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Behind the `Politics of Meaning'

THIS would probably not be much of a story were it not for the intriguing involvement of President and Mrs. Clinton and what this may say about them. So let's start there.

On April 6, in Austin, Texas, Mrs. Clinton delivered what some are already calling "THE speech." It was a passionate appeal for Americans to develop a sense of community. She spoke of "cities that are filled with hopeless girls with babies and angry boys with guns." She spoke of a "crisis of meaning" and urged the remolding of society by "defining what it means to be a human being in the 20th century, moving into the new millenium." What is needed, she said, is a new kind of politics,"the politics of mea ning."

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The "politics of meaning" is a concept of Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a liberal Jewish monthly. Did Mrs. Clinton get the phrase from him? Indeed she did. At a subsequent White House reception she said to him, "Am I your mouthpiece or what?" And, "It's amazing how we seem to be on the same wavelength." In a meeting in her office she told Mr. Lerner that she and her husband had been reading him since 1988.

Lerner is an observant Jew with a strong sense of ethics. He has become a celebrity as the Clintons' spiritual adviser. He called me the other day to say he was not enjoying his celebrityhood very much, for reasons that he found puzzling and distressing. The media, not quite knowing what to make of him and his influence on the Clintons, were treating him with something close to hostility. The New Republic spoke of "psychobabble," and the New York Times magazine made him the centerpiece of an article sarc astically presenting Mrs. Clinton as "St. Hillary."

In informal discussions of the "politics of meaning," I have heard references to Lerner as "a Rasputin," and one civil-libertarian friend raised the question of whether such spiritual guidance might have implications for the separation of church and state.

What makes people so jittery about ideas of mutual responsibility and caring for one another that seem no more threatening than the Golden Rule?

If Presidents Reagan and Bush could embrace a conservative Christian ethic, why should the Clintons not be allowed their more progressive version of spiritual values?

Journalists tend to be made uncomfortable by the very abstractness of the ideas, by an inability to reduce them to concrete proposals and programs, which are the stuff of journalism.

Although most presidents and first ladies have their own friends, advisers, and even astrologers, advice from an unconventional source not spelled out in the Constitution seems unsettling. In fact, Lerner does have some concrete suggestions that he spelled out in a memo to the president: Budget requests from departments should include statements about how the programs foster caring concern. The Labor Department should send teams into the workplace to develop a spirit of mutual cooperation. Schools should

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teach empathy.

ALREADY Lerner is a little disappointed in the president. Just hacking away at the deficit or trying to make America more competitive, he says, will not reduce the "pain of loneliness" and "a deep sense of meaninglessness." I can understand why Michael is troubled about being met with something between bafflement and hostility in the news media. But, the White House is, for most Americans, a crucial arena. And who sets foot in that arena to influence the course of national events will, however benevolent

the intention, be subjected to critical scrutiny.

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