MICHAIL LEAVER’S PHOTO OF HIMSELF with Hillary Clinton (autographed by her) is one that any red-blooded intellectual would treasure. She is, after all, a genuine fan. But his role as muse to the First Lady has brought him little but grief: Critics have accused him of softheaded utopianism and even compared him with Nancy Reagan’s astrologer.
Most of these people had never heard of Lerner until last April when, in a speech at the University of Texas, the First Lady borrowed a bit from Lerner’s philosophy, which he calls the politics of meaning. Fresh from her
father’s funeral, an emotional Hillary observed, “We lack, at some core level, meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively.” She called for an increase of “human caring, concern and love.”
Political pundits’ response to her use of such idealistic words, which were quickly traced back to Lerner, was widespread skepticism. “What on earth are these people talking about?” asked The New Republic. The New York Times Magazine mocked the First Lady’s “gauzy and gushy wrappings of New Age jargon.”
“I’m in total despair,” says the 50-year old Lerner, whose liberal magazine, Tikkun (meaning in Hebrew to “heal, repair” or “transform the world”), has 40,000 readers, including New Jersey’s Sen. Bill Bradley and Woody Allen. “The media believes that anybody who uses-words like love or caring must be a psychobabbling idiot. I’m not some guru sitting on a mountain selling snake oil to the President’s wife. I’m a philosopher.”
It was then-governor Bill Clinton who first contacted Lerner in a 1988 letter to say that “you helped me clarify my own thinking,” after he read a Tikkun article about Michael Dukakis’s presidential defeat. Several notes followed. Says Lerner: “I get so much stuff from politicians. The truth is, it hits the wastebasket most of the time.”
Lerner and Hillary didn’t meet until two weeks after her Texas speech at a White House reception for the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. “Am I your mouthpiece or what?” joked the First Lady when they were introduced. Five days later, Lerner found himself chatting with her in her West Wing office. “I thought she was incredibly articulate, smart, sincere, a wonderful person,” says Lerner of Hillary. “She has a kind of deep religiosity that informs her, but she’s not trying to smash you over the head with it.” During their meeting, he says, Hillary told him that she intended to “spread an understanding of the politics of meaning.”
Just what is the politics of meaning? Explains Lerner: “The politics of meaning recognizes that Americans feel great pain about the breakup of family life, the lack of meaning in their work and a lack of values that breeds distrust. It’s a result of our competitive society. We need to tilt the balance away from selfishness. We need programs that encourage caring and sensitivity.”
His proposals, which he admits are not entirely new but a refutation of the materialism of the eighties, include a national child-care network and encouraging all workers to do weekly community service. His main role is “to provoke discussion,” he says. “There are experts who can take this way of thinking and apply it.” In spite of the critical backlash, says Princeton religion professor Cornel West, “his ideas are very important. There’s been a decline in community and quality of life, and the politics of meaning is a way to talk about that.”
Lerner was trained in childhood to bandy ideas with the powerful. At home in Newark, N.J., Michael and sister Trish (now 47 and a writer in Los Angeles) joined in when their father, Joseph, a state judge, and their politically active mother, Beatrice, entertained the likes of Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. As a senator, Kennedy wrote Lemer’s college recommendation to Columbia University, where Michael earned his bachelor degree. While studying for a doctorate in philosophy al Berkeley, Lerner roomed with ’60s activist Jerry Rubin and joined him as a leader of the radical Students for a Democratic Society.
In 1971, Lerner married fellow Seattle activist Theirrie Cook in a backyard Jewish ceremony, but—as an antigovernment protest—without benefit of a license. Their five-year union, which spanned Lerner’s teaching stints at Berkeley and Trinity College in Hartford, produced a son, Akiba, 21, now a senior at Berkeley. While running an Oakland counseling center, Lerner met drugstore heiress Nan Fink and married her in 1986. That same year they cofbunded Tikkun with about $300,000 of Fink’s money. Four years later they divorced.
Tikkun operates on a shoestring budget from the fifth floor of a Manhattan synagogue, where Lerner is writing a book on the politics of meaning. Each day he lifts weights and prepares his own vegetarian kosher meals in his one-bedroom apartment.
As for his relationship with the Clintons, Lerner believes it has been exaggerated. “Let’s put it this way,” he says. “I’m not expecting them at my birthday party.” After merciless ridicule, Lerner is leery of being gazetted as Hillary’s Svengali. “I don’t aspire to be a presidential adviser or the Jewish Jerry Falwell,” he says. “All I want is for my ideas to be taken seriously.”
MICHAEL SMALL in Berkeley