Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Fox. Henhouse. Oops, wrong hen!

Bill Clinton's in-his-face comebacks to Chris Wallace have received wide media coverage. A quick look at ledes and headlines turns up spinwords such as temper, finger-wagging, meltdown, boast, retort, deception, whitewash, smackdown and so on.

I didn't watch the interview but I did watch the clip, edited with little flash-bulb flickers stringing together the juicy parts, and what I saw was a text-book example of righteous indignation. I've often referred to that most basic of all human impulses simply because I witnessed it so frequently during my years serving the public. Serving a thousand meals a day gives one ample opportunity to see human behavior in all its manifestations. And I can assure you -- and I trained my staff to watch carefully for the signs in order to stay out of trouble -- that when you see evidence of righteous indignation the prudent response is to step back, listen, try to show empathy and wait for the moment to pass. There is a time for argument and a time for reconciliation. And righteous indignation calls for the latter.

So much for the rules of engagement in a one-on-one situation. At some level the same principle applies at the group level. I see the Pope felt a need to invite a group of Muslim notables to the Vatican following an exhibition of the same phenomenon in response to his "misunderstood" remarks about their faith. I don't expect anything of the kind will be forthcoming from any quarter aimed at helping Bill Clinton calm down, but maybe that is not a bad development. Sarah Robinson, over at Dave Neiwert's Place, makes some very interesting comments that may indicate a fundamental shift in political protocol. We have to wait and see, but if she's correct political arguments may get hotter but closer to facts.

I have worked in both kinds of environments and dealt with a good many instances of conflict resolution. One approach looks hard and long at uncomfortble facts that make you want to die, and another that tip-toes around embarrassing or uncomfortable facts in a prissy, don't-ask-don't-tell kind of way. I have learned to perform in both places, both as actor and mediator, but given the option, I would rather put all the cards on the table, have a confrontation, settle the matter and move on. The alternative is poisonous. Sometimes problems do go away with time. Heck, an adversary can move or die at any time and the conflict vanishes. But that is not very satisfying. One always has that "what if?" grain of sand in your shoe.

Conflict resolution in an election is done at the polls. Studio interviews, talking heads and stump speeches are the prologue, and the voting ends the debate. With that in mind, go read what Sarah Robinson has to say about the symbolic importance of what Bill Clinton did Sunday.

It's tremendously important that Clinton argued back on the facts, and made them stick, even when Wallace kept trying to deflect him. But, in showing us his teeth -- and the white-hot fury that would no longer hold still for the bipartisan date-rape promised so long ago by Grover Norquist, and delivered daily ever since -- the Big Dog also took the whole country to school, and taught us a few things that we all need to remember going forward. Among the lessons:

1. We can debate Republicans on the merits -- but we should not let the facts alone carry the message. In a time of strong political passions, passion often carries the day.

2. We can argue with terrifying force -- and still not yell.

3. The media cannot count on rolling over on supine Democrats any more.

4. Fighting back does not cost us respect. It increases it -- especially when truth, honor, and American values are on the line.
In the past year or so, we've started to see the re-emergence of the Fighting Dem -- but Clinton's performance on Sunday was a breakthrough. Because of who he is, FOX couldn't reduce it to a few loony soundbites, or cut the interview short, or pretend it never happened. And so the country got to see what real liberal outrage can be -- elegant, adult, brilliant, furious, and compelling.

1 comment:

vietnamcatfish said...

elegant, adult, brilliant, furious, and compelling

Yes, he was all of these. Because of such, I have decided to change my alliegiance to "dem democrats."

Bill's "performance" was deserving of this year's "dem democrats" Academy award for "Best Actor." Move over Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, Jaime Foxx, Nicolas Cage and Andy Devine. [ "I'm a'coming Wild Bill" ]

On second thought I have reversed my earlier position. Instead of
"elegant, adult, brilliant, furious, and compelling, perhaps we should substitute: well-crafted by his many advisors and staff, calculated, rehearsed, and smoke and mirrored. Lastly, instead of adult, methinks it was another foray into the infantile.

Lastly two, Bill, you could have been a contendah, v.c.

P.S. Apologies to Brando!