Hillary's Guru: Michael Lerner

MICHAEL LERNER, former Seattle activist, and Hillary Rodham Clinton come from very different backgrounds, but they share an impulse to mend and transform the world. Lerner, who invented the phrase "the politics of meaning," has been called the first lady's guru but says he doesn't want to be her counselor. -------------------------

NEW YORK - He's been called Hillary Rodham Clinton's guru, a New Age Svengali from the Old Left, a man who has molded the first lady into a drifty, modern-day Joan of Arc, on a quest to make American politics more meaningful, more spiritual, more moral.

But Michael Lerner - former Seattle activist and the man who invented "the politics of meaning," a phrase that is often on Hillary Clinton's lips these days - professes no interest in being her counselor.

"I wouldn't accept such a role even if it were offered, which it hasn't been. The White House wouldn't necessarily be a step up," said the never-modest Lerner, in the clutter of Tikkun magazine, the journal of religion, politics and culture.

The magazine's Hebrew name expresses what Lerner, a vegetarian-kosher pro-feminist Orthodox Jew has in common with a Methodist first lady with a well-developed social conscience: a mystical impulse to mend, repair and transform the world.

As she leads an effort to develop an equitable health-care system, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly sounded a theme that the nation suffers not only from economic ills, but from "a sleeping sickness of the soul." This deep spiritual malaise, she said, is at heart a lack of meaning and human connectedness.

It's an idea that Lerner, a psychologist specializing in the angst of the American blue-collar worker, has written about for years. And their mutual interest in the theme led the first lady to invite Lerner to the White House last month for a half-hour meeting.

The cure for the social and spiritual malaise of blue-collar America, Lerner and Clinton agree, is a new vision of society based on love and human connectedness and a political system driven not by self-interest, but a sense of community and caring.

In a perfect universe, calling on virtue to heal the ills of the body politic would be applauded. But the suggestion that politics can rightfully have a spiritual base and an altruistic purpose has been attacked with a vehemence that speaks volumes about the nature of political discourse in this country and the hazards to any politician who stakes out moral high ground.

Citizens have good reason to shudder if government wants to equip them with a new set of virtues. But it appears to be politics, not people, that Hillary Clinton wants to put on a higher moral plane.

"We lack meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively. We lack a sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another," she told a Texas audience in early April. "We need a new politics of meaning. We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring. We need a new definition of civil society . . . that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves."

In the political piranha pool that is official Washington, her words were red meat for a feeding frenzy.

"What on earth are these people talking about?" huffed the New Republic.

"Spare us the psycho-babble," groaned syndicated columnist Clarence Page.

"Saint Hillary," headlined a cynical New York Times profile that asked if society was to be remade, why the first lady should have the job.

The Wall Street Journal pronounced it "the politics of mumbo-jumbo."

And the Washington Times dispatched a reporter to do an expose that Lerner had been one of the Seattle Seven, defendants in a celebrated anti-war trial in the early 1970s; and a founding editor of Ramparts, the feisty magazine that tackled everything from the Vietnam War to the dearth of left-wing drinking establishments.

"To the media it seems hilarious that anyone - particularly anyone in politics - could be motivated by ethical or religious values," Lerner said, noting that the vehemence of the attack was a measure of the cynicism that seems to be the organizing principle of the mainstream media.

"Most press people have nothing to sell but their cynicism - their ability to see through the appearance of goodness and reveal the dirty core of self-interest," he said. "Cynicism has become their religion - a religion of once-idealistic people who were drawn to politics because they believed in it, but got mugged by reality, by so many corrupt politicians that it's impossible for them to recognize sincerity or good ideas."

Lerner is clearly delighted that some of his ideas are getting a hearing in the White House - so delighted, in fact that after the election, he moved Tikkun's offices from the San Francisco Bay Area to New York City - closer to the center of power.

But even though he has friends in the White House, Lerner harbors no illusions about a new era of politics.

"I've known enough scumbag politicians in my life and I've seen the illusions of people in power who thought they were going to change the world," he said. "Having momentary access to the White House doesn't mean anything is going to change overnight."

Despite all the indications of cynicism, self-interest and clumsiness that have characterized the Clinton administration, Lerner remains guardedly optimistic that between the two of them, the politics of meaning will win out.

"If the Clintons have the courage to persist, the politics of meaning may do what deficit-reduction schemes and policy wonkery cannot: show Americans that they understand and care about their lives."