This might be the last one of these…
So here, pretty much as it occurred and largely unedited, is a transcript of the interview Bill Clinton gave in that dream I had the other night. But before we begin, I’d just like to note that the opinions of the dream version of Bill Clinton, whether about politics or comic books, are entirely his own — and in fact, though I find myself in agreement with him on several points, there are others on which we part ways, and indeed if I had been the interviewer in this dream we might’ve had a lively back-and-forth on those matters, but since I wasn’t the interviewer that didn’t happen.
(You can tell I’m not the interviewer, because the interviewer doesn’t say much.)
However I guess I was something to Dream Bill Clinton in this setting…the host, maybe? Not sure if anyone else was in the audience, so it’s entirely possible the whole thing was put on for my benefit, so I guess I should say…
…Thank you for making the time to stop by, Mr. President. Always a pleasure.
INT: So, you’re saying that no Middle Eastern regime is safe, from this…”spirit of revolution”, or whatever it is?
BC: Well, to say that no regime is safe, doesn’t mean all regimes will necessarily topple. For example, I don’t want to make any predictions for anywhere else, but I’m pretty sure the United States won’t topple because of it. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean we’re safe.
INT: The…excuse me, did you say the United States?
INT: I take it you mean, to the extent that we’re committed to two wars, and now also committed to a coalition effort in…
BC: That’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a revolutionary wave that’s confined to the Middle East, or the Mediterranean basin, or anywhere else. These things don’t necessarily just obey the lines on the maps. Once they’ve started, they can go anywhere. That is really the number one lesson about political and cultural upheaval, that we should take from the twentieth century. Sometimes things look very quiet…or sometimes they look very loud, but very far away…but they’re not.
INT: “Very loud but very far away”…you recall the Jonathan Safran Foer book about 9/11.
BC: Well, 9/11 changed a lot of things, but that’s the thing: it changed things. It made some new ones too, but it also took some old ones and spun them around. We’re not a brand new country since that day; we don’t have a brand new mission out there in the world, any more than we have a brand new one here at home. What 9/11 did was, it didn’t uproot the tree…but it bent some of the branches. This actually goes back a long way. Maybe Safran Foer’s book is just evidence of a new accent on it, evidence of knowing something is happening, and even roughly what it’s about, without being able to put a name to it. And that wouldn’t be new either; there’s a lot of great American literature of the twentieth century, some people I know would say it’s most great American literature of the twentieth century, that struggles with that ability to say what it is, to find out what to call it. It doesn’t even have to be the great literature, it doesn’t even have to be literature at all. In the Sixties, it was more diffuse than that. Literature was only part of it. But this was all over the world, rebellion in a youth movement, in Europe it was explicitly political. Political in a way, a very obvious and direct way, that we weren’t…but change swept America too. And Britain, and France, and Canada for that matter. And it was political, it was just that its targets were much more diffuse. It’s hard to see how to effect change in a democracy sometimes, if it’s functioning properly by its own lights…
INT: You can’t carry around signs saying “Down With Democracy!”
BC: That’s exactly it. And nor would you. So you can never get anything more than a tentpole for protest, here. There will always be this big tent, too, and the tentpole may be in the center but the tent weighs a lot more, and it’s stitched together from all these different pieces of fabric, sometimes not very well. The pole has to be really strong, to get all that stuff to hang together. Now, in the Sixties there were the protests against the war in Vietnam, that was something people could agree on that directly addressed the actions of the government, but it was also symbolic of all the things that couldn’t be said out loud, or couldn’t be said out loud as effectively. That’s what having a strong tentpole is like. To have someone, some specific person, some specific thing or situation to address, that makes a revolutionary spirit easier to conceive of as a thing you can address as well. Something to respond to, something to clarify your own position when otherwise it’d be a little more fuzzy at the edges. This is why a revolutionary spirit expresses itself differently in the West, because we don’t have totalitarian regimes here, we don’t have a police state per se…but we do have inequities, and those inequities can even be harder to address because not everyone is suffering from them. If you were a member of a minority group you might well think that we do have a police state in America, and I wouldn’t have much hope of convincing you otherwise, but you won’t have much luck carrying that message to the people, because those inequities may be widely spread, but they are not evenly spread.
INT: So what tentpole is the Tea Party rallying around, in this case? Health care?
BC: I just want to be real clear about this: I’m not talking about the Tea Party. The Tea Party is no more a reflection of the enthusiasm or the need for change that’s sweeping the globe now, than they’re a reflection of the Prague Spring or the hippie movement. Structurally there are differences between the way a progressive spirit expresses itself in a country like ours, and the way a reactionary one does. The Tea Party doesn’t have a tentpole. They pretend to have one, but they don’t. Everything they do in terms of public relations is designed to convey the impression that they’ve got one, but in they end they don’t have one because they don’t need one. Their tent’s too small to need one. They just don’t have the kind of breadth they’re trying to say they do. What they’ve got is a lot more like stone soup, than any kind of big tent.
INT: Their tent doesn’t go all the way to the ground, maybe?
BC: They have some real trouble keeping that up, it takes an incredible effort to do it. Whereas the real revolutionary spirit takes a monumental effort to keep down, as soon as it’s able to find a focus. And they always do find it, because the focus is always about bringing change where change is needed: where people are crying out for it. When I said America wouldn’t topple, but wasn’t safe, I meant it wasn’t safe from being changed again, as it’s been changed before and will no doubt be changed in the future…and change of any kind isn’t what the Tea Party wants. If they can’t get the current of history to reverse its course, they want it to stand still, totally immobile. In this way, not physically and certainly not ethically, but philosophically, they’re like a reflection of jihad inside America. A reflection of the idea, that freedom is what you get when you stop the sun in the sky overhead. And do nothing, nothing except try to prevent other people from moving forward into the future. We don’t have jihad here in America, thank God. In a democracy we don’t need it, and it wouldn’t work anyway, because it results either in perfect order or perfect chaos…and I think that offends the basic outlook of most Americans, old and new Americans, so much that…well, we may have people who are not agents of dissent and protest and change, even those who sense the revolutionary mood and try to turn it to their own advantage, but we don’t have widespread terrorism because that’s just not what people are feeling about their country, and that’s why America is not a place where we suffer from a consistent threat of, say, suicide bombers. However, we do have something like the cultural equivalent of suicide bombers in our national discourse, we do have actions that are motivated in destructive ways, absolutist ways that reject conversation. For example, we have anonymous people who claim to represent an unseen mass of sentiment, but they’re anonymous not because they blow themselves up, they’re anonymous because they fade back into invisibility as soon as they’ve appeared. So they have this in common: they can’t be questioned. And we never know just who they are, or whose message they’re spreading.
INT: Are you saying that, in the Tea Party for example, the agenda of some of the more well-known financiers, that these are furthered by more subterfuge than what we’ve already…?
BC: It isn’t just large payments to known groups, the kind that allow someone to make a name for themselves as a voice and a face. What we also have is a person, say it’s a farmer or that’s what we’re told, somebody who gets in his truck and drives a couple hundred miles or more, to show up at a rally some afternoon and get in front of a camera…and there he is, he says “I’m the common man, and I’ve got this to say”…but it isn’t plausible that he’s a farmer, it isn’t plausible that he’s just as he seems. A farmer, and I should know, can’t actually do that. Can’t afford to do it, and isn’t going to do it. Not on his own, not when he’s got to make his living. For some abstract, inflexible, call to arms? But in America we haven’t had anything like a real call to arms of peaceful people since World War Two. So it’s…dubious, you understand what I’m saying. The claim to authenticity can’t last more than a split-second, or it just evaporates. We saw that during the McCain campaign, what happens when one of these people lingers in the public eye…
INT: Goes off the reservation?
BC: Well, Hillary calls it a soap bubble. The surface of it looks interesting, looks significant, complicated, information-rich, until you touch it. When you had that fellow, Joe the Plumber, and the more he lingered the less convincing he was as an example of the common man…or the idea of the common man was actually lowered by that attempt to say it was being reflected, debased even though there is nothing in the world more incorruptible than that, because he didn’t fit what most people think of as the common man, the average virtuous American who’s engaged with his democracy even though his voice is never heard on TV. This was a cultural suicide bomb that didn’t go off, the speaker failed to become anonymous again, and when he was…
BC: …When he was in the public eye too long, then you couldn’t do it anymore, you couldn’t say “here’s an average person”. It isn’t like in the movies, average people don’t stay average for long once the camera gets them in its focus. “Average” isn’t “equal”; “average” is a myth invented by those who oppose equality. And it can’t stand the light of day…of facts. But mark my words, as time goes on we will have more and more of these untraceable people, these sudden intrusions of points of view that won’t give you the chance to reason with them, and it will be by design. It’ll be far more efficiently stage-managed, just because we’ve already seen how it falls apart when it isn’t. But the thing is…the thing is, this isn’t new either. Just like everything we’ve been through recently with the new-look Republicans, from my Presidency through to today…I mean, you saw the issues of the George W. Bush Presidency played out in movies for fifty years, these have always been the issues at the forefront of our democracy, because our democracy is always being contested, it’s built on the constant conversation between different extremes, different values. That’s what makes our movies so enduring, and morally relevant. Even romantic comedies, or action movies where you are sure who’s the good guy and the bad guy…America never forgets that everybody is involved in deciding about the present moment, the viewer too.
INT: I know you’re a big movie fan…
BC: Well, everybody knows that about me. But you see I’ve brought along some props with me today…
INT: These are comic books?
BC: These are President Obama’s comic books. Or some of them. This is as American as movies, this is a true American art-form. You don’t have to be a university graduate to understand everything here, this is real egalitarianism, but it’s expressed by real talent, so it’s clear. Take a look: see, comic books are a commercial enterprise, staffed by freelancers, a cover has to be striking and it has to mean something, it has to get you to buy the book…and it also has to not be something that will eat up all the freelancer’s time for doing other jobs. And this really makes it special, it makes it so it has to be both super-artistic and super-economical, and that means there is a lot in these comics covers that we can pick out to see what’s going on…in terms of what the appeal is to people, what will grab them and what won’t. See here, this is an early comics cover, it’s the hero versus the villain. But then, later on, you’ll notice it’s a bunch of heroes versus the villain. And if you look at the time, this is WWII, this is the Allies versus Hitler. The villain’s power is big enough first to threaten the hero by undermining him, then to threaten him by fighting him…then the villain is powerful enough that the heroes have to get together if they want to stop him. You see? But then look a little further on, here we’ve got some other comics where the hero has to fight a group of villains, and the threat-situation is reversed: and this is international Communism outside America, or it’s bigotry in America, or it’s maybe even an ironic connection being made between the two…the villains are dangerous now because they get together, and gang up on the hero. The hero is pretty solid, he’s become very secure — not like he was in the early days when we didn’t know if he’d have the ability to triumph over the villain. So what’s the next step in threats to him? It’s right here. But it’s still cloaked in costumes and poses; so let’s see what happens when we uncloak it, and we kind of flip it around at the same time…until here, this is another kind of cover, from later on, and it’s the hero beset by a mob. A mob of people, a mob of monsters, it gets very slippery here because it’s only an internal image now, it doesn’t refer to any Hitler or Stalin. The hero isn’t fighting a villain, and if you look you’ll see he isn’t even “fighting”, physically, at all. Nor is he even getting ready to fight: instead, he’s just standing there. And in the crowd he’s facing — it’s too big to take on in an individual way, the hero’s traditional strategy won’t be enough to address this conflict, and look at all the extra work that’s gone into this cover now! That’s a lot more drawing than just two guys standing there, or even five or six. Numerically, effort-wise, rendering-wise, this has completely blown up. There’s something different at work. The artist is tremendously more involved, is trying much harder to say something. Something more difficult to say, it must be, or why the extra work? Look: the thing the hero is facing is in the background, not set against it…not even emerging from it. It’s like a question. Who is the hero? What’s his identity? What’s his nature, and can he trust his nature to give him his identity? Or does he have to start again from the beginning.
BC: That’s good. You see, that’s very good. You’ve got it. This is the Seventies question, the mistrust of authority. This is when the worldwide revolutionary spirit is sweeping through America, changing things. It doesn’t change everything everywhere. But it changes the superhero comic book, and that goes everywhere, it does go everywhere. And the problem for the superhero is, now there is a real problem with something: with authority, with trust, with reason for being. So the question in this time is what does the hero do, and how can he stand. What does he stand for? What does the focussed power of resistance or action that he represents have to offer to this scenario? How can he even figure out how to be a hero? Because this is internal, now; this is America. These people are the American people, and sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad — and sometimes they’re both — and the worry we see, the hero’s anxiety, is that he’s irrelevant to their crisis. This becomes a big thing in comics in the Seventies, the hero’s relevance. There is nothing for him to address, and the crowd can’t address him very well either. Who represents a real, a legitimate authority here? Look at the coloring technique in these ones, the crowd is all in reds and blacks, while the hero is in his usual costume, brightly-lit, foregrounded. Look at these, how often the hero’s face is turned from us, and toward the crowd. It’s like a mirror that doesn’t show either side a proper, comprehensible reflection. The people want revolution, they’re hungry for change, and they look to the representation of their ideals…but that representation looks like it might be getting too out of touch to help them. And so it looks on them as a chaotic threat. The superhero, as originally conceived, doesn’t have the power to grapple with this change…because the hero’s in two parts: one, an ideal that appeals to the people; two, a machine for making money from them. But the conflict is hard to state, never mind that I’ve just stated it: I’ve been a President of the United States, and people will put weight on what I say, that they might not be willing to give to their neighbour. If I say that people should wave around “Down With Democracy” signs, it becomes something people can address, that they can argue with or about…it becomes a thing, anyway. But if your mailman says it, or your brother-in-law, or your drinkin’ buddy…well, it just sounds like a bunch of smoke. They’re crazy. Because we don’t have terrorism here, or a one-party system, or a military junta in charge: there is no name you can put to this revolutionary urge, and so you don’t know what to do about it. You feel it, okay. But you have nothing to put it on. The hero is lost in a secret identity, he is out of touch, he’s made for punching things out, but there’s no antagonist in a purple cape with a master plan for him here. He can’t find out what’s wrong. So he doesn’t have a purpose, and that means everybody can put him down. Or, more than that: they can question his reality.
INT: …And this spreads out? Are we out of this feeling of “questioning” now? I can’t help but think of the movie “The Matrix”…
BC: Exactly. A comic-book movie.
INT: Oh, it was from a…?
BC: No, but it was a movie about comic books. About that business of the hero losing his confidence, his reason for being. This is how I get into this picture, with President Obama. I read comics when I was young, sure. But I loved the movies more, it was just that I couldn’t afford them. When I was older, I concentrated on The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca…but it doesn’t mean I forgot the hero. Bogart was a hero in those movies, even if he was an anti-hero. But then there was Raiders Of The Lost Ark…a great movie, full of excitement, but also a great movie because it turned Sam Spade into Clark Kent, you see? Indiana Jones takes his identity from not being like his father, not being like his teachers: he’s a mercenary. But he’s a mercenary with an American heart, with Superman’s heart. He spends the whole movie running away from responsibility, from love…and he never makes the connection between the two, that’s the problem. But his heart knows it, even if he doesn’t. They question his reality, they try to overwrite his reality; saying everything about him is fake, made-up. And they’re right, except they can’t see that there’s one irreducible pebble of him that believes. But, like I said: this is the great American comic-book, not the great American movie. The great American movie doesn’t grant you the irreducible pebble, but asks what are you going to do if we take that pebble away, and just leave a hole where it should be. And that’s where the movie hero thrives, but the comic hero wilts. Comes to his ultimate crisis. For the superhero, it’s always a question of is there something outside himself that he stands for, or isn’t there. And if there isn’t something outside, then there isn’t anything inside either, and he evaporates. He implodes. Rick Blaine can find a place to stand, if he has to, even if he isn’t trying to: his place always finds him. But the superhero can only stand if we stand; he’s like a canary in a coal mine. Rick can’t be beaten because he can’t be done away with: even he can’t do away with himself. That’s America at an extremity: we don’t know who we are until it’s on us. But the superhero is different. He’s a warning cry, of an extremity yet to arrive.
INT: You mean…he folds at the first sign of trouble? That doesn’t sound very much like a superhero!
BC: Sure, Superman and Batman always win. That’s in the nature of the story-form. But what happens to them, in order for them to win, that’s the question. Look, there’s a British comics writer, Mark Millar. He wrote a story called “Civil War”, where Captain America tries to protect democratic freedoms from Iron Man, a technocratic billionaire…and in the end, Captain America is going to beat Iron Man, but then in their fight a New York City first responder gets hurt, and then a mob attacks him. Attacks America, the symbol of America, because they’ve been blinded by a greater symbol: the symbol of tragedy, and rage. And then Captain America gives himself up, stops fighting the good fight; and goes to jail. The message being: when America goes, so does its symbol. It can’t keep fighting if it doesn’t have any support. But, you know…that’s what the world thinks of us right now. Mr. Millar thinks that. They think the spirit of America’s been deserted by its people. That’s what they think of us. Can you imagine?
INT: The Tea Party…
BC: It’s the Tea Party. It’s Fox News. It comes down to this: the widespread telling of lies, and nobody has the guts to call them lies. Cultural suicide bombers, and Ayatollah Khomeinis in Stars-And-Stripes armor. No one dares say they’re not a real American who hates other peoples’ freedom. We have that going on all the time, discharging onto the streets like a busted sewer pipe: lies about America, and what it is to be American. That’s no better than lies about Islam, and what it is to be a Muslim. And we could do something about it if we wanted to, but we don’t.
INT: You’re not talking about some measure against freedom of speech? Fire in a crowded…?
BC: No, it isn’t like that. It’s much, much simpler. Take for example the news. I’m no fan of needless regulation, but in Canada for example they have a law that says the news has to be — essentially — truthful reporting. If you call yourself the news then you have to tell the truth. And this is a way to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press from an internal attack rather than an external one. If the New York Times printed completely falsified stories every day, there would be an outcry, because people would sense that as a threat to everyone’s freedom of speech, that the New York Times could just say this or that or whatever it wanted to, and not call it entertainment, not even call it current events…so they don’t do it. While on the other hand, no one is up in arms about The Onion, because The Onion doesn’t present itself as anything but satire anyway. But how does Fox News present itself? As satire? No one is reading The Onion expecting to hear the truth of what happened today, but lots of people are watching Fox News with the expectation that what they’ll see and what they’ll be told won’t be made up out of whole cloth…and a lot of the time, it just is made up. In a way you could defend if it was entertainment, if it was humor…artistic license in the way crowd scenes are spliced together, maybe…but everyone who doesn’t think it’s the “real” news knows perfectly well that it isn’t trying to be funny at all, and the people who are watching it don’t think it’s funny either. Nobody thinks it’s performance art, whether they think it’s meeting the standards of truthful journalism or not. So if we had a law that just said “look, if you call yourself a news organization you can’t just make stuff up”, Fox might bluster a bit but they’d have to change away from that disinformation formula. At least they’d have to label it when they’re doing it, and make damn sure that when they weren’t labelling it, that they weren’t doing it. We could just make a harder distinction between news programming and “current affairs commentary” programming. It wouldn’t bother the National Inquirer!
INT: People do sue the Inquirer from time to time…
BC: You’re darn right they do! And sometimes they even lose. But ask yourself: could Fox News win? I’m not against their existence. I don’t particularly like Fox News, as you can imagine, but if they can stand up in a courtroom or in a Congressional hearing and defend themselves as truth-tellers, straightforwardly and fairly, then I would have to say they had as much a right to exist, and were as much a benefit to our society by existing, in their way, as the New York Times. Or even the National Inquirer! But let’s not kid ourselves, no one’s asking them to do that now. They’re not put under any sort of scrutiny, they don’t have to stand up like the New York Times, they don’t have to put up or shut up like the National Inquirer. Instead they get the weirdest of weird free passes. They can lie, they can foment, they can be full of it…and crouch behind the shield of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. So this media is the new Wild West, anybody can sell anything to anyone under any label they want. But we already have the FCC, which is to the media industry as the FDA is to the pharmaceutical industry — if we made the FCC work as well to defend the public’s interest as the FDA does, we might just raise the bar for what you have to do to be considered “news”, instead of a gossip sheet or a comedy program. Let’s raise it to just above where The Daily Show is, maybe! That level of accuracy. Jon Stewart is out there every day loudly saying that these are just jokes, it doesn’t stop people from getting their news from him. But no one thinks he thinks he’s a journalist. (laughs) Fox News tried to get him to say he thinks he’s a journalist, and he wouldn’t do it! And they wouldn’t believe it!
INT: Mr. President, we’re almost out of time…
BC: You mean you’re almost out of time! I could go on for a while!
INT: Gonna have to ask you to simmer down.
BC: Why don’t you ask my mama how that went.
INT: Well, why don’t I.
BC: Sure, why don’t you. Hillary and I aren’t getting along right now anyway.
INT: So you feel like you can just say…?
BC: Whatever I want to, yeah. Ex-President over here. Going down in history. Let me tell you, I am not 100% sure Barack Obama’s going to get another term.
INT: You’re not?
BC: Hell no, man! There’s still a lot of brown-suited flat-earthers out there who might want to vote for some repressed thirteen-year-old child preacher!
INT: So you are.
BC: Hell yes I am. Truth is, my brother can’t lose. He just doesn’t know it yet. All this Abraham Lincoln stuff. He’s not Abraham Lincoln. I was Abraham Lincoln.
INT: And he’s…?
BC: Captain America, baby. The way it was always meant to be. Except…
BC: …Except he doesn’t seem to know it. So…yeah, maybe we’re done here.
INT: I want to thank you, Mr. President.
BC: No, I want to thank you.
And then, readers…
…I woke up.
So, pretty much presented without comment, then.
Can’t blame a man for what he dreams.