SO FAR, all we've gotten out of having a baby boomer as president is Stevie Nicks clogging up the airwaves again. But flow with it, boomers. Help is on the way.
Self-help, that is. For Bill Clinton is the first chief executive whose values were shaped by the therapeutic movement that has come to dominate the way Americans think about themselves, not to mention the daytime talk shows. Now destiny has tapped him to heal America's Wounded Voter -- to be our first Self-Help President. Factor in Hillary, and you have the first Co-Dependent Presidency. America, prepare to turn your life around.
During the campaign, the self-help signs were there, if you were functional enough to register them. When candidate Clinton announced he was going to stimulate the economy, rebuild infrastructure, slash the deficit and offer a middle-class tax cut -- all at the same time -- he was merely following the quintessential self-help dictum: You can have it all.
But it's one thing to be the self-help candidate, massaging voters' throbbing dysfunctionalities, gently releasing their Inner Democrat. It's quite another to be the Self-Help President, the person actually expected to make changes, rather than just talk about them. Yet Clinton, a man who overcame his calorically challenged youth to become leader of the second or third most powerful country on earth (depending on how you count the deficit), didn't quail. Earlier this month at Camp David he flew his boomer colors high and proud at a retreat for top aides conducted by two professional "facilitators."
The avowed purpose of the retreat's "teamwork exercises" was to build trust among the members of the new Clinton team. According to one of the attendees (who hadn't become so trustworthy that he didn't later blab anonymously to the media), Clinton himself revealed to an open-mouthed assemblage his haunted childhood as "a fat kid," and how the taunts of other children shaped him for life. "Don't try to make this sound weird," the attendee said.
Weird? Don't be so negative. What's different about that retreat is that it suggests that the self-help concepts cluttering the nation's bookshelves for more than a decade -- anodynes for too much anger, not enough anger, addiction addiction, smothering parents, indifferent parents, negative thinking and even life itself ("You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought: A Book for People with Any Life-Threatening Illness -- Including Life" by Peter McWilliams and John Roger) -- are now promising to clutter our national politics.
Naysayers may protest that a national leader stoked on self-help notions demeans the political process, but that's a complaint firmly rooted in America's past, not the country's high tech/high-touch future. The world was a simpler place back in Ralph Waldo Emerson's day, when the New England philosopher (now known as "self-help expert") calculated the American model for self-improvement. "Trust thyself," Emerson wrote in his famous essay "Self-Reliance," and for a century, that was good enough.
But the 20th century brought new challenges. The father of the modern self-help book is Dale Carnegie, if you can imagine someone fathering about a jillion children. Carnegie's 1936 bestseller, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," helped set the tone for today's goal-oriented self-help movement. Carnegie recommended to his readers: "Say to yourself over and over: 'My popularity, my happiness and sense of worth depend, to no small extent, upon my skill in dealing with people.' "
Now, at the dawn of a new century, Carnegie's maxim has been turned on its head. Currently, the central tenet of the self-help movement goes something like this: "My popularity, my happiness and sense of worth depend, to no small extent, upon my skill in overcoming how others have failed me." Once that is accomplished, there's no end to what you can do: "You Can Be Healed" (by Billy J. Daugherty), "You Can Build Your Self-Esteem" (by Elizabeth Jones), "You Can Change Your Personality & Your Life" (by Kurt Haas) and "You Can Be Successful" (by Eleanor Jacobs). In short, "You Can Be Happy No Matter What!" (by Richard Carlson).
As any employee who has been sent down to the Personnel Department only to find that it's now called Human Resources can tell you, this touchy-feely approach is the rage not just in drafty group houses in Takoma Park, but in corporate America as well. At thousands of companies across the country, professionally facilitated encounter sessions are helping employees to get in touch with their feelings, to think as a team and to avoid making value judgments, even when their boss is a total jerk.
Where once "self help" involved admitting a shortcoming and taking steps to correct it, it's now often employed to absolve someone of personal responsibility. Can't seem to make it to work before lunch? Blame it on your dysfunctional parents or your enabling mate. Drinking problem? Maybe you were influenced by someone else in your family with similar troubles. "Are you a Negaholic?" asks Cherie Carter-Scott in "Negaholics." Of course, answering "no" may be a symptom of the disease. And if you're not sure how you feel, that may be a symptom of the disease as well. In "Adult Children of Abusive Parents," Steven Farmer writes: "You are the ultimate judge. If you think you were abused, you were. If you're not sure, you probably were."
Bill Clinton is not, of course, the first public figure to take full advantage of this victimized mindset. In only the latest high-profile example, New York Yankees pitcher Steve Howe, who was suspended from the majors seven times for using cocaine, recently signed a two-year, $4.2 million contract after claiming to be the victim of an "attention-deficient hyperactive disorder."
Such responsibility-slouching is, obviously, an extremely useful tool when you're saddled with running the kind-of capital of the free world. But to get America back on track, Clinton may want to think even bigger about the potential of self-help. In fact, judging from the turbulent start of his administration, some of the leaders of the therapeutic movement might be of real use in fine-tuning the president's message.
A good first step might be a presidential fact-finding tour of a large chain bookstore, one where the self-help paperbacks have taken over the philosophy section. (If Descartes were alive today, he'd have to change "I think, therefore I am" to something like "People Who Think Too Much, Therefore They Are" to get on the bookshelves.)
Take those two attorney general missteps early on -- the ones that made Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood look like smart women who made foolish choices and inspired charges of gender bias by women (who felt Zoe and Kimba got screwed) and men (who resented Clinton's determination to hire a woman). Perhaps Clinton could apologize to Wood, Baird and all women for hurting them, resolving to change his behavior, while incorporating a "wounded male" roleplay into his next town hall meeting, which could be conducted by professional facilitators.
Come to think of it, it might not be a bad idea to turn some of the town hall meetings over to the self-help experts themselves. After all, the booming personal advice business may be the only industry that doesn't need its infrastructure rebuilt -- a good model for an economy on the mend.
My vote for facilitator of the first self-help town meeting is H. Jackson Brown Jr., author of "Life's Little Instruction Book: 511 Suggestions, Observations and Reminders on How to Live a Happy and Rewarding Life." Not since Chairman Mao has any author touched so many people with a tiny book of sayings fleshed out with lots of white space. Brown's book has been near the top of the paperback bestseller list for more than a year, longer even than Al Gore's book, which has something to do with the human race being wiped out if we don't clean up the planet.
Brown would be perfect in a televised town hall meeting format since he already writes in sound-bites. After explaining to the audience that he's not the same Jackson Browne who sang "Doctor My Eyes," Brown could open the floor to questions, with the answers coming straight from his latest book. Can the American people trust Bill Clinton's plan to turn America around? Brown's answer: saying #172 -- "Be suspicious of all politicians."
Then you're saying that we shouldn't support the president's package of spending cuts and increased taxes and user fees? Answer: saying #188 -- "Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know."
But vague answers lead to gridlock, and that's bad. Name one way to cut the federal deficit without raising taxes. Saying #281 -- "When paying cash, ask for a discount."
Anything else? "Let your representatives in Washington know how you feel" (#357) and "Stop blaming others. Take responsibility for every area of your life" (#55).
Final words of advice? "When all else fails, take someone bowling" (#144), and make sure you "leave the toilet seat in the down position" (#130). (The last suggestion would be taken as proof of Hillary Clinton's influence on presidential policy.)
Ridiculous? Well, if recovering cokehead pitchers can find happiness and success through the self-help vernacular, why can't America? It can, but only if it thinks it can. So if Bill Clinton really wants to sell his complex economic program to an attention-deficient nation, he's going to have to keep speaking the language of self-help at least as effectively as John Bradshaw.
Now is no time for half-measures. What's needed is nothing less than a Kennedyesque challenge to a new generation of Americans who are working through the trauma of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what your parents did to you. In short, Trust Thyself, Mr. President. Shed those Negaholic tendencies, stop making foolish choices, call in the facilitators and heal us.
Just keep that Inner Child away from the refrigerator.
Tom McNichol is a San Francisco writer.