Mass Bloodshed on American Soil: The Key to a ‘Great’ Presidency

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Shortly after winning re-election in November 1996, Bill Clinton confided to reporters on Air Force One that his political recovery began with the Oklahoma City bombing: “It broke a spell in the country as people began searching for our common ground again.”

That “common ground” was defined by unqualified submission to the central government. Mr. Clinton skillfully exploited the bombing to define “anti-government” sentiment — as supposedly displayed in the Republican conquest of the House in the 1994 mid-term elections — as something akin to a criminal psychosis. “You can’t say you love your country and hate your government,” Clinton insisted in a Michigan State University Commencement address following the bombing. Touching on the same theme during a speech to a handpicked audience in Montana, Clinton admonished his devotees not to permit anyone to speak ill of the Regime: “When you hear someone doing it, you ought to stand up and double up your fist and stick it in the sky and shout them down.”

That Bill Clinton perceived the Oklahoma City atrocity in terms of its impact upon his own political fortunes offered a useful measure of his capacity for self-preoccupation — but he is hardly unique. Indeed, the imperial presidency is designed to attract the kind of people who are eager to exploit, or precipitate, the death of thousands or millions of human beings. Clinton’s immediate successor,  after all, cynically used the much larger tragedy of 9-11 to similar ends. In August 2001, George W. Bush’s presidency was a floundering, sputtering mess. After the Twin Towers fell, Bush was transformed into a “war president” whose will was law.

According to Mark Penn, former Hillary Clinton campaign strategist, Barrack Obama needs his own OKC-style tragedy to offer him a chance to “reconnect” with the American people.

“Remember, President Clinton reconnected through Oklahoma, right?” Penn said during a November 4 panel discussion on MSNBC’s Hardball program. “And the president right now seems removed. It wasn’t until that speech [after the bombing] that [Clinton] really clicked with the American public.” According to Penn,  Obama needs “a similar kind” of opportunity for greatness, even if that means hundreds or thousands of mere Mundanes must die to provide it.

3:04 pm on November 5, 2010