Legitimacy is the most elemental and elusive of political goods; a gift which
only a society can give its leaders, and only the same society can take away.
To deprive a politician of legitimacy is long and serious work. A good deal of
the process has always taken place behind the scenes before the evidence comes
Thus, from 1994 onward, a language of generalized insult and contempt was used
by Republicans about Bill Clinton in order to deprive him of the claim to be
recognized as the legitimate holder of the office of president. Newt Gingrich
and the Contract-with-America wing of the party were deliberate in the tactics
they deployed. They coolly decided to use the word "sick" to characterize the
Clintons and their policies. Instructions regarding which words of contempt to
use and when to use them, went out in memorandums and were put into practice on
pundit shows and talk radio. This story is told by David Brock, an insider who
came to regret the part he played, in his memoir Blinded by the Right.
The delegitimation of Bill Clinton led from the sprawling fruitless Whitewater
investigation to the Paula Jones suit to the interrogation of Monica Lewinsky
to the impeachment of the president. On the whole this is not an episode
Americans look back on with pride. When the Supreme Court in May 1997 decided
that Paula Jones's lawsuit against a sitting president could go forward,
because there was no reason to suppose it would interfere with his performance
of his duties, the judges were oddly unanimous in their indifference to the
power of legitimacy.
What Bill Clinton felt at the time is barely possible to imagine; the bitter
taste the impeachment left with both Clintons, they have taken great pains to
We have seen a return this year to the politics of delegitimation by the extreme
Republican right. Yet what has been most surprising is the complicity, and then
the open participation in that process by the Clinton campaign. Race was always
going to be an element in this year's election. But the comparison of the front
runner Barack Obama to the marginal candidate Jesse Jackson on the pretext that
both had won South Carolina was a shocker when people heard it come out of the
mouth of Bill Clinton. Again, the talk, by Hillary Clinton and her operatives
after Ohio, of "the commander in chief test" which (it was said) she and John
McCain had "passed" but Obama mysteriously could not pass, was a second stroke
of the same kind. There was no scientific or political content to the
statement. Its significance was gestural. It was an effort to delegitimate
Obama, and its truth could only be shown by its success or failure.
Hillary Clinton's recent careless-careful mention of the assassination of Robert
Kennedy, in answer to a question about why she would stay in the Democratic race
when all the numbers are against her, raised the tactics of delegitimation to a
pitch as weird as anything the Clintons can have seen in the years 1997-98.
The most disturbing element of her remark was this: that it chose to treat
assassination as just one more political possibility, one of the things that
happen in our politics, like hecklers, lobbyists, and forced resignations. The
slovenly morale and callousness of such a released fantasy is catching. So
when, a few days later, the Fox News contributor Liz Trotta was asked her
opinion of Senator Clinton's statement, Trotta said: "some are reading [it] as
a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama...Obama. Well...both if we could!"
Liz Trotta laughed as she said that. Later, she apologized, as Senator Clinton
also has apologized.
Race comes easily and inevitably into discussions of Barack Obama, and never far
from race is the thought of violence. It is there when you hear mentally feeble
persons say, "I am afraid of this one; so afraid! something makes me afraid!"
And race comes into the discussion when you hear clever people say, "He can
never win the white vote; the white working class just aren't ready for him."
An unmeasurable but well-recorded condition for the assassination of John F.
Kennedy was the campaign of delegitimation that preceded that terrible event.
Anti-Castro Cubans hated Kennedy because he had disappointed them at the Bay of
Pigs, and seemed to be a warm friend cooling. Many Southern white people hated
him for his indications of solidarity with the cause of civil rights. There are
other actors and reactions that might be added; but all shared the belief that
Kennedy was not a legitimate leader, that he didn't deserve to be given the
chance to go on governing. The hatred was especially virulent in the South.
Death threats were in the air and Kennedy had been warned against taking the
trip to Texas.
When a democratic society fails to honor the contract by which we elect our leaders
in peace, and let them govern in peace, and show our approval or disapproval by
keeping them or turning them out of office--when the incantation "He is not one
of us" dips so far below sanity that we pretend the rules and decencies aren't
in force any more--it is more than one person who is harmed. This loose way of
talking and thinking of violence hardens us against real responsibility if the
violent thing should happen. We are administering shocks to ourselves in
advance so as not to be surprised by the actuality. But such preparations are
in their very nature corrupt, and corrupting. And they are not less so when
used against any person of dignity and estimation, on the public stage, than
when they are leveled against an elected official.
William James wrote of the hope of democracy after the Civil War:
"The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell
within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in
need of being saved. The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic
genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external
picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption
swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when
they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty
quacks. Such nations have no need of wars to save them."
The original meaning of the phrase "We shall overcome" is too often forgotten.
The words didn't mean: "We--black and white people--will win equal rights for
black people." They meant rather: "We--human beings--will overcome our savage
impulse to settle our differences by violence. In both domestic and foreign
arenas of dispute, we will overcome our endless reliance on short-violent-cuts
The acceptance of political violence, apparent in the recent casual chatter of
assassination, shows a despair of overcoming that is as monstrous in its way as
the acts of violent men themselves.