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Our ‘Not Me’ politics of personal grievance

Our ‘Not Me’ politics of personal grievance
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In the mid-1970s, cartoonist Bil Keane’s popular comic strip “The Family Circus” featured a cute but devious little invisible gremlin named “Not Me.” This gremlin took the blame for various happenstances in the family household that the children denied having committed. “Not Me” often was seen translucently floating away from the scene of a broken vase, spilled milk or bad behavior, wearing an expression of innocence with shoulders in shrug.

Today, “Not Me” seems to have grown up to become the most influential figure in American politics. He’s also gotten a little louder, angrier and more bitter.

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This gremlin dominates the storylines of the Russia investigation, scurrying about to deflect blame from President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCorker: US must determine responsibility in Saudi journalist's death Five takeaways from testy Heller-Rosen debate in Nevada Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation MORE. “Not Me” would have us instead look at special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE and his “witch hunt hoax” as being responsible for all the headlines. Or, more intriguingly, “Not Me” points to Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsBeto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' Rosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure MORE who, by virtue of accepting his appointment, doing his job and following the law, seems to be responsible for the entire probe.  

 

But the White House is far from the only place we find the “Not Me” gremlin scurrying about.  The campaign of the one-time aspirant of the White House, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans bail on Coffman to invest in Miami seat Katy Perry praises Taylor Swift for diving into politics Election Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue MORE, spawned a colony of the gremlins bounding afoot. Why did you lose Hillary? “Not Me” says it was former FBI director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyFormer FBI lawyer speaks with House lawmakers on Rosenstein, 2016 Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure McGahn departs as White House counsel MORE’s fault. No, wait, it was Vladimir Putin’s fault! Or, most interestingly of all, it was Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaRepublicans bail on Coffman to invest in Miami seat Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Live coverage: Heitkamp faces Cramer in high-stakes North Dakota debate MORE who didn’t make James Comey more forcefully and publicly investigate Vladimir Putin! In any case, “Not Me!”

In the long history of duckers and dodgers in American politics, it is hard to pin the blame for the “Not Me” rampage on one person, but this week’s events remind us that one person does seem to have the unique capacity to showcase the little devil more so than any other. Unsurprisingly, it is the erstwhile candidate’s husband, former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonConservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign Sen. Walter Huddleston was a reminder that immigration used to be a bipartisan issue No, civility isn't optional MORE.  

Clinton arguably brought the modern-day version of the “Not Me” gremlin to the White House with him from Arkansas. And despite the fact that Clinton is over 20 years now past his biggest “family incident,” he is still haunted by the specter of the invisible “Not Me” gremlin.  

Everyone knows about Clinton’s dalliances with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and his parsed denials uttered as “Not Me” shrugged and shuffled along. Yet, in spite of our knowledge of the biggest TMI in the history of U.S. politics, Clinton still can’t shake the “Not Me” ghost. When asked if he had changed his views of the Lewinsky matter, given the rise of the #MeToo movement and time to reflect, the “Not Me” gremlin demonstrated his great resilience. Clinton yet again dodged responsibility and politely reminded us of how he had been victimized and what a high price he paid for his actions.

The former president may not be sorry but the American people are. Sorry that we live in the “Not Me” era of politics. Sorry that we live in a time where it seems no one is willing to be held accountable for choices and actions.  

Instead we live in a time of “grievance politics,” where you succeed by framing other parties as those responsible for your personal travails. This politics of personal victimization was arguably invented by the Clintons but its power now permeates our politics like a team of Russian Olympians on steroids — a parody of itself, obvious to all in its phoniness yet persistent in its existence in a world that stopped taking it seriously some time ago.

Meanwhile, the honest brokers in our system are heading for the political retirement homes, leaving Washington like the pages of a comic strip where the “Not Me” gremlins are even freer to roam. At a time when America needs more men and women of character to step forward to help restore integrity to the system, fewer have the courage  to do so (Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyPoll: Support growing for Utah's Medicaid expansion ballot measure Arizona Dems hope higher Latino turnout will help turn the state blue Trump changes tone on Saudi Arabia amid mounting pressure MORE being a prominent exception).

It’s hard to blame them for leaving when the adults in the room have to spend most of their time cleaning up behind the “Not Me” gremlins instead of working to solve the problems of our country. This ongoing American “Family Circus” is a strip that we should retire and replace with a new idea based on honesty, integrity and a focus on what really matters for the “readers,” the American people.   

Bruce Haynes is vice chair of public affairs and managing director for Sard Verbinnen & Co. in its Washington, D.C., office. He previously was founding partner emeritus of Purple Strategies. A former chief of staff to former Congressman Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), Haynes is a 30-year veteran of politics, public affairs crisis and corporate reputation management. He has consulted on political campaigns and provides counsel to political figures, Fortune 500 companies, leading trade associations and nonprofit organizations. Follow him on Twitter @BruceHaynesDC.