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Jewish World Review / July 2, 1998 / 8 Iyar, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Bubba in Beijing:
history does occur twice

IT ISN'T EXACTLY DEJA VU. It's more a colorized version of an old film, an inferior remake in glaring reds and yellows of a grainy old black-and-white masterpiece. This week's remake of Richard Nixon's trip to China reminds that Karl Marx did get one thing right: History happens twice, first as tragedy and again as farce.

The frightening power of the original production, with all its stark and ominous overtones of power eclipsing principle, now has been transmuted into a conventional exchange of views, a diplomatic do-si-do, a tourist package offered at first-class rates, a piece of protocol, a theme-a-day tour geared to the news cycle, a kind of trans-Pacific extension of the permanent campaign.

For the basic problem with this administration's China Syndrome is not that Bill Clinton fails to say the right things. He says the wrong ones as well; he must have said everything about any issue by now, depending on the audience. But the big problem is that he fails to act on the perfectly unexceptionable things he says.

This president said all the right things about Bosnia, too, as well as some of the wrong ones. Yet three, four years passed while millions were made homeless, hundreds of thousands killed, unspeakable crimes committed and genocide -- now known as ethnic cleansing -- went unstopped and unpunished.

It's not necessary to recall what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to apprehend the nature of clintonesque diplomacy in the world, but only to think of what is happening now in Tibet. Every day.

And now Nixon-Mao, which was history, is followed by Clinton-Jiang , which is only a sequel. It's a bit like seeing "The Third Man" remade as a musical comedy.

The pictures of Nixon and Mao in 1972, of Kissinger and Chou En-lai, are as unforgettable as those of Molotov and von Ribbentrop at the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, another great moment in the history of cynicism. But at least Richard Nixon's production, complete with Costumes from the East, inspired a moving opera, John Adams' "Nixon in China."

That opera captured the pathetic awkwardness of Dick Nixon, making him an almost sympathetic character, and the harrowed look on Pat Nixon's face -- a look the audience now knows would grow deeper the rest of her life. But what music could come out of Clinton in China? Muzak, maybe.

For the pity and the sorrow of Nixon in China has been replaced by the usual Technicolor spin that replaces everything the permanent campaign touches. The looming shadows of the Great Hall of the People have given way to the prefab, carvillian slickness of the war room.

The result: A president of the United States now speaks with lip-biting sincerity of this country's "hones" and "legitimate" disagreements with a regime whose very name is a three-part lie: the People's Republic of China.

The party line out of Beijing this year is that the regime can experiment with economic freedom without risking political freedom, and allow a free exchange of information about some matters, but not about others. The Soviets, too, believed they could tolerate a certain amount of freedom without bringing down their whole, brutal system. But they found that a little freedom can be a dangerous thing -- to a tyranny. There's a reason totalitarian systems have to be total. They cannot survive if they let in even a breath of fresh air.

No one in this pageant seems to have noticed that an American president necessarily represents a people whose own history demonstrates that a nation cannot survive half slave and half free.

But as with any shadow play, the charm is in the illusions, the mutual suspension of disbelief. It must indeed be a relief for the Clintons to be back in a one-party state, and in a country without an independent prosecutor. And it was clearly a triumph for Jiang Zemin to display Bill Clinton like an American seal of approval.

What a cheery couple they made: Mister Clinton and Comrade Jiang proudly announced that Chinese missiles have been retargeted so they no are no longer aimed at American cities. No need to go into detail, namely that it might take all of 30 minutes to target us again. But we fools back home were expected to applaud, not question.

An ever-obliging guest, Richard Milhous Clinton responded to his host not from principle, but practicality, as one ward-heeler to another. Perhaps he thought that was the only language his fellow chief executive would understand or accept, or perhaps it is the only language he himself really knows well.

Our president wound up defending freedom as one might any other public convenience, like a salesman pushing the latest, practical model of a car or refrigerator. As usual, he was remarkably facile, and as usual, remarkably hollow. He spoke for freedom as if fulfilling some embarrassing obligation, but he failed to raise the level of the discourse to any higher level than realpolitik.

Neither statesman dared recognize that the only lasting form of power is moral authority. Comrade Jiang's moral authority is such that the American president refused even to have his picture made in Tiananmen Square, where no amount of scrubbing can wash away the blood.

This last emperor of China is obliged to appear comfortable riding the tiger called change. It's a tiger he can no more control than Comrade Gorbachev could in the now former Soviet Union. And now Jiang Zemin is reduced to echoing the whole, tottering succession of Soviet emperors as he recites that old partyspeak about the importance of not-interfering-in-the-internal-affairs-of-other nations.

And the American president does not have the presence to quote what Alexander Solzhenitsyn once told Leonid Brezhnev: There are no more internal zones in the world. And that was even before the Internet.

The last great Communist power still slavishly follows Soviet protocol when an American head of state visits: The cities are cleared of dissidents, and the visas of any troublemakers who might be abroad are canceled lest they return and make a scene. The whole country is locked down.

In preparation for this state visit, Beijing took the precaution of denying entrance to three reporters for Radio Free Asia, a move it was confident would bring no real repercussions from this administration. The American president did make a paper protest, but on purely practical grounds. `This decision,'' he said, "is depriving China of the credit that it otherwise could have gotten for giving more visas to a more diverse group of journalists."

Bill Clinton did not have the wit, or courage, to add the three excluded reporters to his already huge presidential entourage and insist that they ride on Air Force One. Or to announce that he was immediately requesting a $3 million increase in Radio Free Asia's next annual appropriation, a million for each reporter denied a visa. Or in some other way strike a blow for freedom, rather than just talk about it.

Why can't our president be as effective with the Chinese Communists as he is with the Republican Congress? Yes, I know the answer: The Chinese are so much more clever.

Facile as he is in debate, our president can be embarrassingly silent in any discussion that requires a recurrence to first principles. In response to Jiang Zemin's prattle about the danger of interfering with the internal affairs of another nation, a visiting American might at least have passed on Learned Hand's reminder: "Right has no boundaries, and justice no frontiers; the brotherhood of man is not a domestic institution."

But of course that might have brought the discussion dangerously close to a matter of principle.


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

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.