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Jewish World Review April 19, 1999 /3 Iyar, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
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A revealing moment

(JWR) ---- (
IT WAS A MOMENT that revealed much about the current state of American leadership. And the crisis of American confidence.

It came during that long, embarrassing, painful-to-watch press conference Bill Clinton held last week with one of his more prominent campaign contributors, China's Zhu Rongji.

When the premier of the world's last great Communist power was asked if he would renounce the use of force against the Republic of China, aka Taiwan, his response was more than forceful. It was outrageous. The prime minister of the world's most populous tyranny compared himself to Abraham Lincoln.

And nobody broke into laughter. Or even tears. What next, will Saddam Hussein declare himself a Jeffersonian democrat, or Slobodan Milosevic introduce himself the Serbian Washington?

Comrade Zhu did have an explanation for his analogy. After all, he said, pointedly, hadn't Lincoln "fought a war'' to keep the United States one country? The implication was obvious: He was willing to fight a war to unite Taiwan with the Chinese mainland -- and Communist hegemony.

All eyes turned to the American president to see how he was going to handle this rhetorical provocation. But the only word to describe Bill Clinton's reaction was flummoxed. He said he'd been "zapped'' by the prime minister's reference to Lincoln -- as if this were some kind of high school debating contest -- and not the central of this age or any other: Shall man be free or slave?

The president of the United States failed to make the most elemental of distinctions -- beginning with the observation that Abraham Lincoln had persisted in the most terrible of American wars not in order to preserve slavery but to extend freedom.

In his brief and immortal words over the dead at Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke of a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'' And he noted that "now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.''

Abraham Lincoln could have saved the Union easily enough if he had agreed that ours was a nation dedicated to the preservation and expansion of human slavery. But that was not the kind of Union he proposed to accept or defend. Instead, he chose to meet the awful test that freedom imposes on the free.

America is always being tested, for the very existence of a republic dedicated to ideas like liberty and equality will always be a provocation to the tyrants of the world. But now, when one of them compares himself to Abraham Lincoln, no one much notices. Indignation has long since disappeared in a decade in which all the great causes have been miniaturized, scaled down to fit our own small ambitions.

William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd president of the United States, successor to Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington, heard all this and did little but murmur abjectly. He must have realized that he had to say something, for he did speak up, but he could not summon the simple faith in his country's ideals to speak directly, and to say something pertinent, let alone illuminating.

In the end, as always, Bill Clinton offered equivocations. He settled for something vague, inoffensive and, as usual, utterly demoralizing. "The facts of the relationship between Taiwan and China over the last 50 years are somewhat different,'' he said, "than the facts leading up to the American Civil War.''

Somewhat different. Like night and day, black and white, freedom and slavery. Bill Clinton is never more shallow than when he attempts to discuss history in any profound sense. His was not a display of diplomacy but of docility.

The only unequivocal thing the president said in response to the prime minister was that the United States, too, believed in One China. This president has long since dropped any too specific mention of what used to be American policy: opposition to any use of force to unite China under the Communists. Which of course only encourages their use of force.

The oppressors of the world -- the Milosevices, the Saddam Husseins, the Zhu Rongjis -- do not hesitate to defend their tyrannies. However savage or cunning, moderate or extreme, a dictatorship has one great advantage over a democracy: The dictators know what they believe from the first. They need not hesitate, for tyranny is so much less complicated than freedom.

It takes a free people time to collect itself, to remember first things, to wake up and rally around. At the moment, Americans seem as uncertain as our president. The clouds have yet to part.

But someone at this press conference did have the presence to bring up the taboo question of human rights: To which Comrade Zhu responded: "I not only regard that as unfair, but also take it as an interference in China's internal affairs.'' Translation: Don't bother me. I know what I believe in. And it isn't in the rights of man -- which, far from unalienable, are optional, negotiable, and above all revocable.

Our visitor seemed to know instinctively what he believed; his host was still grappling with what principles he might or might not hold to. Seldom has even Bill Clinton seemed so hollow.

For in one brief, mortifying moment this president had summed up the crisis in American confidence. The president of the United States stood there, confronted by a crass attempt to shanghai Abraham Lincoln, and he could only can only smile nervously and equivocate. He didn't really seem to believe in the principles he had sworn to defend, at least not enough to speak up for them. Unequivocally.

In the end it is not the waffling, the hemming and hawing, the endless equivocation that disturbs about this president. It is the emptiness at the core, the hollow man. To quote one long-time observer: "It is not the compromises he has made that trouble so much as the unavoidable suspicion that he has no great principles to compromise.'' -- Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 28, 1992.

It's happened before. When this Republic loses touch with its birthright, and its leaders waver, confused and hesitant, tyranny prospers. And evil multiplies. So it should not surprise that around the world the worst once again are full of passionate intensity while the best lack all conviction.


04/14/99: War Day by day
04/12/99: Just a few questions
04/06/99: The problem with the Left
04/05/99: The problem with the Right
03/30/99: But can he convince himself?
03/26/99: Short bursts
03/24/99: Once more into the quagmire
03/17/99: Big time in Little Rock
03/15/99: Our own Roger Taney
03/09/99: A different ‘Waterfront’
03/05/99: Law and disorder
2/26/99: King Richard's revenge
2/25/99: Open season on the fetus, and a good word for the pagans
2/23/99: It never ends: Here comes the judge
2/19/99: After the storm: Going through the debris
2/17/99: Where's the closure?
2/12/99: Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board
2/09/99: The social security game
2/04/99: Our own Inspector Clouseau
2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99: Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99: Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99: Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate