The revolting truth about Bill Clinton's America

Mark Lawson
Monday 19 April 1993 23:02

AFTER the guilty verdicts against two Los Angeles policemen in the second Rodney King trial, President Bill Clinton suggested that the reversal of the first result was a vindication of the American system. The belated dispensation of justice had demonstrated, he said, that 'our courts are the proper forum for the resolution of even our deepest legal disputes'.

Most of those who followed the case from a distance will find the new result less eccentric than the original. But, as the first Sixties student radical and pacifist to become commander-in-chief of a vast industrial democracy, President Clinton must surely know that the moral he publicly drew from the King case is itself a mishearing of the evidence.

The second, federal, trial in front of a now racially balanced panel had been secured through the infliction of 50 deaths and dollars 1bn of property damage on Los Angeles. The American political and judicial establishment - some motivated by ethics, others by desire for an easy life - desperately needed some locked-up cops the second time around, and it would surely be a superhuman juror who was unaffected by this background noise. If not a rigged trial in the formal sense, it was rigged by the prevailing atmosphere. Far from being the vindication of the American system that Mr Clinton claimed it to be, the second Rodney King verdict was an endorsement of violent revolt against the state.

I should make clear that I am not personally encouraging such action - I value my property as much as most of those who have any - but am merely extracting the logical message from the weekend's events. The first president from the Sixties generation found himself on the wrong end of a very Sixties morality tale. How those British liberals who confined themselves to writing to Chris Mullin and lobbying television documentary makers about the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four - Britain's own examples of racially prejudiced judicial verdicts - must now wish that they had saved themselves and the prisoners a decade and simply looted and destroyed downtown London. For those who hold that all social protest should be peaceful - and liberals and right-wingers unite in this view, from quite contrary soft and hard instincts - the Rodney King affair is sobering.

It is also the latest twist in the strange relationship between Bill Clinton and the American system. Even as an anti-war protestor and bearded Sixties student, Mr Clinton was equivocal on the matter, stressing, in one of the letters he wrote during negotiations on his draft status, his wish to 'maintain his validity within the system' - the 20-year-old dissident already dreaming of the presidency.

With equal unease, he ran for the White House last year as an outsider - on an Augean Stables ticket against Washington - despite being one of the most experienced politicians ever to gain a party nomination: a five-term governor. He was then helped to defeat George Bush by a true non-politician, Ross Perot.

Although the hysteria of last year's presidential election - when it genuinely seemed, at times, as if Americans were turning against their system as Eastern Europeans had rejected theirs - has for the moment subsided, it remains one of Mr Clinton's tasks to remake the case to convince Americans that they were right to opt for another career politician. His job is to vindicate the system. This means there may have been a wishful tinge to his remarks about the Los Angeles retrial.

President Clinton's smug relief about the dependability of tradition is a tempting reflex. It has often been easy to believe, in recent years, that democracies are self-righting, that they contain a mysterious kind of equilibrium mechanism, like those round-bottomed children's toys that can rocked but not knocked over.

At the time of the fall of Margaret Thatcher, for example, many who were not her supporters felt a certain satisfaction at the evident ease with which the British system was able to dispense with a leader whose continuation in office might well have been ruinous: not least, given her enthusiasm for the poll tax, for the social order. This could be seen as democracy's self-righting mechanism at work.

So, too, might Bill Clinton's victory last year. A scandal-hit candidate triumphed over a dirty campaigner and a briefly plausible and possibly demagogic non-politician. Admittedly, personal bias intervenes - there are doubtless Republicans and Ross-for-boss fans who believe that the American system grievously failed them last November - but it seems to me possible to advance apolitically the propositions that the frail and aged George Bush did not have another term in him and that President Perot would have been a better story for journalists than for the wider world. Like the child's toy, the American democratic system wobbled in two directions, but kept its head up.

A more ambitious application of this theory was the argument advanced in the Eighties by some analysts of modern British politics that - however much some may call for electoral reform - history shows the British electorate to be inherently sensible. According to this theory, the eccentricity of the 1945 anti- Churchill vote turns out to have been precocious social utopianism; a succession of short-term governments with small majorities ensured a comfortable political stability and kept politicians impotent during the Sixties and Seventies. But with the electorate offered more obvious opposites after 1979, even many on the left now accept that Labour governments in that year or 1983 would not have been the happiest historical outcome.

Thus, instead of the famous distinction between the 'cock- up' and 'conspiracy' theory of history, you arrive at something which might be called the 'wobbly toy' theory of history: the idea that matters will balance themselves, that the state is fundamentally fair. This is what President Clinton claims occurred in the new Rodney King verdict. It was the view of one distinguished liberal columnist who, in the last week of last year's British election campaign, suggested that the mystical common sense of the British electorate, as outlined above, would, on 9 April, deny office to an exhausted Tory administration.

Such optimism about the system's built-in decencies rings oddly now. In Britain - even though the latest bi-weekly prediction of recession's end seems to have found more subscribers than most - the privatisation of the prison escort service is played out to script from the Keystone Cops, while a government which includes Malcolm Rifkind among its members attempts to hand down lectures on the correct delivery of spoken English.

In America, justice is done to the black community only after the evisceration of a city and tens of burials. 'The system is vindicated,' says President Clinton. But if he admits to himself the real lesson from Los Angeles this weekend, then the Sixties dissident who came to run the system should be having sleepless nights.

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