Listening to the clamor, it's hard to tell where disingenuous leaves off and mindless begins. In the chutzpah department, Lazaro Gonzalez rivals the proverbial guy who killed his parents and pleaded for mercy from the court on the grounds that he was an orphan. He had stated categorically that if the federal government wanted the boy, it would have to come and get him. He had refused to budge in any of the repeated negotiations the terminally cautious Janet Reno insisted on pursuing. Nor had he and his family exactly discouraged the crowds of demonstrators who gave every indication that they would obstruct Elian's departure in any way they could; on the contrary, their only serious bargaining chip was the implicit threat of violence. From beginning to end, the deal they offered Reno was simple: back off or risk a bloody confrontation, duly publicized by the photographer they had invited into their home. Elian was both their prize and their hostage. They had no scruples about putting him in danger, any more than they had about keeping him from his father or using him as a political weapon.
Yet now the Gonzalez clan?and their cheering section of right-wing commentators and Republican politicians?want us to believe that they are shocked, that Elian is the state's victim, that negotiators were on their way to a constructive solution when the Attorney General gratuitously and duplicitously struck. We're supposed to be horrified that the meanies brought their guns and broke down the door, merely because this wholesome American family refused to open it! And that they launched the operation at 5 a.m. on a religious holiday, when the crowd outside had shrunk?dirty cowards! Atheist scum! In a Wall Street Journal article that clearly makes it into the mindless category, Peggy Noonan declares that "the picture of the agent pointing his gun at the sobbing child and fisherman?is already as famous as the picture taken 30 Easters ago, during another tragedy, as a student cried over the prone body of a dead fellow student at Kent State." Of course, one small detail mars this comparison: no one died in Miami. But let's not get picky.
At the end of her piece Noonan gets to the real point: she asks what her hero Ronald Reagan would have done. Well, for one thing he would not have scoffed at the story that dolphins had helped Elian stay above water; he would have "seen it as possible evidence of the reasonable assumption that God's creatures had been commanded to protect one of God's children." He would have "negotiated with Mr. Castro to get the father here." And he would have announced that "The boy stays, the dream endures, the American story continues. And if Mr. Castro doesn't like it, well, I'm afraid that's really too bad."
"But then," Noonan concludes, "he was a man." This is the essence of the right's grievance against Bill Clinton: he is not a man but some sort of 60s androgyne, who wouldn't fight in a war, can't control his wife and won't give Castro what-for. From the moment he was elected, Republicans in Congress aimed not merely to oppose but to delegitimize his presidency. In 1994, when Newt Gingrich and his "revolutionaries" took the House, rhetoric demonizing the federal government as un-American jackbooted thugs became routine. Believing their own hype, they imagined they had a mandate to shut down the government rather than negotiate with Clinton over the budget. The public, which had soured on right-wing anarchist ranting after the Oklahoma City bombing, was not amused. Only temporarily daunted, the right pinned its hopes on finding something, anything they could parlay into a replay of Watergate, and finally with Monica Lewinsky they thought they had it. Again the people yawned, and gave the back of their hand to the Republicans in the 1998 election.
Now there's Elian. If the first time is tragedy and the second is farce, what do you call the third? Hiccups, perhaps. After calling for hearings on the "outrage" in Miami, Senate Republicans were already backing away from a full court press by the end of last week; Orrin Hatch announced that he would not call the Miami relatives to testify. It's those poll numbers again. Most Americans believe the raid was justified, that the Gonzalez family would never have relinquished Elian voluntarily. They also believe the boy should be with his father and that it is not our government's business to keep him from returning to Cuba. Duh.
The far right has lost the culture war. Americans may be social conservatives, guilt-ridden about sex and self-righteous about the undeserving poor, but they don't like theocrats, sex police and antigovernment fanatics. Nor can they whip themselves into a frenzy about Castro, in this 11th year since the fall of the Berlin Wall. They much prefer Clinton's mushy corporate neoliberalism, not to mention his softer brand of masculinity. The irony is that Clinton, who thinks a principle is someone who runs a school, never met a reactionary he didn't want to appease. He has pandered to the right on family values and welfare. He has been its staunch ally on censorship and the drug war. He allowed the Elian crisis to burgeon out of control by not ordering Reno to take action back in January. He stayed silent on Elian until the last possible minute and then spoke with all the passion of Alan Greenspan announcing a rise in the interest rate. Al Gore, of course, was even more pathetically eager to lie down for the Miami Cubans; never mind that he can expect as many votes from them as Giuliani could from blacks in New York City. Hacking at a sponge with a razor blade, the right manages to look both ridiculous and insane. Yet somehow they keep afloat, waiting for their next chance at something like a coup. Dolphins, anyone?
Ellen Willis is the author of Don't Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial and director of the cultural journalism program of New York University.