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THE LONELIEST MILE IN TOWN

By Sam Smith


We are not alone. This extraordinary piece comes from what we'd conventionally call the "far left" and from the heart of Washington, DC. Sam Smith is the author of Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual, available from WW Norton. He is editor of The Progressive Review, in whose online edition this piece can be found. "The Loneliest Mile" is long, but is one of the most refreshing personal commentaries I've read in ages. Many thanks to Emily for finding and forwarding it. "L'Chaim!, Miss Emily"

When I was a radio newsman in the late 1950s, I would sometimes snag the late or early shift and have to drive from my apartment on Capitol Hill the hundred blocks or so out 16th Street to Silver Spring. The streets were dark, silent and empty and I would turn on a black radio station and listen to The Cabbie's Serenade -- a show, the host said in a mellow post-midnight voice, dedicated to "all you guys driving the loneliest mile in town." Then Al Jefferson would play the blues to keep you company.

As I have wandered deep into the mysteries of the president and his past, the memory of those nights have returned more than once. As one of a miniscule number of non-conservative journalists to make the trip, the streets have often been dark, empty, and silent.

By the standards of my background, my trade, and my politics -- as I have been frequently reminded -- I should never have never gone this way. Nothing I have ever done -- none of my activism, none of my writings, none of my choices -- have left me so much the outsider as trying to write the truth about Clinton. It has often seemed the loneliest mile in town.

At first, though, it was just business as usual. I had been raised a decent Democrat, which by definition meant politics was a two-front battle -- an offensive against the Republicans but also, and often no less important, a matter of defending the party's values against the corrupt, the cynical, and the prejudiced within. >From the Dixiecrats to Carmine DeSapio to Richard Daley to the Vietnam hawks, being a Democrat meant being in a constant state of civil war.

I stuffed my first political envelope as a 12-year-old in a successful campaign that would end 69 years of corrupt GOP rule in Philadelphia. As a Harvard student, I covered the Cambridge city council for the college radio station. James Michael Curley died while I was there but his spirit still hovered over Massachusetts politics. Later I would spend two decades close to the story of Marion Barry, first as a friend and fellow activist, later as an observer and critic. Initially I played a role not unlike that of Jack Burden in All the King's Men -- and not unlike many around Bill and Hillary Clinton. But there came a time in the early 1980s when I decided I didn't want to end up like Jack Burden and so I let increasing distance grow between Marion and myself until finally there was nothing except the passing reference to times of which I suspect both of us were prouder. There was, I decided, no virtue in defending the indefensible, for that merely corrupted the meaning of loyalty as well as of politics.

From the start I had recognized something familiar about Bill Clinton. The soft southern voice unwavering in its glib assurance, the excuse for everything, the absence of inquiry, the cynical charm, a cause well used a quarter century ago and then forgotten, the adulterated intelligence, the inconsistency, the willingness to use anything or anyone, the undisciplined egocentrism, the populist rhetoric playing bumper tag with corporatist policies, the drugs, the women, and the whiff of the underworld. It was not new; I had, after all, known Marion Barry for over 25 years.

There were some other things that I recognized. For example, I knew enough political history to understand that modern corruption was largely a Democratic invention and that it had two primary branches: northern urban and southern ubiquitous. It wasn't that Republicans were more honest; perhaps they were just too greedy to share the wealth and thus seldom had time to build up a good machine before getting caught. In any case, finding another corrupt Democrat was nothing new.

Then, some months before the 1992 campaign, I read Sally Denton's Bluegrass Conspiracy -- a stunning description of how illegal drugs had corrupted Kentucky right up to the governor's office. The early tales from Arkansas contained eerie echoes of Kentucky. There were also new scents of old trails I had followed while writing about Reagan and Bush -- back when no one ever accused me of being a conspiracy theorist for reporting what I had found. The droppings of BCCI and Iran-Contra, of S&L scandals and the CIA were in Arkansas as well.

Several months before the 1992 convention I compiled a list of troublesome things that had already surfaced in that state, drawing a flow chart to link the people and institutions involved. It was the first time any journalist had connected the dots. Some of the names would become much more familiar: Webster Hubbell, Seth Ward, Genifer Flowers, Dan Lasater, the Arkansas Development Finance Agency, Mena, Buddy Young, even Mochtar Riady. Their roles were pretty murky but already they provided a rough sketch of the environment in which Bill and Hillary Clinton had prospered. There were suggestions of illegal intelligence operations, illegal drug running, illegal financial manipulations, threats of violence, not to mention run-of-the-mill political corruption. It was a disturbing sketch, but more disturbing was that no one seemed to care much about it. The Clinton juggernaut was already well under way.

My own problem with Clinton quickly became three-fold. I was convinced that he was one of the most corrupt politicians I had ever run across. I was equally certain that despite his idealistic rhetoric, the political Clinton was like the Raymond Chandler character: "smart, smooth and no good." Politically and personally, Clinton was a fraud.

My third problem was the reaction of others to my first two problems. A piece I wrote in May 1992 suggesting that the Democrats dump Clinton while there was still time was not well received by my liberal colleagues, especially those in Americans for Democratic Action, where I was an executive vice president engaged with others in a quixotic effort to resuscitate that old liberal war horse. A few months earlier, Clinton had attracted only minimal support within the organization; now the leadership was pressing for an early endorsement on the grounds that it would endear and encumber Clinton to the liberal cause. This fantasy would only be the first in a long string of masochistic liberal delusions about Clinton, a failure to understand that, to their candidate, politics was like sex: a one-way street. You gave, he received.

That same spring I ran into Don Graham of the Washington Post on 15th Street. He asked me whom I was supporting in the Democratic primaries. When I said Jerry Brown, he grabbed my arm and waved it in the air shouting, "I've found one! I've found a real live Brown supporter!"

Still, I couldn't bring myself to sit out the election as I had in 1968, and so I followed Mae West's dictum, namely that when faced with two evils, always pick the one you haven't tried before. I voted for Clinton.

Shortly after Clinton's inauguration, I was invited to a conference on third party politics sponsored by the Green Politics Network. I had arrived at Bowdoin College with caution but left realizing that my political discomfort was with far more than just one man -- I had developed an irretrievable distrust and disgust with what the Democratic Party had become.

In April, I was asked to write a book about Clinton's first year for Indiana University Press. In June the leadership of ADA purged those of us responsible for creating within the organization what we wryly called the "progressive caucus." The liberal Legion of Decency didn't want anyone to come between it and its new-found friend.

The book, which came out the following April, received some wonderful reviews, but there were also some noticeable silences. It got a friendly reception in as diverse locales as a black radio station in DC, a conservative talk show in Idaho Falls, a populist weekly in Texas and a west coast business column. WAMU -- Washington's public radio station -- wouldn't touch it, but Baltimore public radio was happy to have me on. I spent a cordial hour on a conservative talk show in Boston, but the establishment left such as the Village Voice and the Nation did not review it. The New York Review of Books would not consider it, but the right-wing Washington Times gave it a favorable nod.

Edith Efron in the libertarian Reason said she had to be almost forcibly restrained from quoting yards of the book; on the other hand, the editor of the New York Times Book Review told my editor the book was "turgid."

The book was favorably reviewed in the Washington Post, but only because that paper's last surviving progressive columnist Colman McCarthy, found it in the reject pile outside the office door of the book editor. Not long after, McCarthy himself was dumped outside the door by the Post. Aside from McCarthy, only three mainstream Washington journalists -- one conservative and two black -- reviewed or mentioned the book.

I had, I realized later, stumbled upon the outlines of a new American political fault line. It was so new that it lacked a name, stereotypes, cliches, experts and prophets. In many ways it seemed more a refugee camp than a voluntary assembly, yet, as I thought about it, the more its logic seemed only concealed rather than lacking.

On one side were libertarians, blacks, greens, populists, free thinkers, the alienated apathetic, the rural abandoned, the apolitical young, as well as others convinced America was losing its democracy, its sovereignty and/or its decency. On the other side was a technocratic, media, legal, business and cultural elite centered in New York and Washington. At times it felt as if all of America outside of these two centers had turned into a gigantic, chaotic salon des refusÚs.

Another thing I noticed was that this was about far more than politics. A cultural and class coup was underway, of which the Clinton administration was a part, one designed to create a gated economy and transform those outside the barriers into pliant, homogenized, multi-nationalized consumers for whom freedom, choice and democracy would atrophy into symbols of merely virtual meaning.

Increasingly, the words of encouragement I received came from somewhere other than my home town, a place whose conventional thinking I had happily challenged for nearly thirty years. In the 1960s and 1970s it had been no problem; there had always been plenty of similar voices and I never felt alone. Washington -- like Madison or Berkeley -- possessed a vigorous counterculture ready to strike out, provoke, and outrage and to enjoy every minute of it. Although by the 1980s the voices of protest had greatly dulled, dissent was still fair game as long as one's targets were Reagan or Bush.

In the 1990s, however, the Washington establishment simply closed down the marketplace of ideas. This involved not merely Democratic lawyer-lobbyists now pursuing openly the cynical abuse of government they had discreetly enjoyed during the Republican years. It included not merely journalists whose sycophancy towards the powerful was now promiscuously out of the closet. It also included the professional liberal establishment of Washington -- labor, feminist, and enironmental leaders whose heady new access to government blinded them to how distant what they had once advocated was from what they were now willing to accept over -- or even in return for -- lunch.

For mainstream Washington, there was no longer any politics, only deals. No victories, only leveraged buyouts. No ideology; only brand loyalty. No conservative and liberal, only Coke and Pepsi.

Social life reflected the smog of grim, pallid process that settled in over the town. The New York Times reported that in the capital many men of power no longer even wished a social life. A former White House social secretary told the Times that her lawyer husband barely wanted to go out at all: "He whines. He says it's a school night. And if it's a seated dinner, he's dead, because he can't control the time at which you leave." It would have been one thing if these men were doing something imaginative, daring or, god forbid, useful. In fact their lives were as boiler-plate as the contracts they rushed off to revise. And the city had turned gray with their souls.

We were left without a counterculture, without what Max Weber called the pariah intelligentsia, without even the variety a vigorous business community might have provided. Instead there was primarily the courteous anarchy of the ambitious -- the smile on the face of the tiger as each ego attempts to undermine the next and nothing is done in the name of everyone.

In those parts of town considered important these changes came with an unprecedented lack of grace and decency. There did not even seem to be those rare exceptions that once provided some redemption for the city's elite. One waited in vain for some truth-telling, an honorable resignation, an unexpected demand for justice. Instead, there was only spin, sophistry and the over-billing of clients.

It was hard, however, to find those who even noticed. Seventy years of social democracy were being rolled back, we were silently moving into a new post-reconstruction era of institutionalized prejudice, freedom and democracy were in severe neglect. And in response: silence. It would have been bad enough to watch this while among those who have no power; to witness it among some of the strongest, wealthiest and best educated of the world was shattering. I no longer wondered how Germany had succumbed.

On the left, conscience had shriveled to little more than a ritualized stream of fund-raising letters invoking promises of things already dead by the premeditated hand of the Democratic Leadership Council and the man they had elected to the White House. In such circumstances, to do more -- to not only invoke promises of the good things once believed but to actually attempt to achieve them -- had become not merely naive, but apostasy. To the Clinton administration and those who had embraced it (including and especially much of the media), to be a Democrat in its true and historic meaning had become suspect, to announce one's opposition to its usurpation by Clintonism was indisputable seditious. If you held to old faiths, there came a sense of failure, of exile, of being punished for what was once honored. Now it was those who refused to compromise who were disloyal. The civil war within the Democratic Party was over. The cynical, the callous, and the corrupt had won.

The mechanisms for discouraging sedition were the same as among the smugly homogenous everywhere -- only the Clinton people did it far better and with far more cruel premeditation. A word passed, an invitation not sent, coldness in place of hospitality, phone calls not returned -- the genteel exclusion of those who fail to comply. Diversity -- now defined only by ethnicity and sex -- allowed Clinton to claim a cabinet that "looks like" America yet would still include the most millionaires ever. Diversity of dreams, values, experience, class, suffering, imagination rhetoric, ideology, caring -- these were not part of diversity any more, but rather of subversion.

As one of the seditious, I found the city's doors closing one by one. There was the ADA purge and the cold local reaction to the book. I was literally banned from a Washington public radio talk show by a host who, despite caller inquiries, declined to explain why. (The station's political editor said it was for "excessive irony.") A Washington Post reporter told me casually that, yes, she supposed I was on that paper's blacklist. There was an end to invitations to C-SPAN, a long phone call from the host of a local Pacifica talk show berating me for what I written about Clinton and mocking suggestions by other journalists that I was a conspiracy theorist and becoming paranoiac.

I had followed the fate of government and defense industry whistleblowers, so I was not surprised. The cultural isolation and imputation of madness are standard by-products of telling unwanted truths. I knew lawyers who specialized in these matters and how they often spent almost as much time counseling their client on personal survival as they did providing counsel in the courthouse.

I had also followed the fate of others who had challenged the Clinton myth and considered myself lucky. And I took as a perverse sign of my sanity being asked from time to time if I didn't fear for my personal safety. I had covered politics since Eisenhower and no one had ever asked me that before.

Happily, other things were happening as well. A cable television program asked me to be a regular guest on a panel otherwise comprised of African-American journalists. During a time in which that I was being isolated from my own culture, another welcomed me. It would have been an unblemished pleasure had not simultaneously the black city served by the program been under severe attack. A combination of a fiscal embargo by Congress and fiscal mismanagement by the local government would soon lead to a federal takeover of DC and the first mass de facto disenfranchisement of American voters since the days of Jim Crow. Our program became a small metaphor for what was happening.

The television station was owned by the University of DC, a land grant campus that served as an educational underground railroad for the neglected and forgotten young of the city. The fiscal problems of the Washington had already hit UDC. The elevators could no longer be relied upon; it was safer to walk the four flights up to the station. The air-conditioning in the studio became unreliable and finally one night the station manager told us they could no longer afford to continue the show. In our place, the station began running stock footage from NASA.

The faculty protested the budget cuts and the students tried to rebel and even blocked busy Connecticut Avenue one day. But the city and its politicians failed to respond and the president of the university, a weak man of colonial sensibility, went to the White House and sat silently as other heads of black colleges futilely made what should have been his case.

After the TV show was cancelled, the host, Ernest White, asked me to appear weekly on his radio program, Cross Talk, a rare outlet for those seldom heard in this capital of power and pretense. Then a couple of years later, after the university's faculty had been slashed still more and the public relations and alumni affairs offices had been closed and the water cooler was no longer stocked, the manager came in one day and told us to make the show a good one because it was to be our last.

The university was going to sell the station in order to help cover its deficit. Just one mile to the west was WAMU, the public radio station of affluent Washington, with its pristine studios and prissy paradigms. Somewhere in that mile crossed the American fault line.

At first it appeared that a Christian sect would buy WDCU, but the deal fell through. Eventually the station was purchased by the Shrine of Immaculate Centrism, C-Span, so the elite city could hear still more affirmation of its status quo.

The other city would be bullied, squeezed, and demoralized by the federal takeover. Schools would be closed, health clinics eliminated, inmates sent hundreds of miles away to privatized gulags. A form of socio-economic cleansing was underway, only with budget cutbacks and tax policy rather than with landmines and rifles. The corporatist technocrats of both parties wanted Washington rich and free of humans reminders of the failure of their inhuman policies. They wanted a Singapore on the Potomac.

Twenty-five years ago, Washington's white liberals had helped overcome the segregationists in Congress in order to win DC a semblance of home rule; now their faux heirs grumbled about Marion Barry, only barely concealing the fact that Barry was a euphemism for others who looked like him. DC was no longer a community but a facility and the burghers of white Washington demanded to know why they had not been better served for all their tax dollars. Yet they no more expected to engage themselves personally in the city's affairs than they would have changed the sheets while staying in a hotel suite.

The antipathy to those things that had once defined local liberalism mirrored the retreat on national issues. The once liberal spoke happily of welfare "reform," and showed indifference to growing incursions on civil liberties and the massive injustice of the war on drugs. The word "anti-trust" never crossed their lips and the corporatizing of American politics passed unnoticed. Should you press them on any of this, a standard rebuke was that Clinton was better than Dole or that the White House had to move right to co-opt the right.

What about the 40 friends, associates, aides, and firms around Clinton convicted or pleading guilty?

Guilt by association.

What about the 90 witnesses who pleading the Fifth or fleeing the country?

Their constitutional right.

What about? . . .

You can't prove it.

What about? . . .

You don't believe that rightwing crap do you?

Liberalism had become the abused spouse of the Democratic right.

Facts became obsolete in Washington. They were at best a filler between arguments on TV about what really mattered -- perception and image. Facts were background noise at a news conference, multi-colored jimmies on policy statements, and just plain annoying in private conversation.

At times I felt trapped in the compound of some bizarre cult of sophisticated rhetoric, infantile premises, and manic mythology. There were no ideas, only a leader; no ideology, only icons; no inquiry, only arrogant certitude.

I felt as though both local and federal Washington had been stolen. Yet, as it turned out, I was also gaining something, something I couldn't see as clearly as that which I was losing. My very isolation was forcing me to see my surroundings differently, encouraging me to discover things that I might otherwise had discounted or missed entirely. A way, the Quakers promise, will open. In the midst of my anger and melancholy, I only belatedly noticed that it already had.

When I went on that radio station in Idaho Falls -- in Mark Fuhrman country -- I heard the host pick out the one sentence in my book in which I spoke well of the right of jury nullification. Somehow this conservative talk show host had found that sentence and he introduced me by saying that I was a supporter of the fully informed jury movement, which has cross-ideological support but is particular popular in the libertarian west. I was meant to be on for 20 minutes but we kept talking for an hour and a half. Some debate but no hostility. I waited for the call from a right-wing crazy; it never came.

I go on Duke Skorich's show in Duluth. Duke's got some tough listeners. I'm working hard but having fun, when a guy calls up and says, "You know, this fellow in Washington's got a point; we've got to stop worrying about those gays and feminists and start worrying about what the corporations are doing to us."

On the sainted Larry Bensky's Pacifica show, a listener calls in and begins quite logically on the need to set national priorities. We can't solve anything without starting at the right place. I indicate assent. Then the caller raises the ante: "And the right place to start is with the problem of extra-terrestrial aliens, don't you think?"

Larry looks at me as if to say, you're on your own. "Well," I respond, "My view on that is that we ought to treat extra-terrestrial aliens like anyone else in this country. We should welcome them as one more immigrant group that will add to the strength and character of the country."

I am on my own; I feel free to enjoy America again, free to talk trash or truth to any citizen without having to run an ideological credit check on them first. Free to speak to them as real people rather than as a personification of paradigms. Free to discover unexpected common ground. It's the kind of politics I like; the kind I think of as bar room politics: if you can't walk into a bar and hold your own, then you don't have it down no matter how many op ed pieces you write about it.

In 1995, some of my friends in the Green Politics Network were also thinking about finding common ground. We decided to host a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, Democratic Socialists of America, and followers of Lenora Fulani. It was an awfully dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin, and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along.

By the end of the weekend we had seventeen points of agreement. We had also found real confidence in the possibility of political transformation, of moving beyond left and right. We understood that these were different times -- not the thirties, not the sixties -- times that required different imaginations and different risks. We had reached out and had found that we were not alone.

Out of this curious beginning, and within months, the skeleton of a national Green political movement was formed, eventually strong enough to wage a presidential campaign and create parties in a score of states. With e-mail and web sites we, like millions of others, found ourselves creating a a cyberarchy of transformation -- as different from the hierarchy of traditional information and politics as the vast wilderness of America was from the taut geography of 19th century Europe. The dukes and baronets, clinging to their decadent landscape of conventional American thought, railed against the primitiveness, the raucousness, the freedom of the new media, but their voices were silly whining in the happy hubbub of people discovering a ubiquitously hospitable new frontier. The ways of the Net would soon become inseparable from the ways of new politics. The Net had become the smoke-filled room, the Tammany Hall and the political picnic of a new age.

With the heady discovery of how many of us there really were came a sense of incipient rebellion based not on ideology but on dreams and values -- a shared faith that freedom, the individual, and decency still mattered.

It was not just a different politics but a different philosophy and culture. And it was one that allowed respect to develop even among those who might have been antagonists. It was possible to accept others as a part of a community that had precedence over political belief.

Next: I write a book about repairing politics and the pattern repeats itself. The book is featured in the post-liberal, green, and futurist Utne Reader. Insight, the national magazine of the conservative Washington Times runs a two-page interview with me. But I get no mention in the Washington Post. I'm on black radio, public radio, and Weekend All Things Considered, but I'm still persona non grata at Washington's NPR outlet. I tell an audience in Seattle that I feel like one of those dissident Soviet authors making his first trip to New York. And I do.

I wonder if this was how it was with the Free French, with communists and Gaulists and everything in between in temporary alliance -- fighting for the right to fight each other fairly. Certainly the Peronist Clintons, their policies of globalization, their brain-clouding agitprop, and the growing proto-fascist mechanisms of control are reason enough for those outside the inner party to look more kindly upon each other. Far better to form an uneasy common defense than to have our freedoms snapped off one by one, until we are none.

There is nothing inexorable about ideological history. The Republicans were once the party of civil rights; Woodrow Wilson was a racist. Democrats have been both hawks and doves. Fundamentalist Christians used to be New Deal Democrats. New Deal labor voters became Reagan Democrats. Liberals ran away from Joe McCarthy as a few conservatives stood up to him. Conservationists had once frequently been conservatives and today's advocates of organic farming span the political spectrum. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader agree about NAFTA. And so forth.

So one shouldn't really be too surprised, despite what we have been taught, if unexpected alliances develop, if new issues submerge old enmities, if new possibilities drown out old cliches. It doesn't mean we have turned to mush. It means, rather, changing circumstances and an acceptance of the true variety -- diversity if you will -- of human nature, of human history, and of the human spirit.

Stephen Carter tells the story of two black women who moved from "involvement in liberal politics to involvement in conservative Christian groups for no other reason than their perception that, among their natural liberal political allies, their desire to talk about their faith -- evangelical Christianity -- made them an object of sport." In the end, they "preferred a place that honored their faith and disdained their politics over a place that honored their politics and disdained their faith."

Traveling along the American political fault line I keep bumping up against such disjunctions -- being forced to choose between abstract policy and specific decency, between the way it was and the way it is, between the matter that annoys us and the one that might kill us. It seems odd, yet it is right there in the midst of the anarchy, anger, ambivalence, and angst of unsettled America that one finds most strongly those traits of character, individuality, and stubbornness that got us through our first few centuries. It is messy, and it can be cruel, wrong, and dumb, but it has something that the talking heads, with their hypocritical, self-serving pleas for a "civil society" and their dainty rules of "public discourse," can not approach: the robust vigor of a democratic spirit trying honestly to find its way.

To survive in such a politics you must have set strongly one's own footings. The listless exchange of purloined bromides that often passes for debate will not suffice; nor will hiding in some safe corner with only the unalienated invited, nor speaking in sacred halls with supercilious sophistry. You have to know what you believe and not merely -- as with the inner party of American culture -- what you are meant to believe.

Such rooted beliefs and values need not be inconsistent with respect, friendliness or decent debate as long as we treat our beliefs and values as benign tools and not as weapons, as long as we seek to convince and not bully, as long as we claim only a fair share of the truth.

These are not, however, limits accepted by our leaders who daily rob us and then urge us to blame others; who speak of social harmony and build economic dissonance, who seek "one nation" while driving wedges between groups of us. We can, as those in charge would like, continue to define ourselves primarily by neatly described identities -- either natural or acquired. We can remain interminably and ineffectually absorbed and angry about the particulars of infinite special injustices. Or we can ask what is it that makes our society seem so unfair to so many who are so different? If the young black in Watts and the militia member in Montana and the mother of six in Dorchester share untended miseries, might not those miseries share some common origins? Can we find universal stories in particular pain? If we can, it is the beginning of true change.

There is a lusty tradition in American politics of citizens of disparate sorts, places, and status coming together to put power back in its proper place. At such times, the divides of politics, the divisions of class, the contrasts of experience fade long enough to reassert the primacy of the individual over the state, democracy over oligopoly, fairness over exploitation and community over corruption. This could be such a time if we are willing to risk it, and one of the soundest way to start is to trade a few old shibboleths for a few new friends.

(c) Sam Smith 1998.



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17 July, 1998