In the New Yorker of Feb. 22, Marshall Frady writes about Rickey Ray Rector, who was executed in Arkansas last year after Bill Clinton turned him down for clemency. Although the law did not require his presence in the state, Clinton interrupted his New Hampshire primary campaign and flew home. Why he did so is not clear. Maybe he felt a personal obligation to be on hand. Maybe he wanted to prove that he was tough on crime.
The saga of Clinton and Rector is replete with those sorts of ambiguities. Rector himself was one. He had killed two men (one a cop) in 1981 and then turned the gun on himself. He emerged lobotomized, and it was never clear after that whether he understood that he had murdered or that his own death would be irrevocable. At his last meal, he saved the pecan pie as if he would be having it later.
Rector's execution had raised certain legal issues. For opponents of capital punishment, it also raised questions about Clinton. It seemed at odds with his progressive, compassionate image, and it appeared to contradict his own acknowledgment (related by Frady) that capital punishment was not a deterrent. Still, it is possible to believe in the death penalty for other reasons -- fitting vengeance, for instance -- and Clinton seemed to fit in that category.
The Frady article could not have come at a more appropriate moment. In effect, it poses certain questions about Bill Clinton -- questions having to do with his willingness to conceal who he is and what he truly believes. Take, for instance, his recently announced economic program. For the most part, I applaud it, but even as I am cheering its outlines and intentions -- and even as I am awed by Clinton's mastery of its details -- I am asking myself: Where exactly did it come from? After all, not once in his long presidential bid did Clinton say he would raise taxes on the middle class. On the contrary, he said he would lower them for middle-class taxpayers.
To a lamentable degree, the practice of politics is the practice of deceit. A politician cannot admit a gnawing doubt about the existence of God or the ultimate wisdom of the voters. Frady points out, for instance, that Clinton's mentor, former senator William Fulbright (D-Ark.), was a humane and cultivated man but never strayed from regional political orthodoxy on race. These are the deals, the compromises, a politician has to make if he is to remain in office. Absolute honesty is sometimes a prescription for defeat.
But where should politicians draw the line? Maybe more pertinent, where should we demand that they draw the line? I have always been bothered by Clinton's willingness to sanction executions, although I recognize that had he not done so, a southern state like Arkansas would not have tolerated him in the governor's office. I recognize also that had Clinton said during the campaign that he would raise taxes and curtail certain government programs he probably would have not have made it out of New Hampshire. And, yes, Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned as a budget balancer.
The Roosevelt reference is not haphazardly chosen. Clinton is not only attempting that sort of revolution, but he has exhibited FDR's political acumen as well. At the moment, he is the toast of this town, and for once Washington and the nation seem to be in agreement: Oh, boy, what a guy! But muffled in my own cheers are some questions about whether we were entitled to know that this is what Clinton always intended.
Was he telling the truth when he proposed a middle-class tax cut, and was the Clinton campaign telling the truth when, last fall, it assured us that there would be no energy tax? Clinton and his aides insist that their program is in response to new economic data. But in my bones I think Clinton intended to do the "right" thing economically all along -- and to do that, he had to do the "wrong" thing when it came to candor.
In relating the story of Rickey Ray Rector, Frady tells us that in his first term as governor, Clinton set his first execution date after having been defeated for reelection -- but just before he left office. After resuming the governorship in 1982, Clinton set some 70 more execution dates for a total of 26 death-row inmates by 1992. Apparently, he had learned a political lesson, one that he was not about to ignore in the midst of the New Hampshire primary.
This willingness to subordinate almost everything to a political end is both impressive and troubling. It will either make Bill Clinton a great president or -- if he oversteps himself -- simply another slick politician whose most cherished principle is his own political advancement. Ironically, Rickey Ray Rector saw Clinton as the former. Pathetically brain-damaged, Rector said he would vote for him, but was executed just before Clinton won his first primary.