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“Newsweek” Discovers Virtue

Consider the travails of the newsweekly. Each Monday, year in and year out, it must appear on the stands trumpeting some event or personality that will stir the juices of the magazine-buying public. It must do so, moreover, under the cloud of the possibility that one or more of its competitors will be featuring exactly the same event or personality. How to ensure a cover that will be both novel and significant? The call on the editors’ capacity for inventiveness must at times be positively draining—when, that is, as often happens, it does not fail them altogether.

How delighted, therefore, must the editors of Newsweek have been as they put together their issue of June 13, 1994. For novel is hardly the word to describe the article they were able to feature that week. Written by a contributing editor, Howard Fineman, the article was titled “The Virtuecrats,” and the cover it inspired was a cartoon drawing of William J. Bennett flanked on either side by Peggy Noonan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Here was a collocation that by itself would be enough to rouse a certain puzzled anticipation. What, after all, could a leading conservative figure have in common with our liberal First Lady, and what could she have in common with a former speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and Bush?

Newsweek’s answer, we soon discover, is that they are all concerned with virtue, and in this they are in tune with a new mood that has been sweeping the country.

As Fineman explains it, Americans of all persuasions now agree that there are universally accepted principles of good character and that society is failing to teach them to the young. Indeed, the fraying, as he puts it, of the country’s social fabric, “which was once considered the crotchety preoccupation of the cultural Right, has become a national (even liberal) obsession.” In a recent Newsweek poll, for example, 76 percent of adults rated crime and drug abuse far ahead of jobs and health care as national concerns, and the fear of chaos has made Americans nostalgic for “a more orderly age.”

I Remember Mama is long gone,” Fineman observes, “replaced by Madonna music videos. Even religious institutions often seem more concerned with group grievances than individual behavior.” Even the notoriously liberationist baby boomers, “facing mortality and the even more frightening prospect of teenage kids, are finding that there is at least one absolute after all: good character.”

All this adds up to what Fine-man characterizes as a “virtue crusade,” which is bringing in its wake a new kind of supra-partisan politics as well as a new class of leaders. These are the Virtuecrats, who from all across the political spectrum have arrived at the common view that the formation of character is an urgent aim of government.

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Who are they, these Virtuecrats?1 In order of appearance in Fine-man’s account they are: Bennett, the former Secretary of Education and drug czar, whose anthology, The Book of Virtues, has become a major best-seller; Noonan, who in her new book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, has announced that the New Frontier for the 90′s is an inner one; Senators Pete Domenici and Sam Nunn, who led the Senate in creating a Character Counts caucus, which has in turn sought to have the Senate declare a national Character Counts Week; President Clinton, who spent the recent commencement season reminding graduates of the need for virtuous conduct; Hillary Rodham Clinton, who “hasn’t given up her search for a ‘politics of meaning’”; Jeb Bush, son of George, running for governor in Florida, who “distributes campaign brochures that note he’s been ‘happily married’ for twenty years”; Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is “presumptively virtuous,” since that is how he is regarded by 60 percent of the respondents in the Newsweek poll; the Republican strategist, William Kristol, who was chief of staff to “a founding Virtuecrat,” Vice President Dan Quayle; Stephen Carter, a professor at the Yale law school and the author of The Culture of Disbelief, who endorses the importance of the virtues, but cautions that “defining them will create huge battles”; a group who met in Aspen and produced a declaration listing six “Core Elements of Character” that should be inculcated by, in their words, all “youth-in-fluencing institutions.” And, finally, there are the Huffingtons, Michael and Arianna: he a member of Congress who is now the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in California and who wishes to change the tax laws to allow deductions for time spent doing volunteer work, and she a noted author (most recently of The Fourth Instinct) whose main role in this piece is to make a reliably photogenic appearance in one of the pictures used to adorn it.

This scattered cast of characters, says Fineman, Democrats and Republicans alike, all agree on at least one “program” for teaching character, and that is punishment: punishment in all its forms, from jail time to the loss of government benefits. To be sure, he tells us, punishment also happens to be a useful theme for both parties. It enables Republicans to elevate their rhetoric above both “the old, divisive ‘law and order’ yawp,” on the one hand, and the mere need to save the taxpayer money on the other. For their part, the Democrats, by stressing punishment, are able to demonstrate a belief in what a White House aide, William Galston, calls “tough love” and to answer the accusation that they are “soft on crime”—a reputation which has cost them votes for 25 years.

Beyond this consensus about punishment, however, there are very serious disagreements—about, for instance, the proper limits of the role of government and about the place of religion in public life. Such disagreements, Fineman informs us, have resulted in the emergence of three different kinds of Virtuecrats: “the Scouts, the McGuffeys, and the Preachers.”

The Scouts are those, like Noonan and the Huffingtons, who put their faith in volunteerism. The McGuffeys, named for the author of textbooks widely used in the 19th and early 20th centuries, believe that government must be involved in “teaching goodness.” In Fineman’s taxonomy, the McGuffeys include both the Clintons and Bennett, who are “all for ‘character education’ in public schools—a trend already exploding across the country.” In addition, the President advocates a program of national service and Mrs. Clinton has adopted health care as “her personal ‘politics of meaning,’” while Bennett “envisions a system of government-supported orphanages for the underclass.”

As for the Preachers, they “insist that character education without the worship of God is worthless. Tuition vouchers and prayer in the schools are their main goals.” This last category covers a large field, from Stephen Carter to all three candidates for mayor of Washington, D.C. to a Christian evangelist like Pat Robertson.

The last word in this heady tour d’horizon goes to Michael Horowitz of the conservative think tank, the Manhattan Institute. If we are serious about this new swing of the pendulum from self-expression to self-discipline, cautions Horowitz, “we will have to sacrifice some measure of the freedom we now have to do anything we want if it feels good.” In other words, Fine-man sums up, “it’s not the laws we pass but the lives we lead.”

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Now, there is certainly no question that a shift in public mood is taking place, and that large numbers of Americans are fed up with the consequences of liberal latitudinarianism (whether or not they identify what disturbs them as such). Although the symptoms are everywhere to be seen, the extraordinary, one might once have said unbelievable, success of Bennett’s anthology—described by its publisher as “designed to help children understand and develop character, and help adults teach them”—attests all by itself to a great hunger for the reaffirmation and inculcation of the traditional virtues.

Nor is there any question that this spreading mood will have political repercussions. But aside from the building of a lot of new jails, Fineman seems to have had a certain difficulty sorting out what these repercussions might actually be. To begin with, his division of the Virtuecrats into Scouts, McGuffeys, and Preachers is sloppy and misleading, since these categories bear small relation to the public figures used to illustrate them.

Take that well-known McGuffey, Bill Clinton. How exactly has he evinced his wish that virtue be taught in the schools? Has he, for example, come out against programs like the Rainbow Curriculum in New York which instruct children in the techniques of “safe sex,” especially as practiced by homosexuals? Has he reproached his Surgeon General for her cheerful complacency about adolescent sexuality (accompanied by government-issued condoms of course)?

Details aside, however, Fine-man’s account of the “virtue crusade,” far from usefully calling attention to and helping to explain an important new phenomenon, is itself a symptom of the very condition about which people have been growing ever more upset. The “national obsession” with the “fraying of the social fabric” to which Fineman alludes is not, as his method of dealing with it would suggest, some new item of fashion being offered this season by a group of journalistic designers. It is, rather, the name for the feeling that one is surrounded by a kind of creeping cultural chaos—a ubiquitous lawlessness—of thought as well as behavior, and that no one in authority seems willing to do anything about it.

Yet no sooner does someone like Bennett come along with a genuine effort to do something about it than Newsweek jumps in to lump him together with the Clinton health-care plan—which, whatever its merits, has nothing whatever to do with the case—and then throws additional irrelevancies in for good measure. In this way, Newsweek manages to make its own contribution to the cultural chaos which Bennett and other serious thinkers (foremost among them James Q. Wilson in his recent book, The Moral Sense) have been trying to counter.

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Perhaps this was done by Newsweek out of an honest confusion driven by the compulsive quest for novelty. But Fineman’s sneering references to the “crotchety” Right with its “‘law and order’ yawp” arouse the suspicion that there was method in his incoherence. That is, he may well have been attempting to obscure the fact that it is conservatives who deserve the credit for insisting—usually against the contemptuous resistance of liberals like him—on the moral component of our domestic disorders.

If that was indeed his intention, he has succeeded in carrying it out. But it is unlikely that anyone—except possibly for his fellow liberals—will be fooled into thinking that the Democrats really care as much about the moral issue as the Republicans, or that, where virtue is concerned, Bill Bennett and Bill Clinton are on the same side.


Footnotes

1 This term, as it happens, was originally coined not by Newsweek but by Joseph Epstein, who spelled it “virtucrat” and in an an article in the New York Times Magazine in 1985 applied it to people who parade their own political virtue as a mark of moral superiority.

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