The Breakfast Table

Tamar Jacoby and Brent Staples

Hey Brent–

Nice to meet you. I’m a longtime reader of your work, and though we don’t always agree–or because we don’t–I’m glad to have the chance to engage directly.

It’s a nasty, muggy morning where I am, the worst of both seasons: dark as only fall mornings can be, but still as humid as summer. Even so, I couldn’t help but gloat a little as I read the papers. What could be more delicious than the flap Hillary and Bill have got themselves into over the FALN? Of course–maybe not “of course” from your point of view?–I love to see them trip over their own manipulative politics. He’s had more than 3,000 requests for clemency over the years, and this one–for 16 Puerto Rican terrorists so unremorseful that they didn’t even defend themselves at their trial–is only the third he’s offered. But we’re supposed to believe it has nothing to do with Hillary’s Senate candidacy and the Puerto Rican voters who could help swing that election? Sure. If you buy that, you must still be living in the ‘50s, or whenever it was that we last took what politicians said at face value. Of course, Clinton does this sort of thing all the time, and often just as brazenly–but here for once, the public caught him at it. Much more interesting, in my view, than catching him with any woman. This is what’s really wrong with his character–the manipulator who thinks that his personal ends justify just about any means, no matter how unprincipled.

But for me, this case goes well beyond Clinton, and the thing I’m really glad to see exposed and embarrassed is the time-honored practice of a candidate pandering to an ethnic constituency. Sure, that’s the oldest form of “diversity politics” in the books. Candidates have been doing it in big American cities for more than a century now. And sure, I know the argument: If was OK when the Irish were benefiting, how can I object today when blacks and Hispanics do? But the point here–and what’s great is that it’s so obvious–is that most New York Puerto Rican voters don’t care one way or the other about the FALN. Not only are they unsure about the terrorists’ cause–Puerto Rican independence–but they’ve never rallied around opposition politics, let alone the use of terrorist violence. The people who care about the FALN are activists: the left-leaning coalition that ruled New York for decades until Giuliani ousted them six years ago. They wrap themselves in the flag of ethnicity, but on this and many, many other issues, they don’t represent anyone but other political activists like themselves. Of course, this is hardly a new discovery, and it isn’t really delicious at all. But it’s nice to see it exposed so clearly for a change–not only the fake ethnic leaders, but also the folly of pandering to them, as the Clintons tried to do. And now that Hillary’s backed off, of course, those so-called ethnic leaders are lashing her mercilessly. But because she and Bill and their party have played this ethnic game for so long–and generally have so much invested in it–they can’t even denounce her attackers.

I don’t know–I don’t really like to gloat. The more I think about, the more it all depresses me. This is what we call political debate? This is what passes for democracy? The only thing worse going on in the news now in my view is what’s passing for a discussion of race among the presidential candidates. But that’s a whole other topic–maybe over lunch?

Are you gloating over the papers today or wincing?

Looking forward to hearing from you.

All best,