionate conservative” and a “uniter, not a divider.” He ran as the man who could never be caught flat-footed by an “I Feel” question. Bush II always felt things and insisted on sharing them with us.
The American presidency had exited the age of policy and entered the age of empathy. Competency no longer mattered. The man in the gray flannel suit who understood the issues had no place on the stage. To get there he would have to get in touch with his inner child and talk about it. He would have to spill his feelings so that people really believed he cared.
Without October 15, 1992, there would have been no Clinton. And without Clinton there would have been no Obama. The Democrats had nominated questionable men before, but they came with the patina of experience and credibility. Even the sleaziest and least experienced Democratic president, JFK, had spent decades polishing his resume and countering his weak points in a calculated plan to get to the top. But the sleazy Clinton grinned his way through primaries no one took seriously because the Democrats didn’t believe Bush could be beaten in ’92 and then felt his way through a national election. It was a small step for one man but a giant step for tricksters everywhere with charisma and no ethics.
The current qualifications for an office holder include the ability to chat on “The View,” read Top Ten lists for David Letterman and make fun of yourself on “Saturday Night Live.” Most of all it’s the ability to emote in public.
Bush I was unable to cross the “I” bridge. Obama lives under the “I” bridge. Even more than Clinton, he is the “I” candidate. Conservatives assail him for egotism, but it’s the lightning in the bottle of modern politics. Only the truly self-centered can fully emote to the back rows. It’s a skill common to egocentrics who feel their own pain so loudly they can make it seem like your pain.
Bill Clinton did not feel the pain of his Town Hall questioner or anyone else’s. He made us feel his pain, but mostly he made us feel his undiluted joy at running things and being the center of attention. That was why so many people loved him and still love him.
Clinton made it inevitable that the perfect “I” president would appear to live his life in public, offering constant coverage of his life, his tastes, his family, his pets and his thoughts on every subject. He would not be a private man, he would be a public spectacle. He would be able to talk about himself, not only at debates, but all the time. He would always be an “I” and the Phil Donahue audience would live through him, feel his pain, share his joys and cheer him on in the great collective noise of a celebrity and the fans who live for and through him.