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Jewish World Review / Oct.1, 1998 /11 Tishrei, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg The new tradition

CALL IT THE CLINTON-BLAIR-AND-NOW-SCHROEDER PATTERN. It seems to be overtaking one Western democracy after another. Brought on by economic insecurities, or maybe just the desire for a new face, it results in a faceless kind of change. Or maybe just change for change's sake.

Whatever the reasons for this trend, the Germans now have adopted it, too, by voting out Helmut Kohl's familiar, not to say boring, leadership. His party, the Christian Democrats, will be turning over the reins to the Social Democrats under Gerhard Schroeder.
Just what the change will mean is anybody's guess. Because the new chancellor's politics, if any, are about as well defined as Bill Clinton's and Tony Blair's.

This whole trend of the bland leading the bland could be called the New Tradition, which is less a concept than a contradiction. The phrase would make a great name for Calvin Klein's latest perfume for men, which would smell like nothing in particular and everything in general.

Once again Europe is following the American style, a fashionable tendency since the Roaring Twenties. To quote a 20-year-old German student, "I think politics is more psychological than rational, and this result for us Germans is an injection of energy. It is ridiculous, in a democracy, to have a leader for as long as we have had Herr Kohl.'' The width of ties changes for essentially the same reason: People get bored.

Helmut Kohl was scarcely fashionable. He was last year's suit, maybe the last decade's. In an era of lite diets, he was as solid and beefy, as dull and predictable, as sauerbraten and beer. Even Germans tire of the same thing after 16 years. And he tended to weigh politics down.

Helmut Kohl was the longest-serving German chancellor since Otto von Bismarck, and, though he did even more than Bismarck for German unification, the country's voters may have been ready to push back from the table and relax. One can digest only so much, and so glitz beat solidity once again.

This new tradition will become an old one unless conservatives can regain their powers of imagination, and make their case to large numbers of young voters who now think of conservatism as a synonym for no change at all.

Will a new generation see that solid advances grounded in the past are preferable to the kind of fashionable shibboleths that spring up in a day and are gone in a day? If not, the West can expect still more leaders who don't lead but only reflect the latest poll.

But right now there's no Reagan or Thatcher in sight, let alone a Burke or Disraeli. No clear voice reminds us that the politics of the West should center about the dignity and freedom of man, the only creature given the power -- and responsibility -- to discern good and evil.

If the political right does not find such leadership, if it fails to grasp what moves a new generation of voters, then it will wind up much like Whittaker Chambers' deserted old storefront. ("If for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and feel.'') If the right is interested only in talking to itself, it will find only itself listening. -

Just what this latest election means in terms of actual policy isn't clear and may not have been relevant to the German electorate. The West began to favor celebrities over leaders some time back. By now Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan might as well be faces carved on Mount Rushmore, they seem such distant and commanding images, having stood for something.

What does Gerhard Schroeder stand for? The answers are as vague as his mandate. He campaigned as the candidate who was going to cut taxes for business, and raise benefits for workers, and reform welfare, and generally please everybody. Sound familiar?

To quote Viktor Klima, the Social Democrat who was elected chancellor of neighboring Austria in another victory for the New Tradition, this week's election results in Germany mark a "historic success ... a success for a Europe of employment, a success for a Europe with more social justice and a success for a Europe of social democracy."

What such phrases mean precisely is nothing, but they have a certain hypnotic appeal that thought does not seem able to match. If governments are going to mark time for years, they apparently need to do it in style, to a marching tune, uttering words that nobody may remember tomorrow but that sound dynamic today.

Back in Advertising 101, they taught us that the two words most likely to get the American consumer's attention were You and New. Maybe they still are. The attraction of such words is scarcely limited to Americans. See the results of one European election after another in this new Gilded Age. Voters are looking for something new, or that seems new, and candidates who care about them, or seem to.

The great appeal of Bill Clinton as a presidential candidate was that he seemed to care about us, even if his behavior, especially in this latest scandal, indicates that he cared about no one but himself -- not his family, not his party, not his office, not what he might do to his country.

Yes, underneath all the varnish that is the new tradition, a few splinters may come to the surface from time to time. Nobody need remind Americans of that danger this deep into the Nineties. But let's wish the Germans good luck; something tells us they'll need it. As we all do. Because this new tradition is turning out to be not so new. Indeed, it's just an old way of putting off serious decisions with meaningless phrases.

Remember how Bill Clinton, in one of his forgettable addresses, was going to be a repairer of the breaches? Yet he now seems to have opened the biggest one in years among Americans. It takes more than catch phrases, however effective for a while, to unite a free people. It takes principle. It takes character. It takes constancy. It takes leaders. It takes something that makes more sense than an oxymoron like new tradition.


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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
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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
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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
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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

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate