A group of distinguished writers respond to questions on the implications of the Clinton scandal: How do you interpret Democratic…
To help clarify opinion on the implications of the present moment, the editors recently addressed the following questions to a group of distinguished writers:
- Read as a barometer of the national temper, the election results of November 3 seemed to confirm that the American electorate, despite its low opinion of President Clinton’s personal behavior, was not persuaded he had committed offenses warranting removal from office and was impatient with those—i.e., Republicans—who thought otherwise. Whatever your position may be in the matter of impeachment, how do you interpret the strength shown by the Democrats in the midterm elections, and what else do the returns suggest to you about the political mood of the moment?
- The decidedly mixed reaction to the Starr investigation and report, and the President’s continued popularity, have raised large questions about the moral disposition of the American people. Some, notably William J. Bennett, have suggested that we are witnessing the results of a progressive enfeeblement; others have posited a healthy disinclination to expose and/or criminalize private behavior; still others point to a general disgust with the political arena altogether and a consequent desire simply to be shut of the latest Washington scandal. Do you agree with any of these interpretations? What is your own sense of where, on moral matters, the public stands? Should stand?
- It has been widely asserted that American conservatism in general and conservative intellectuals in particular have been taken over by a neo-Puritan zeal that extends far beyond the present case and will settle for nothing less than a radical curtailment of precious and hard-won freedoms, especially in the realm of sexual behavior. Do you find any merit in this charge? Where, to your mind, is American conservatism now going, and what are the issues and the perils it faces?
The responses, seventeen in all, are printed below in alphabetical order.
This symposium is sponsored by the Edwin Morris Gale Memorial Fund.
Robert L. Bartley
Is Bill Clinton, with all his superficial virtues and awesome vices, the authentic representation of the society that elected him? What does his morality say about ours?
The questions are surely fair enough in the wake of the 1998 elections, and the failure of the electorate to punish Clinton’s party for his confessed sins comes after several years of debate over the moral direction of the country. Are we becoming a society of libertines, as suggested by, say, the prevalence of premarital cohabitation? Or are we in the early stages of a moral and religious revival, as suggested by the rise of evangelical religion and a more widespread debate over morals?
While a case seems to be building against the electorate, my practice has always been to give it the benefit of the doubt, to ask what the political market is telling us. I like to think this bias is rooted in history and experience; without the election of Jimmy Carter, for example, we never would have had Ronald Reagan. I think it particularly unfair to blame the electorate for failing to answer questions it has never been asked. Framing the issues being put to a vote is the job of elites, and if they fail in this task they have no complaint against ordinary voters.
In 1998 the Republican strategy was to run out the clock. GOP strategists assumed that historical patterns and the existence of an independent counsel relieved them of any need to elaborate Clinton’s failings. Trying to get out of town, they consented to a budget deal busting most of the principles they had articulated in their 1994 victory. Then, in the last few days of the campaign, panicked by the disaffection of voters who had believed in those principles, they sought to “mobilize the base” with a few scandal commercials. The effect was never to present the issue to voters effectively, only enough to allow Clinton supporters to claim it had been rejected.
This kind of mistake is somehow baked into Republicans’ genes. They lost the Senate with an issueless campaign in 1986. In 1992, George Bush, with 80-plus approval ratings, thought he could run out the clock without muddying himself with Bill Clinton. Bob Dole, a consummate creature of the Beltway, was hardly the candidate to find the needed populist theme in 1996. While Newt Gingrich never recovered from setting himself up to take the blame when Bill Clinton’s veto closed the government in 1995, he remains remarkable in having struck the theme in the first place in 1994. More usually, the GOP takes calculated risks only when led by former Democrats—Ronald Reagan or Henry Hyde.
Republican politicians are particularly uncomfortable with the role history has thrust upon them: the party of ideas in an era defined by the exhaustion of the New Deal and the defeat of Communism. They will never be able to build enough highways or subsidize enough shipping firms to compete with Democratic payoffs to labor unions or trial lawyers. They can succeed only by articulating issues, by courting disagreement, by “polarizing” voters. This is, to be sure, not a game for tin ears.
All the more so given the bent of the media, always anxious to magnify any Republican or conservative downside with a vigor it seldom applies to Democrats or liberals. To take the salient example, the press has not really been soft on Bill Clinton, but in a similar situation a Republican President would have been hounded from office long ago. Indeed, at the end of the day what will need to be explained is what Watergate was all about.
Some of the blame for Republican failures rests with conservative intellectuals, especially for dabbling in political tactics. The Beltway division advised Republicans that getting out of town was “worth a few billions.” The nativist division decimated the GOP in California, our largest state. Intellectuals on the religious Right, even or rather especially those who have never demonstrated any punch at the polls, know that they can get media attention, and build donor lists, by complaining about being ignored. The saving grace of 1998 may be a chance to build consensus in 2000. The two financially plausible presidential candidates, George W. Bush and Steve Forbes, each in his way represents an inclusive and optimistic fusion of economic and cultural conservatism.
The two wings of conservatism need each other, politically and intellectually. As a spokesman for economic ideas, let me say it would be a tragedy to write off the religious Right. Politically, its mainstream, which is to say the Christian Coalition, is a sophisticated and pragmatic force—for example, ending the Patrick J. Buchanan challenge by forging a victory for Bob Dole in the 1996 South Carolina primary. Intellectually, economic experience and development research are increasingly stressing that free markets rest on the rule of law, which in turn rests on moral foundations that need protection and regeneration.
As for the future, we seem to be tottering at a political tipping-point. Hillary Clinton’s healthcare debacle was probably the last gasp of big-government liberalism. In the recent campaign, even Charles Schumer, now the Senator-elect from New York, denied he was a “liberal.” In historical terms, the function of the Clinton presidency has been to ratify Reaganism, as Eisenhower ratified the New Deal. And for all their mistakes, Republicans do hold a congressional majority for the first time in four decades.
Despite this generally conservative tide, stealth liberalism proceeds. Taxes are at record peacetime highs, Hillarycare returns as HMO “reform,” and “saving” Social Security may become an excuse for a huge increase in taxes on our most productive citizens. Disgust with politics mounts, with the good citizens of Minnesota picking a professional wrestler over professional politicians.
With these cross-tides running, we may be particularly vulnerable to historical accident. Much of our politics was shaped when John F. Kennedy, Clinton’s idol, was martyred by an assassin’s bullet three weeks after he blundered into Vietnam by sanctioning the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem. Watergate, similarly, led to the budget act of 1974, with profound effects on both economics and the political balance of power.
Without knowing what events will hold, I doubt that the issue of Clintonesque morality will go away easily, or that the Democratic party can long thrive on stealth liberalism. The task for conservatives is to persuade Republicans to be bolder and smarter in articulating issues. The lesson of 1998 is that to persuade the electorate of something, you have to believe it yourself, and act as if you do.
William J. Bennett
The results of the November elections reveal public indifference and Republican diffidence. It is by now common wisdom that the public is deeply apathetic toward, and increasingly cynical about, politics. It does not much like or respect politicians, and it is tuning out and turning away. (Voter turnout was the lowest in more than a half-century.) Still, as between the parties, the Democrats, though at a severe financial disadvantage, were able to muster more of their core constituency than the Republicans. Although everyone knew the high stakes in this election (i.e., the impeachment of the President), most Republicans stayed away from the voting booth.
A second lesson takes the form of an old adage: you can’t beat something with nothing. A few months before the election, the Republican party made a calculated decision to run away from a substantive debate about important policy matters. Fearful of tangling with a wounded but talented President, still skittish because of the 1995 government shutdown, lacking confidence in a bold, conservative reform agenda, and confident that a midterm election held in the President’s second term would do their work for them, Republicans decided to “play it safe.” I have long said that politics is like a football game: you’re either on offense or you’re on defense. The Republicans self-consciously decided to play defense, and they paid for it. The GOP was afraid of standing for principle and losing, so it stood for nothing—and lost.
A third lesson is that what public-opinion polls were indicating for ten months was right: by a wide majority, the American people do not want President Clinton impeached and convicted. Of course, the election was not simply a referendum on impeachment; the impeachment issue, indeed, was pretty much of a nonfactor in most House and Senate races. But clearly this was the best opportunity the public had to express its disapproval of the President’s massive web of deceit. Most Americans chose not to utilize that opportunity, which is itself instructive.
As for the moral disposition of the American people, one must begin with this stipulation: America is a large, diverse, and culturally divided country. It is always unwise to draw sweeping conclusions about “the American people.” For example, a significant part of the population—one-third or so—is deeply troubled by the President’s utter contempt for the rule of law and for truth. That said, it is clear that much—and maybe even most—of the public has become extremely latitudinarian on sexual matters.
The Lewinsky scandal demonstrates that, so long as sexual misconduct is seen as the underlying issue, most Americans are willing to dismiss overwhelming evidence of criminal activity. They agree with Charles Schumer, who conceded that, yes, the President did commit perjury before a federal grand jury, but it does not matter because, well, he was lying about adultery. Most Americans apparently believe that crimes committed in the name of adultery are no longer crimes.
Add to this the fact that even as clear evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice was presented, Clinton’s job-approval rating went up. For over a half-year, commentators in the press, liberal as well as conservative, assured us that once the real story got out, the Clinton presidency would be over. The public would repudiate him. Instead, President Clinton, clearly guilty of having committed multiple felony crimes, reached a high-water mark in public approval.
What this suggests is that the Lewinsky scandal is not an aberration but part of a broader trend. In One Nation, After All, the sociologist Alan Wolfe carefully documented the moral disposition of middle-class Americans. In comments made earlier this year Wolfe—no conservative, he—admitted that “the single most surprising finding that I came up with is how unbelievably relativistic Americans are.” Yes, so it appears they are.
But that brings us finally to the nonrelativistic conservatives, the ones supposedly being taken over by “neo-Puritan zeal.” This charge, it is worth keeping in mind, has been leveled against people who hold the following “controversial” positions: in favor of life, against homosexual marriage, troubled by presidential adultery with interns and by presidential perjury. Is it not a further indication of the relativistic times in which we live that holding reasoned convictions on such matters should elicit such shrill alarm? But there is little help for that, other than to carry on with the necessary work and to try to persuade others by the power and moral appeal of certain well-established ideas.
There are plenty of opportunities for conservatives to make gains—by, for example, becoming the agents of reform on education, crime, racial quotas, welfare, taxes, Social Security, and missile defense. A conservative reform agenda can indeed have great appeal (as a number of GOP governors have shown). But conservatives should not kid themselves, either. With Alan Wolfe’s comments in mind, the challenge, or perhaps peril, of the moment is to state not simply what conservatives stand for but what they stand against: moral rot, decadence, relativism disguised as sophistication, “enlightened” liberalism. In modern-day America this may not be easy, but it is what decency and justice, and the times, demand.
William F. Buckley, Jr.
The election returns—as I read them—did not mean anything decisive, with this exception: that there was no appetite to pursue President Clinton into immediate retirement. The relatively strong hand of Democratic votes tells us, mostly, that there was the normal confusion deriving from an incumbent Congress that was GOP with a Democratic President, but that all in all there was no keen appetite to grumble over the activity or inactivity of the incumbents. And I think we could see a feeling among those sensitive on the matter of Clinton that he had been punished enough by the publicity and humiliation. The election returns sounded to me like an ode to self-satisfaction.
Still, though it is tiresome to repeat it, those of us terminally committed to the correctness of impeachment have to say it: a President was the principal enforcer of the laws and this President flouted those laws. What crystallized, in the period since the November elections, was a national indisposition to forward impeachment proceedings except formalistically. By early December the eschatological dynamic of the Judiciary Committee’s inquiry was gone, and it seemed the House would go no further than to inveigh against what Clinton did, without reasoning that what he did disqualified him, in an orderly world, from continuing in office.
That—little chance of impeachment, no chance of conviction—was the reason for curiosity about what else might be done to register formal legislative concerns. For a while, everyone spoke of censure; but the dawning light told us that a censure motion would be extra-constitutional. Senator Arlen Specter recommended doing nothing; he recommended waiting, with justice in the back of the eye, until after Clinton leaves office, and ushering him then into the maws of the conventional justice system. If that is the direction decided upon, an indictment, so to speak post-dated, could be drawn up outlining his felonies—to be given to the grand jury in January 2001.
Both opponents of impeachment and advocates of it have argued the danger of precedents. Might a precedent be set that would encourage fitful removals of a President? On the other hand, might a precedent be set that a President can get away with very nearly anything? The relative inertia of the public confirms William J. Bennett’s reading, that there is a progressive enfeeblement of ethical will.
The political results also suggest degrees of sophistication. There are those who believe that nothing will be done, so you may just as well not go through the motions. There are others who believe that it is unwise to pursue convulsive remedies, on the grounds that general upheaval is too high a price to pay, not for Clinton but for the country. The stock-market plunge in October was widely thought to be an augury of the commotion that would attend an impeachment and conviction.
But, pace Bill Bennett, the majority (73-24) do rate Clinton unethical, and curiosity naturally leads one to ask: how offensive is it to act unethically? The public opiate here is that unethical conduct vis-à-vis sex is nothing to write home about, that this, really, is what Clinton has been up to, and that Thomas Jefferson did it and lied about it, too.
But that leads to another question: how alarming, if at all, is the accommodationist direction in public attitudes toward immoral behavior? My own view is that libertinism is especially to be regretted when formally ignored. A society is surely healthier when whoring is common but commonly disapproved of than when it is common and commonly accepted. Self-discipline is the anchor of civilized behavior, which is why wedding “vows” are exchanged, and “oaths” of office taken.
What is new in the current anxiety over Puritanical recidivism is anxiety over the matters of abortion and gay sex. The animated concern over the Christian Right and the threat it poses has got to trace to the primary differences in public standards 50 years ago and today on these two issues. The right to choose is now held to be sacrosanct by many, and the gay movement marches toward new advance positions, gay marriage being just over the horizon. Conservatives who oppose the expansion of gay rights to the point of subverting natural liaisons are thought backward in the march of civil rights toward final fulfillment.
It is probably correct that conservatives oppose more vociferously, and resist more obdurately, certain social trends; but it does not follow that this is so because they have set their sights on angelism. It is a burden of conservatives to resist changes that, on reflection, should be resisted by everybody.
Like most elections, the last one turned not on the winning party’s strength but on the losing party’s weakness. Nothing remains of Reagan-era ideology that can win elections for Republicans in the late 1990’s—particularly in an electorate that focuses on domestic policy.
Reagan’s low-tax regime achieved two popular things that no longer do the GOP much good. First, it revealed that high tax rates are not optimal tax rates—but this lesson stopped providing an advantage to conservatives once left-wing parties all over the world learned it. Second, Reaganism reduced the say of government in citizens’ day-to-day lives—but Republicans themselves, despite rhetoric to the contrary, abandoned that project after the government shutdown of 1995. The most egregious example from the last Congress was Republican cooperation with the Democrats’ statist tobacco schemes; the most recent example is the bloated 1999 budget. If a desire for smaller, less intrusive government is at the center of conservatism, then the United States does not at present have a conservative party.
One assumed Republicans knew what they were doing in making peace with statism. November’s surprisingly strong showing of libertarian issues and candidates indicates they did not. Jesse Ventura’s victory in the Minnesota gubernatorial race was remarkable not just for his Reform-party affiliation; Ventura even bantered about legalizing prostitution. Voters legalized medical marijuana in every state where it was on the ballot. They voted to overturn affirmative action in the state of Washington.
A libertarian electoral climate is a bad one in which to try to impeach a President either for an office affair or for hiding an office affair from the law. (Republicans were never clear about which exercised them the more; either way, history will laugh at them.) But it is still not clear at first sight why the Lewinsky affair should have harmed Republicans at the polls. True, they abandoned their opposition to sexual-harassment law and the independent counsel when it suited their purposes. But Democrats were guilty of a symmetrical hypocrisy throughout the scandal, decrying the “partisanship” they themselves had pioneered in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and the “sexual witch hunts” they had passed legislation to promote.
Why, if militant prudery afflicts both parties equally, do Republicans suffer more? Because there has always been something preposterous about Democrats—the party of gays and single mothers—standing as enforcers of sexual morality. Certain Republicans, on the other hand, have coherently and forcefully articulated the case for a rollback of the whole sexual legacy of the 1960’s, starting with legalized abortion.
Abortion has been a linchpin of the American Way for decades now. It underwrites not just the sexual hedonism that has become an unenumerated right in the social contract but also the mobility and personal autonomy on which the whole labor market rests. Even if the pro-life position is more in tune with the wisdom of the ages, it is an “extremist” one for the purposes of this society. For abortion cannot now be banned without shaking society to its foundations. On abortion, if the Republican party is not extremist, then it is objectively pro-choice. Like those old European socialist parties whose charters proclaimed common ownership of property and loyalty to the Soviet Union, it wins votes only to the extent that its platform is disbelieved or its goals are viewed as unattainable.
When Republicans debate abortion on grounds of life (the child), they can break even. When they debate it on grounds of sex (the woman), they lose overwhelmingly—because the synaptic connections between “reproductive rights” and every other corner of modern society begin firing in the collective mind. That is why the Lewinsky affair proved such a catastrophe. In shifting the grounds of debate to sex, it highlighted the ways in which Republicans could be branded as sworn enemies of the established social order. That spelled electoral disaster, much as Soviet troop movements (to pick up our metaphor again) did for European labor parties during the cold war.
Two other factors worsened the situation. First, the Penthouse Forum tone of the Starr report and of much anti-Clinton commentary cast Republicans as the party that really likes to talk about sex. To get caught masturbating into the Oval Office sink is humiliating; to spend a year turning blue in the face about it is perverse. Second, Republicans appeared opportunistic in adducing a “moral crisis” or a “death of outrage” to explain the public’s refusal to desert the President over the Lewinsky matter. Any index that measures our moral state objectively rather than rhetorically—illegitimacy rates, divorce rates, murder rates, even abortion rates—shows a marked improvement over the last decade. If Republicans were so unwilling to take “yes” for an answer, then their moral complaint must be not with recent developments but with the whole present-day structure of society.
So the Republican party’s focus on sex revealed it for what it in fact is: an umbrella organization for those who feel the country is the worse off for the reforms of the past three decades, the loser party of post-1960’s America.
“Wherein is a man like a shoemaker?” asked Sholem Aleichem, and answered, “A shoemaker lives and lives and lives until he dies, and so does a man.” In response to COMMENTARY’s query, we might ask, “Wherein is a voter like a man?” and answer, “A man dreams of having all of the world’s goodies at no cost, and so does a voter.”
This is true whether that voter is male or female, young or old, liberal or conservative. The old, for instance, want free medical care without any diminution in the quality of that care, while the young wish for the government to take the old people off their hands without any increase in taxes. Women want to be full competitors with men in the workplace without losing their special status as members of a protected species, while men would like to see their country well-protected from its enemies without their own sons being required to serve. Liberals would like to enjoy safe streets without having too many cops around, while conservatives deplore the heavy hand of government on just about everything but public morals—and there they hope for a heavy hand indeed.
That is how we are to understand the election of 1998: namely, it was an election of the voters. (By the way, it was certainly no victory for the Democrats, and it was a defeat for Republicans only in proportion to how much less well they did than they had trumpeted to themselves that they were going to do.) Politicians on both sides of the aisle, in their usual fashion, fell into confusion, for it is their responsibility to respond to what the voters want of them, and without some great national crisis the voters tend to be a body of people pulling in all directions at once.
Are we to assume, for instance, that Americans really prefer, as the presidential results of 1996 might suggest, to have a clever adolescent rogue in the White House? Considering the other figures whom they have favored with reelection—Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan—that hardly seems likely. The women who voted for Clinton—and not only voted for him but noisily “forgave” him for behaving in a manner that under other circumstances would have spurred them to get him fired from his job—were mainly protecting the right to easy and respectable abortion. His ever-loyal constituents in the black community seemed content with such tokens of presidential attention as a few erratic government appointments. For the rest, American electoral politics seems to be in a kind of silly season, in which everything and its opposite are on offer and votes fly around in all directions, signifying practically nothing.
As far as the President is concerned, his astronomical approval ratings in the very teeth of the primitive unattractiveness of his behavior may, as William J. Bennett fears, be a measure of the decadence that has eaten its way so far into American culture. But I am inclined to believe they are something else, something akin but not quite the same: namely, a declaration of longing to be spared the unbearably heavy responsibility of determining the country’s future. There is, after all, no middle ground where Clinton is concerned: if you do not agree to cover for him, you have to dump him. Although dumping him is something the politicians would carry out, in the ensuing instability the ball would end up in the voters’ court.
At the moment, they are not really prepared for that—not, as many experts say, because they are apathetic but because, living in so rich and free a country, they cannot decide what to ask the politicians for first. Meanwhile, Clinton promises to look tough, but of course not too tough, with the outside world, and gentle, but of course not too gentle, at home; and while people understand that it is all bunk, they are content to let it ride until something comes along that really moves them.
Chances are that when at last Americans really are moved to get serious, what will move them will have nothing to do with politics. For politics, by definition a method for keeping them engaged in the question of what they want, must provide them with a lot of contradictory and therefore unmanageable expectations. But what will bring Americans to their senses is a movement, or perhaps an institution, that speaks to them not of their desires but of their needs. This, in my opinion, is what they are just hanging around waiting to happen.
Where will such a movement or institution arise? Some people suggest that the churches will one day return from their wanderings in the wasteland of do-goodism and bring about the kind of regeneration that centuries ago took place in England under the leadership of John Wesley. Maybe so; but calling upon the churches, and going down on one’s knees inside them, are two very different things. The first is simple, the second is serious business.
Might not at least some significant part of the necessary lesson be taught by the neoconservative intellectuals? After all, they themselves were once rescued from the rot by just such an epiphany as their fellow Americans are unconsciously waiting for, and in the process they brought a whole new population to the conservative intellectual community. Perhaps, then, it is they who could bring the word.
But in order for their voices to carry, some of the members of that community would have to be a whole lot more loving than they have lately been showing themselves to be—loving, that is, both of the country and of the people in it. Certainly the United States has become a depressing sexual and cultural shambles; but that is not all there is, not by a long shot. Lift from Americans the burden of a feeble self-involvement that the country’s wealth and myth of endless possibility have placed upon their spirits, and watch them flower. And then watch the press, the television, the schools and universities, slavish dependents all on majority opinion, fall kicking and screaming into line.
Jean Bethke Elshtain
The political mood of the country is as mixed as the election results. Voters last November refused to send a Big Message, either that all was well or, by contrast, that the country would be definitively on its way to hell unless Clinton was kicked out of office for his various twistings and turnings, carnal and legal. Most of the people I know paid little attention to the elections, and those who did stayed with the candidates who delivered the goods locally or who had not been in the news in ways that built up “negatives.”
So the mood of the electorate is querulous, edgy, a bit scattershot. Nobody wants “extremists,” but “extremists,” nowadays, seem to be the people who, whatever their politics, are saying what you do not want to hear.
The elections aside, ever since the wretched Lewinsky business broke open I have been arguing that somehow Americans would have to come to grips with the radical disjuncture embodied in their schizophrenic assessments of the President: lying, untrustworthy, wouldn’t want him to marry my daughter and, at the same time, effective, strong, doing a good job. But not only has this reckoning not taken place, it shows no sign of taking place. What this means is that the necessary debate about whether, and in what ways, the President of the United States should, while in office, be held to a certain threshold of behavior, and about what this minimal standard should be in the case of the officeholder above all officeholders in the country (the President is not just “our Bill,” or Joe or Schmoe), may never come to pass. Instead, we will muddle through.
The problem is: the muddle has become nastier and nastier over the course of this scandal as all the President’s men, in their zeal to protect him at all costs from any costs for his own misdeeds, have taken too many issues before too many courts for definitive adjudication (I think here of the many “privilege” claims). And the courts, having come down largely in Kenneth Starr’s favor, may have overly rigidified and narrowed the range within which we believe Presidents, on the whole, should be permitted to operate without fear of sanction. In other words, future Presidents may pay the price for the current debacle.
As for where the American people stand on this matter, most, it seems to me, are both troubled and fed-up. The scenario seems to be: the President has admitted he “sinned” and it is now time to “forgive” him (his words). But forgiveness is not a get-home-free pass and never was. How did we lose a more robust sense of what forgiveness is and requires of us and others? To answer that, you would need to do a full-blown cultural analysis of the past half-century. Let me drop one hint. Against the backdrop of decades of cultural pop-psychologization—everything is what it is insofar as it is immediately accessible to, and useful for, me—and the consequent watering-down of our sense of what it means to think in terms of norms, rules, laws, or abiding truths, it is perhaps unsurprising that we should have come to this pass.
Any decent constitutional society respects a distinction between public and private. If I thought the President’s behavior was “private” I would be screaming louder than anyone else to lay off. But that is not what we are confronted with. One can hardly imagine a more public place than the White House in which to conduct a radically indiscreet affair, one that required the ministrations of a small army of staffers to facilitate and then to cover up. Since when did it become acceptable for the public-private distinction to be turned into a weapon wielded by the powerful or by anyone wishing to assert the right of the powerful to be untouchable in public if what they did is deemed private? And they, the powerful, get to decide what private is?
I thought the whole point of reasonable feminist protest against sexual harassment—there was a lot that was unreasonable, too—was to take on such claims and to defeat them. Why does Anita Hill’s claim that Clarence Thomas told her risque jokes lead to cries of denunciation, while Kathleen Willey’s charge that she was physically groped by the President of the United States count for nothing? Now, of course, we have learned that if the offender is one of “ours,” there is no harm done. Something like the return of droit de seigneur is represented as the epitome of nigh-Olympian wisdom and sophistication. To raise one’s eyebrows over this hardly seems to me an example of “neo-Puritan zeal,” whoever is doing the eyebrow-arching.
As someone who thinks of herself as a rather old-fashioned social liberal in dialogue with conservatism, I find the future of both conservatism and liberalism very much up for grabs at the moment. Will liberals rediscover the pluralism and capacity for coalition politics that was once their great strength? Will liberals and conservatives alike find a way through to policies that protect the weak from rapacities even as they keep intact the self-respect of those being helped? Is it really possible to have open political debate around a whole range of issues dear to the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens—including race and abortion, to name just two? Can a way be found to curb the excesses of the libertarian-econometric world view that dominates much conservative political rhetoric? (It dominates what passes for left-wing rhetoric, too, clad in the garb not of economic but of “personal” freedoms unleashed and pretty much unrestrained.)
So: neo-Puritan zeal, whatever the more frantic among us might think, is not our problem as a culture. What is a problem is the promotion, under both liberal and conservative banners, of a way of thinking that walls us off decisively from a consideration of commonalities and social goods and modes of thinking about them. That being so, it should not surprise us if, in the future, we are confronted with yet another defining moment and fail even more miserably to rise to the challenge.
Chin up! The American public’s disinclination to remove President Clinton from office is in many ways a conservative impulse—a misguided conservative impulse, but conservative all the same. Just as Bill Clinton won in 1992 by, paradoxically, getting to the right of George Bush on welfare, so his party prevailed in 1998 by getting to the right of Kenneth Starr on the issue of public decency.
How so? Democratic congressional candidates seldom tried to deny the truth of the accusations in the Starr report. Except for a libertine few, they did not even minimize the accusations’ gravity. What they argued, instead, was that it was time to get the smut off television—and that the way to get it off was by ending the investigation.
The Democrats gained five seats in an election in which they were expected to lose at least a dozen because crucial segments of the public were convinced by this “let’s-move-on” line of argument. But that is precisely why it would be a mistake to conclude from the 1998 election that America is a nation of cheerful immoralists, 250 million Geraldos. It is, rather, a nation morally divided, in which the balance of power is held by embarrassed moralists, who do not like hearing the squalid details of wrongdoing, and whose tendency when confronted with behavior like Bill Clinton’s is to look away rather than condemn. That tendency may be wrong, but it is surely not entirely blameworthy.
The public’s apparent willingness to give politicians some latitude in their private life is not entirely blameworthy, either. The President’s critics gamely argued on the television chat shows that the real issue was perjury, but the public would not or could not abstract the President’s legal wrongdoing from its sexual context. That failure may indeed reflect the moral decay that William J. Bennett worries about. But it is also possible that it emerges not from amoralism but from a robust hostility to the feminist sex police who have patrolled American factories and offices over the past decade. The public may, in other words, support the President for many of the same reasons that led it to support Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Of course it is dismaying that Clinton now seems likely to escape the ultimate punishment for his crimes. Whatever their motives, the American people are choosing to tolerate brazen defiance of the law by their President—a choice that leaves their Republic far wobblier than it was seven years ago. But I am not prepared to despair just yet either of the Republic or the people who constitute it.
The fact is, the President’s critics proved their case and won the debate. A substantial majority of the American people now agree that Clinton has lied under oath. By large margins, they disapprove of his character and condemn him as a man who does not share their values. Where they disagree with the President’s critics is not in their judgment of the man, but in their assessment of the appropriate penalty. They think removal from office is too draconian. That again, even though also wrong, is not an unconservative conclusion.
Nor is it a conclusion that should give any special comfort to the President’s friends. The President may escape justice. I doubt very much that his apologists will. For eight months, the American public has listened to this administration’s supporters make excuses for witness-tampering and conspiracy. For the quarter-century since Watergate, the Democrats were the party of “reform.” They are now the party of orchestrated lying. That transformation is indelible, and will have large and permanent consequences. So, too, will the exposure of the radical moral bankruptcy of organized feminism. It now seems that it may be poor Al Gore who will pay the price for Clinton’s deceit. But the price will be paid.
A final thought. Before laying all the blame for this presidential equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial on the jury, Republicans ought to devote a moment’s reflection to the Marcia Clarks on their own side. One important reason that Clinton got away with false statements to a federal grand jury was that the American public has succumbed to scandal fatigue. Too many accusations were thrown too recklessly at this administration: wild charges about murders in Arkansas or in the White House, cocaine-snorting in Little Rock hotel rooms, drug-smuggling via Mena airport. After all that, proof positive that the President has perjured himself seems positively anticlimactic. It could fairly be said that the snuffing-out of the Lewinsky scandal was Vince Foster’s last service to his President.
The ’98 elections suggest that it has dawned on most Americans that we are in bad moral trouble, but we do not know what to do about it. We are so far from shore, it is more frightening to make for home than to go on drifting farther and farther out. We are torn and can’t decide. Most Americans (my guess is) wanted to condemn the President but couldn’t; they lacked the words. Condemning him would have contravened principles urged on the nation relentlessly for a generation by schools and colleges, TV shows and movies, clergymen, politicians, editorial writers, rock stars, celebrity newscasters. Republicans could have done something useful but did not; their problem is not zeal, it is zeal-lessness. In approaching a difficult animal you must either be charming or, if your mission is unwelcome, sufficiently clear and commanding to carry conviction. If you merely scowl and mutter, you provoke attack. Republicans have just gotten mauled.
It had seemed during the 1990’s as if Americans were trying to get over a binge. From the late 1960’s through the early 80’s, Christian and Jewish moral principle had been temporarily suspended, like alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules. At first this was a great convenience. You could park anywhere. Unmarried sex was fine, adultery could downright improve a marriage, unmarried motherhood was fine, homosexuality and unrestricted abortion were two more menu choices for a generation that prided itself on fancy menus. And presumably the menu would go on expanding forever. Men were free at last to pursue the shining dream that has moved and inspired so many: to have sex with as many women as possible.
By the fall of 1998, many Americans had concluded that the Binge was a mistake, and we should not have suspended morality after all. But nobody knew how to un-suspend it. The editors of COMMENTARY ask where the public stands on moral matters. It stands in a rising tide of remorse, with cold feet, but unable to move. We no longer believe in debauchery, but we know how it works, and we know how to do it. How to operate a nation on the basis of Judeo-Christian moral principles is a technique that escapes us. We can’t remember.
Enter Monica: Americans dimly recalled that adultery was wrong, but couldn’t remember why. Must be something to do with “hurting people.” But the President’s wife had forgiven him. Shouldn’t that end the matter? In any case, Linda Tripp the unfaithful friend was incomparably worse than Bill Clinton the unfaithful husband. Friendships are important; you can’t terminate a friendship with a mere no-fault decree.
Nonetheless the public did believe, I think, that something was seriously out of whack in the President’s behavior. Any man could err, but remorseless serial adultery was ugly. It no longer seemed perfectly okay (as it had during the Binge) to take up a dazed-and-dazzled young girl on any offer she could be induced to make. Everyone told lies, but to lie while backfiring bluster and indignation and self-righteousness, and then send forth your staff and even your wife to spread the good news—that was pretty low. The President was a billboard-sized message to the nation: this is you. This is what you have become. Like it?
Americans wanted to condemn the President, but did not know how. Did not know what moral disapproval even meant. Haven’t I been taught that it is a sin to be “judgmental”? If I dare to disapprove, won’t the whole world rip into me? If I have ever sinned myself, doesn’t that disqualify me as a judge forever? If it strikes me that the President acted boorishly, isn’t that just my personal view, and haven’t I been taught that all personal views are equally valid, and that it is a sin to impose your personal morality on anybody else? Jews and Christians believe that adultery is a grave sin, but doesn’t it say in the Constitution that religion must be booted out of public life? If the public schools and civic arena must be purged of religion, scrubbed clean of every last trace of it, surely it must be wrong to cast a vote based on mere religious beliefs.
Republicans (and, for that matter, Democrats) might have sensed the public’s dilemma and addressed it. Might have used the crisis to focus attention on the real questions: what do we think of adultery? And religion, and marriage, and sex, and family? But the most famous GOP comment on the Lewinsky affair was Orrin Hatch’s. He listened to the President holding forth, and said, “What a jerk.” A muttered aside; it figures. Conservatives in office lack the resolve, by and large, to stand up and speak into the microphone.
If Republicans in Congress had anything remotely approaching zeal, they would say: “Forget impeachment. Forget censure. We’re calling the whole thing off, because of a national emergency.” Then they would go home and each give this speech 500 times: “We don’t care about this President, we care about the nation. The President has to be censured (if he’s going to be) not by Congress but by you. He’s got to be impeached not in the Senate but in your hearts and minds. We therefore implore you to look at this man and ask yourselves, did your father act this way? Did your grandfathers? If they did, are you glad? Do you want this for your sons? What role would you choose for your daughters—Bill Clinton’s suffering, humiliated wife or one of his neat selection of sex toys? We understand that you yourself might have done just as bad as the President—but if so, that doesn’t excuse you from condemning him, it only obligates you to condemn yourself, too. We understand you’ve been taught otherwise. Forget that, it was all a ghastly mistake.”
I’m not holding my breath. But Republicans aren’t dumb; they’ll spiff up their campaign ads, and do much better in 2000. I’m not sure it will make very much difference.
James K. Glassman
The strength shown by the Democrats in the 1998 elections was considerable, undeniable, and predictable. Republicans failed because they refused to run on a policy agenda, even though they had one at hand—cutting taxes and holding down spending, the precise agenda that helped produce the economic prosperity of the past sixteen years. So what did they stand for? By default, nothing much, besides impeachment—a point hammered home in a series of obnoxious and self-defeating commercials run during the final days of the campaign.
Why no agenda? First, an egregious strategic miscalculation by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who lost his job as a result, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who should have. They apparently figured that, with peace and prosperity, incumbents would be reelected and, with history on their side (only one other President—FDR!—had led his party to gains in the House in a midterm election), Republicans would add to their majorities in Congress. It was an awful mistake.
Second, the campaign represented a failure of will. Republicans were afraid to push a serious tax cut—despite a $70-billion budget surplus—because President Clinton would accuse them (somehow) of damaging Social Security. They were afraid to stand up for spending restraint—instead, approving a massive highway bill and $21 billion in “emergency” outlays—because they worried that Clinton would veto their appropriations legislation and then accuse them of shutting down the government, as he did with such success three years earlier.
What was left? Lewinsky.
Impeachment proved the worst mistake of all. Americans did not want to expel their President—perjurer, fornicator, obstructionist, and felon though he may be. Why not? First, they saw (inaccurately but understandably) his presence in the White House as essential to the prosperity they were enjoying. Second, and perhaps more important, they were appalled at the way he had been treated.
Does this reaction indicate a progressive degradation of the moral fiber of Americans? I think not. Americans believe in a good, moral, ethical, religious life and try to practice it. But they place morality in the private realm, not the public. For example, a Gallup poll last year found that 52 percent of respondents believed that homosexuality “is not an acceptable alternative life-style.” But 84 percent said homosexuals “should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities.” Most Americans, it is clear, believe Friedrich A. Hayek’s contention that, in a free, representative democracy, “we agree to tolerate much that we dislike.”
What Americans will not tolerate is super-aggressive prosecution of misbehavior related to conduct in the private sphere. What Bill Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky was revolting—and, certainly, by any standard, immoral—but his pursuit by Kenneth Starr frightened people. The last straw was the tape of Clinton’s August deposition, in which, it is widely agreed, the President obfuscated and lied. But it was the nature of the questions, the invasion of privacy (even of such a public figure as the President), that disgusted and scared so many.
Americans draw a line, increasingly brighter, between how people behave in private and what the government should do about it. Yes (I know, I know), the Clinton scandal is not about sex; it is about lying. De jure, of course. But, de facto, not at all. It is truly about sex, and, when it comes to sex, Americans fear the knock on the door, as they should.
So where does this leave conservatism? The movement’s foundation has long been a triad: a strong defense, free-market economics, and the enforcement of a moral or social code through government action. Defense was stripped of its urgency when the cold war ended, and a similar process is unfolding with social issues. The most politically fruitful of the social issues—welfare abuse and crimen—have diminished in urgency since the late 1980’s and have been largely usurped by Democrats anyway. Now, the “character” issue has also been neutered. In that sense, the rejection of impeachment in the November 3 elections is as important as the collapse of the Berlin Wall. What is left of the social leg of the triad has little kick: moral education (for national Republicans, a difficult matter since the Constitution leaves it to the states) and abortion (the most private of public issues).
Still, both parties have a stake in elevating the religious Right—Republicans to flatter, Democrats to frighten. In fact, that faction performed miserably in the election, failing to reelect Governor David Beasley in South Carolina and Senator Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina.
Some intellectuals have been trying to reinvigorate conservatism with what William Kristol and David Brooks call an “appeal to American greatness.” What does this phrase mean? At first, it seemed to be a virile anti-China spirit, but, as the Lewinsky scandal broke in January, the appeal shifted toward impeachment as a moral issue, much as William J. Bennett has portrayed it. But as a crusade for greatness, impeachment was bound to fail. The President’s behavior embarrasses us all, even those who rail against it.
Conservatives are left, then, with free-market economics. Under that rubric, I would place school vouchers, privatized Social Security, and deregulation, as well as free trade, tax cuts, and restraint in government spending. That is more than enough work for the next century or so, especially when placed in the broader context of liberty.
Herbert Croly, founder of the New Republic, argued that it was not enough to allow America’s future to emerge “merely by virtue of maintaining intact a set of political institutions and by vigorous individual pursuit of private ends.” This formulation that Croly rejected is a pretty good expression of where conservatives should aim: toward building strong, limited, honest institutions (of the sort that Clinton betrayed) that allow private individuals—alone, in businesses, in free associations, in religious groups, in families—to pursue happiness: that is, in the framers’ meaning, the good, the moral.
In such a framework, conservatism will probably do its best work outside government, influencing the culture. Considering the quality of thought and action in Washington these days, I do not think outside is such a terrible place to be.
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick
To the surprise of many, the political temper of the American electorate, reflected in the November elections, was little different from the political temper two years earlier when a plurality of voters gave another four years in the White House to Bill Clinton and control of both Houses of the Congress to the Republicans. The 1998 elections, in other words, essentially maintained the status quo, with a very slight tilt toward Democrats in the House—and that was more for local and idiosyncratic reasons than because of new national trends.
The widespread but mistaken impression that Democrats scored a major victory over Republicans in November was a result of the Republicans’ expectations of a sweeping victory, expectations trumpeted on the networks for weeks in advance of the elections. Assuredly, Democrats did score a sweeping victory in this “expectations” contest, as they did in post-election media coverage. This focused heavily on the few Democratic wins, embellished by speculation concerning the resignation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, then by the resignation itself, which was in turn explained as a consequence of his “responsibility” for the “Republican defeat.” The subsequent leadership contest further enhanced impressions of Republican disarray.
In fact, however, Gingrich deserves credit for having masterminded three consecutive Republican majorities in the House, and the impression that Republicans suffered major electoral losses is spurious. No less misguided, in my judgment, is the suggestion that the elections were a personal triumph for Clinton over Gingrich, Kenneth Starr, and the Republicans.
In particular, the elections told us next to nothing about the public’s view of the President’s future. This is partly because he was not himself a candidate, partly because many Democratic candidates sought to distance themselves from him, and especially because the separation of congressional from presidential elections in “off” years insulates a President from the swings of opinion characteristic of British and other parliamentary systems.
Although some Democrats and some media pundits cited the election results to bolster the view that the people had “exonerated” the President for his misdeeds, that is absurd. The President was no more a candidate for exoneration in these elections than he was a candidate for office. While repeated polls over the last year have found that a majority of Americans do not see the President’s sexual misconduct as disqualifying him for the presidency, no one defends his conduct—not his fellow Democrats, not James Carville, not even the President himself. Instead, they, too, deplore his womanizing—on government time, in the Oval Office, with a White House intern—his lies under oath to a grand jury, and his efforts to suborn potential witnesses.
As for Republican leaders, many of them seem to have made the opposite error, expecting a more powerful and more negative reaction to the evidence of Bill Clinton’s misconduct. What they failed to notice was that the same polls reporting widespread disapproval of the President’s conduct revealed that a majority of Americans also opposed impeaching and convicting him, and that a discouraging number of our fellow citizens approve of his conduct of public affairs. Indeed, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and the many surrounding issues have made it clearer than ever that a large number of Americans are willing to tolerate objectionable “private” behavior in public officials and to judge “public” figures exclusively by their conduct of “public” affairs.
This is not to be lightly dismissed. I myself would have preferred that Starr not pursue the line of investigation he did, into the areas he did. Usually it has been liberals who stretch the limits of state power in pursuit of some avowedly worthy objective, and usually it has been conservatives who have sought to constrain government’s powers in pursuit of a putative public good.
Of course, there is real public good involved in the Clinton-Lewinsky matter: telling the truth to a grand jury is a real public good, on which depends an even greater good—the rule of law. Still, the case for impeachment would have been more persuasive to more Americans if it concerned violations of the electoral process and/or the national interest—as seemed to be present in John Huang’s money-raising activities on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, or the Riadys’ extravagant “retainer” to Webster Hubbell, or links between campaign fund-raising and the transfer of missile technology to China, or the President’s violations of his proper constitutional role in implementing treaties (Kyoto, chemical weapons) that have not been ratified.
I understand that it is necessary to build a case on the evidence one has. Nonetheless, I worry, along with other Americans, about overstepping the appropriate limits of government power, as well as the appropriate boundaries between state and society. Surely, I myself felt on reading of the proposal to “wire” Monica Lewinsky, even Presidents have rights; surely, this goes too far.
Of politics after the cold war, the late François Furet wrote,
the Right and the Left still remain, but they are stripped of their reference points, almost of their substance. The Left no longer knows what socialism is; the Right, deprived of its best argument (namely, anti-Communism), is also searching for something to distinguish it.
Now a new socialism has found its voice in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, where governments are attempting (professedly) to achieve the benefits of Right and Left through a “third way.” The American Right, however, never defined itself principally in terms of “anti-Communism” (though it was profoundly anti-Communist). Instead, it has always defined itself in terms of a dynamic individualism, and the freedom necessary to develop and preserve it. Only this approach can give us democracy, the rule of law, peace, and economic growth with rising standards of living.
I believe Republicans did not do better in the elections because they did not develop broadly conservative issues, did not articulate them clearly, and did not translate into legislation the mandate given them in 1994 and again in 1996: lower taxes, smaller government, a less intrusive bureaucracy, school choice, and greater respect for individual freedom.
Is American conservatism in danger of being taken over by an excess of neo-Puritan zeal?
Even a moralistic scold like me would have qualms about a resurgence of real, honest-to-goodness Puritanism. But neo-Puritan zeal strikes me as about right. Unlike its older cousin, after all, neo-Puritanism would be respectful of the principles of liberal constitutionalism. It would acknowledge the limits on soulcraft in a liberal democracy. But it would ask that liberal democrats, in turn, acknowledge that the health of liberal democracy depends on a sort of neo-Puritanism among most of its citizens. Otherwise we degenerate—we “progress”—toward Clintonism.
What is Clintonism? One could plausibly claim that it is merely self-satisfied nonjudgmentalism, a soft relativism, even an easygoing nihilism. But that would not be quite right. For Clintonism is in fact consistent with a fair amount of judgmentalism. Clintonian liberalism is perfectly willing to condemn smoking, and “homophobia”; it is also willing to be reasonably tough, tougher than liberals were a few years ago, on criminal behavior and welfare dependency. It turns out, then, that Clintonism is not simply nonjudgmental. Rather, Clintonism specifically exempts one sphere of life from all moral judgments: sex.
As Harvey Mansfield has argued in the Weekly Standard, when the American people gave Clinton a pass in November, “what they consented to was the doctrine of consenting adults in sex.” Not a doctrine of consenting adults in general; the Clintonian embrace of the nanny state checks broader libertarian impulses. But sex is, as we say these days, privileged. Sex, and sex alone, must be free of constraint, and of judgment.
Consider the core defense of Clinton’s behavior: it is only “lying about sex.” Clinton’s apologists occasionally sound as if they are saying that lying about sex is one of several permissible forms of lying, all of which presumably fail to reach the level of an impeachable offense. But when you listen to the arguments closely, it turns out that “lying about sex” is not just one permissible form of lying; it is the permissible form of lying. Just as the right to abortion is the one right that can never be abridged; just as homosexuality is the one practice that can never be criticized; so consensual sexual behavior is the one realm of human activity about which any sort of public moral judgment is illegitimate.
This is why, incidentally, it makes sense for Clintonian liberalism to be so concerned, at least in theory, about sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is an ugly and inevitable consequence of sexual liberation; therefore, a crusade against sexual harassment is necessary to remove any taint from the cause of sexual liberation, and to clear the field, as it were, for any and all consenting sexual activity.
More than a generation ago, the courts invented a right to privacy. This right included or implied a right to sexual freedom—first to contraception, then to abortion, now to homosexual behavior. But it has become clear that the right to privacy is not a general right of which the right to sexual freedom is a particular example. For the constitutional right to privacy exists in no other sphere than sex. The privacy right is simply a right to sexual freedom, or to sexual liberation.
What the Clinton experience shows is that the embrace of this right to sexual liberation has profound consequences. In principle, of course, one could be a libertarian about sex and strict about perjury, even if that perjury is about sex. But in practice, the commitment to sexual liberation has trumped any concern about lying or obstructing justice among Clinton’s sophisticated defenders. And the combination of a right to privacy with a culture of sexual liberation has befuddled the American people: a healthy sense that we should not pry has been corrupted into a belief that we cannot judge.
The issue American conservatism has to face, then, is the question of morality and public life, which in large part means morality and sexual liberation. Bill Clinton will likely win the argument about removal from office. But it is conservatives’ task to ensure that Bill Clinton does not win the argument about morality and public life. Even if Clinton slips the noose, this cannot be allowed to be taken as the final resolution by the political community of the underlying issues raised by the Clinton affair.
As Mansfield observed, when Republicans failed to make an issue of Clinton’s behavior throughout 1998, they
gave him a pass. Morality always has to make an issue of itself. Morality is about praise and blame, and it cannot afford to fall silent because silence is abdication, and abdication is consent. The Republicans kept waiting for the morality of ordinary Americans to appear, and to give the presumptuous cad Clinton a mighty swipe. But they feared appealing to morality. Having taken the easy way out themselves, they should not be surprised that the American people did the same.
Today more than ever, many Republicans want to give Clinton a pass. They want to “put it all behind us.” The last thing the Republican establishment wants to do is to have to discuss morality, to have to appeal to morality, to have to explain why morality matters and what morality requires. In our age, oddly enough, appealing to morality is a fearful thing. But in politics the first of the virtues is courage.
It is a gross error to regard the November 3 elections as having been a referendum on whether Clinton should be impeached. The minor gains made by the Democrats were due to two principal factors: (1) conservative voters were disgusted with the inactivity of congressional Republicans, and especially with the Republican sell-out on the budget, and those voters stayed away from the polls in droves; and (2) the Democrats were ruthless and skillful in mobilizing selected voting blocs, area by area.
But other factors must also be remembered. Only 36 percent of the electorate voted, indicating that the voters are bored not just by the Clinton saga but by politics in general. Furthermore, this election, unlike the one in 1994—which was most exceptional—was not a national contest but a multitude of local elections turning on a multitude of issues and personalities. In Alabama, for instance, Republican Governor Fob James lost because one group of supporters, young voters, was seduced by his opponent’s promise of a lottery for college scholarships—something for nothing. But in the congressional elections, all incumbents, being mostly Republicans, were reelected.
Still—to turn to the editors’ second question—there can hardly be room to doubt that the nation has undergone a grave decline in its moral standards. Relativism and permissiveness have won; “sensitivity” toward the behavior of others, no matter how despicable, has won; the notion that self-esteem is more important than achievement has won.
Many reasons for the decline can be adduced, not least among them being the intrusiveness into our lives of the corruption that pervades Washington. Earlier, the Grant and Harding administrations were corrupt, but the scandals had virtually no impact upon society; the federal government had nothing to do, for example, with the way parents raised their children. Now, by contrast, the government pokes its nose into everything, including standards of morality. To cite but one kind of instance, the Catholic church’s charities and the Salvation Army, which have been traditional carriers of religion and morality as well as of succor, now refrain from espousing religion and morality, lest they lose their government funding.
It is federal money that corrupts: take their money and they own you. Most people probably know this but are willing to take the money anyway. I once heard Frank Sinatra say on a talk show that it was easy enough to get along with the Mafia. “Just don’t ever let them do you a favor.” The same advice applies to the federal government.
Nevertheless, despite the general moral decline, I would insist that there is no widespread neo-Puritan impulse among conservatives. It is leftists, not conservatives, who are Puritans, who want to make people over in accordance with their views—in myriad ways, ranging from stamping out smoking to imposing correct thought; and that has been true since Rousseau. They constitute the most serious threat to our cherished freedoms.
Conservatives, by contrast, believe that every individual is responsible for the consequences of his conduct, and therefore they believe in a maximum of individual freedom. No conservative I know, for example, wants to outlaw any forms of sexual behavior, except to protect children; but every conservative I know recognizes that the consequences of various kinds of sexual behavior can be costly indeed, as witness the widespread incidence of sexually-transmitted diseases, illegitimacy, and broken homes.
As for the broader issue of the current state of conservatism in America, I have mixed feelings that have nothing to do with such minor blips on the horizon as congressional elections. On the one hand, I believe that the vast majority of mainstream Americans of whatever racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds share a hard core of conservative values in the sense in which Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk would define these terms. On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about the large and growing number of unassimilated and perhaps unassimilable young people in our midst. I am afraid that our nongovernmental institutions may not be up to the task of overcoming that problem. If government takes it on, under the direction of either liberals or conservatives, heaven help us.
Walter A. McDougall
Singing of “old lady judges” who watch “people in pairs” and push “fake morals,” Bob Dylan, in 1965, judged obscenity a non-issue (“who really cares?”) and summarily declared: “Propaganda, all is phony.” Thus did baby boomers in general nurse their outrage upon learning (or being instructed) that the trinity of our American civic religion—Superman’s “truth, justice, and the American way”—was a fraud. Professing to be disillusioned by the discovery that, in matters of race, religion, sex, drugs, alcohol, business, and foreign relations, the real American way amounted to cant, they proclaimed themselves “Supermen” in the Nietzschean sense and decreed a transvaluation of values.
From the 1960’s on, what used to be regarded as vices were hailed as positive goods, and what used to be thought of as healthy—patriotism, marriage, work, self-reliance, and discipline—were Bastilles to be stormed and dismantled. According to the ethic of “do your own thing,” “don’t be judgmental,” “get off my case,” “don’t lay a guilt trip on me,” “self-actualize,” and “I’m OK, you’re OK,” the only sin baby boomers came to recognize was hypocrisy itself. That is why Gary Hart (nailed as a hypocrite) went down in flames but Bill Clinton lives on (since he ‘fessed up, albeit belatedly). That is why apostate religious leaders are applauded for expressing their “honest” doubts, while orthodox clergy are said to sow hatred. And that is why militant gays have taken to “outing” their closeted comrades.
The predicable result of this antinomian crusade has been a collapse of public morale. For any nation one-fourth of whose next generation is aborted and another third is born out of wedlock, two out of five of whose marriages fail, and two out of three of whose voters shun the polls is profoundly demoralized. Our political lassitude is only a symptom of this, and of how few Americans believe that their politicians are either able or willing to address the problems besetting us. Were the 1998 election returns the sign of a liberal resurgence, a backlash against the Republican Right, a vote of confidence in Clinton? They were none of the above, as demonstrated by the low turnout, the survival of the Republican majority, and exit polls indicating that two-thirds of voters had no interest in rendering a verdict on Clinton. I cannot speak for ethnic minorities, but white baby boomers by and large want neither to celebrate this President nor to impeach him—for whatever they do to him, they do to themselves.
In the middle run, the returns of 1998 could not have been much better for Republicans. The “six-year” yardstick should not be applied because the landslide of 1994 skewed the political cycle, while continued peace and prosperity (and the people’s unspoken worry about their fragility) indicated a status-quo outcome. To use a Wall Street analogy, the Republican bull market suffered a mild correction on a low volume of trading. If anything, the loss of a few seats—and of the “hypocritical” Newt Gingrich, anathematized by the media for having chased from office former Speaker Jim Wright—can only energize the Republican party to rally and focus and run scared again. The alternative result—a larger Republican majority virtually obliged to impeach—would have turned all Democrats not named Bill Clinton into persecuted underdogs during the run-up to November 2000.
In the long term, however, the state of the union is perilous. For if Clinton completes two full terms despite abuses of power whose scale and motives, in my opinion, dwarf those of Richard Nixon, then the baby boom’s transvaluation of values will have received the masses’ stamp of approval, and the “everyone-does-it” defense, combined with O.J. Simpson’s “they’re-just-out-to-get-me” defense, will reify the boomers’ initial indictment: that, in effect, “the American way” has nothing to do with truth and justice. That is why the Republicans had to vote to impeach, in spite of the political price they might pay, because the soul of the Democratic party as well as their own is at stake.
“Cynicism,” wrote the Cambridge historian F. M. Cornford, “is the besetting and venial fault of declining youth, and disillusionment its last illusion.” It is high time we fifty-somethings quit waving the bloody shirts of civil rights and the Vietnam war and admit that our own war on hypocrisy was itself hypocritical, that our precious disillusionment was a pose, and that today the danger from “neo-Puritan zeal” is more pronounced on the politically-correct Left than on the religious Right.
Writing about the “habits of restraint” that checked the “imagination of the Americans, even in its greatest flights,” Tocqueville observed, hopefully:
Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants. Thus, while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash and unjust.
Today it is conservatives who hold that private restraint must somehow be restored if American liberty is to survive. It is the transvalued Left, intolerant (as it says) of naught but intolerance, that lusts after power to control the behavior and even the thoughts of citizens. No slogan more potentially totalitarian has ever dogged a democracy than “the personal is political.”
Life, holds the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, is a journey “from confident inexperience through the bitterness of experience toward the rueful wisdom of self-knowledge.” Now that the baby boomers are aging, will they usher in a politics of rueful self-knowledge? Or will they engage in the same sort of generational cover-up they once attributed to their parents and have used to justify all manner of mischief? If the latter, then the older generation will again have failed to play its proper role as mentor and model, our youth will despise or ignore what passes for politics, and our imperial presidency will shift from its present canter to a gallop.
Or, as a much-wizened Bob Dylan warned in 1998, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”
Richard John Neuhaus
Who would have thought it? After the Reagan “revolution” and the congressional triumph of 1994, the GOP leadership, so to speak, seems to be following the New York Times definition of the political mainstream. Conservative “moderates” bask in the warm approval of the paper’s editors, who are filled with good ideas for the future of conservatism.
But for those who are somewhat removed from the political battles, the Republicans offer a bemusing spectacle. With Bob Dole in 1996 and again in the elections of 1998, hubris counseled that the choice was so obvious, there was no need to make the case. The whine arose, “Where is the outrage?” and the American people were faulted for not recognizing the self-evident superiority of the good guys. We may be witnessing, among some Republicans, the emergence of a new “blame-America-first” crowd.
There is much portentous talk about what has gone wrong with the “American character.” My hunch is that such talk is, for the most part, self-serving blather. From Crèvecoeur and Tocqueville up to the present moment, the American character is marked much more by continuity than by discontinuity. So why, faced with the Clinton squalor, did the people not want to throw the rascal out—or, more precisely, put the other rascals in? Because, being sensible, they are half-attentive to politics; because they are repulsed by what was successfully depicted as a partisan exploitation of the scatological; because they have learned in church that you should judge not lest you be judged, and have confused that with being “non-judgmental”; because otherwise things seemed to be going well; and because the little-boy President acted so very contrite, and many think him a likable rogue, although they certainly do not want their children to be like him. Anyway, the connection between despising Clinton and electing Republicans to Congress is still another thing that is not self-evident.
I am a little surprised by the utter shamelessness of the Democrats and their media allies in asserting that the President is above the law. But of course, they say, these are very little laws, and the whole thing is, after all, about sex. We all know that “everybody” does it. Would you have impeached Jefferson? And so forth. Most striking was the readiness of political feminists to stand by their man, even if it meant their movement had to commit hara-kiri. From barefoot in the kitchen to on your knees at the office, you’ve come a long way, baby. It was not for love of Clinton that feminists were prepared to make the sacrifice, however, but for fear of what his opponents might do to “reproductive rights.” This demonstrates once again that abortion is the unevadable question in our political culture—although, to be sure, Clinton’s opponents are mostly doing their best to evade it.
The risible canard that conservatism is oppressively Puritanical is an invention of the Times editors on West 43rd Street. (It is also an ignorant slander of the Puritans.) Writing in their Sunday magazine, Andrew Sullivan says First Things is “the spiritual nerve center of the new conservatism,” and the really shocking thing about this new conservatism is that it is challenging what he calls the “post-1960’s settlement” on culture and morality, with specific reference to the acceptance of the homosexual movement, of which Sullivan is a leading advocate.
That pseudo-settlement—with the license to unlimited abortion as its crucial clause—has unsettled American public life for three decades. Popular dissent from it was the necessary condition for the conservative ascendancy and the majority status of the Republican party. That some conservatives are, at this late date, prepared to sign on to the settlement reflects a boundless desire for a respectability that is in the exclusive gift of their implacable foes. They will finally be honored with the title of “moderate,” even if it appears in their political obituary.
What is needed for the future is persuasive argument for the causes that have or can gain the support of a politically effective majority of the electorate. This is sometimes known as leadership. Looking to 2000, Steve Forbes has shown that he is ready and able to make such arguments. I think George W. Bush holds great promise, if he does not try to evade the above-mentioned unevadable. And there may be others. In both tone and substance, these causes can and should be presented in terms of principle, fairness, and human caring.
A partial list of such causes includes: parental choice in education; dramatic tax reduction for working families and owners of small businesses, joined to a frontal challenge to the IRS; an effective check on the judicial usurpation of politics; more ambitious moves to replace statist welfarism with voluntarism, including faith-based agencies; putting health-care money into the hands of consumers; prudent measures to protect the nation against missile attack and terrorism.
But there will be no “morning in America” without addressing the question of who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility, which is what the abortion dispute is about. Among pro-life leaders there is unanimous agreement on the goal: every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. There is almost unanimous agreement that the goal will never be achieved fully, but we must work toward it step by step. For 30 years I have studied the survey research, and the fact is that 75 percent of the American people say that abortion should not be permitted for the reasons that 95 percent of abortions are obtained.
That so few leaders are ready or able to give politically effective expression to such overwhelming sentiment is a continuing astonishment. That so many conservatives are intimidated by the claim that it is “extremist” to challenge the moral and legal right to kill unborn children at any time for any reason gives continuing and mostly undeserved credibility to the charge that conservatism is the party not only of the stupid but of the craven.
In the November elections, Republicans actually garnered more votes and more seats than Democrats. But in opposing impeachment and giving high marks to Bill Clinton as President (although not as a man of character), the electorate showed itself to be far out of tune with the large majority of the House that in early October had asked the Judiciary Committee to open an impeachment inquiry. Whether popular or not, however, this issue is important to the well-being of the whole people. It is especially important for minorities, since yielding to majority feelings outside the law is always a dire threat.
What, then, is at stake? The President of the United States takes a solemn oath, before the entire nation and before an Undeceivable Judge, that he will “faithfully execute the laws of the United States.” These laws classify perjury as a felony. Because of false testimony concerning an adulterous entanglement, for instance, Henry Cisneros was obliged to quit as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in President Clinton’s cabinet and to stand trial.
Beyond his own multiple perjuries, one of the worst offenses of President Clinton, to my mind, lay in abetting a twenty-three-year-old woman in the act of perjuring herself regarding their relationship. Further, in a deposition before a federal judge, the President brazenly vouched for the “veracity” of her false testimony. (His personal lawyer has formally apologized to the judge for unwittingly being conscripted into that lie.) To treat a young lover in this way—to make her liable to criminal penalties for perjury in a federal court—is caddish and dishonorable behavior. In a President, the act is also a high crime and misdemeanor, both in itself and in its consequences for due process of law throughout the nation. If perjury is disqualifying for a cabinet officer, is it not more so for the head of the cabinet?
A man of honor would have resigned his office in January 1998, to spare the nation the need to dig out the whole squalid truth. Instead, admitting nothing, lying with bold and reckless disregard, the President forced the nation to uncover inch by inch the acts by which he had behaved like a teenage adulterer, committed perjury many times, and implicated his closest associates and his entire administration in a cover-up. At last found out, he then dared the nation to impeach him. In addition, he unleashed an “attack machine” of such unprecedented ferocity in its ability to destroy the reputation of individual citizens that he gave new meaning to the word “bully” in “bully pulpit.”
If Clinton were a Republican, he would have been impeached enthusiastically. As it is, I will never again find it possible to take seriously professions of respect for the rule of law on the part of Clinton Democrats—as represented, for example, on the House Judiciary Committee. I also believe that the extent to which the Clinton Left has become the party of hate, vituperation, and race-baiting will not long go unnoticed by the American electorate. The names of James Carville, Barney Frank, and Maxine Waters will one day live in infamy; the de-moralizing leader of the lot is the President they have served.
As for the moral state of the American people in general, we know from polls that Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of the President’s behavior. But one great and disturbing difference shows up between whites and blacks, the latter of whom seem to exhibit much moral empathy for Clinton. Moreover, conversations in many parts of the nation have persuaded me that more white Americans than I would have thought have also adopted a permissive sexual ethic. Such persons defend Clinton with, “It’s his private life.” When I ask them, “Did you say the same thing in the case of Anita Hill’s charges against Clarence Thomas, or in the cases of Senators Tower and Packwood?,” they are invariably silent. Building up a strong moral ethos in a nation is the work of generations. Moral tides, when they go out, ebb swiftly.
My sense is that the public is moving like a river formed by two currents that, even as they flow forward, increasingly repel each other toward opposite banks. Those who think that freedom means doing whatever one wants cannot tolerate those who think that freedom means doing what one ought, bound by laws of nature and nature’s God. The latter can tolerate but cannot follow the former’s lead, and will not say there are no standards.
Does the latter position amount to “neo-Puritanism,” the Left’s new demon? The hysteria on this subject may be due to something as simple as bad faith. Not content with the virtually universal tolerance that characterizes present-day America, the Left now insists on forcing everyone to vocalize moral approval for its own bizarre agenda. To see today’s collectivizing, intolerant, and self-indulgent Left at work, one need only visit a university campus. Where there is no ideal of truth, there is only conformity. To such a Left, “Confirm thy soul in self-control” may sound like neo-Puritanism. But it was once the essence of the liberal idea.
As for conservatives, the cause of self-government—both in private life and in public life—is still a Rock of Gibraltar. I hesitate to speak of “conservatives,” because those who belong to the party of liberty—cultural, political, and economic—have hold of a dynamic principle, the raw energy that drives forward history itself, and are enjoined to prepare for the future as well as to cherish the past. In addition, all the survey data I have seen suggest that, in sexual love, those of religious and “conservative” views actually have more fun than others; for them, at least, sexual acts are fraught with meaning.
Once we have taken on board the sad experiences of the 20th century, two great questions remain: What does self-government mean in public life? What does it mean in private life? Surely, these two questions are politically related. The nation’s founders thought so.
Assuming that the last election was in fact a referendum on Clinton, I am strongly tempted to describe it as the latest indication that we are now living in a culture in which anyone can get away with anything. Having discovered, in our criminal-justice system, that an O.J. Simpson can get away with murder, we now see in the political realm that a Bill Clinton can, without being punished by the electorate, commit perjury and violate the laws against sexual harassment that he himself has supported. And correlatively, in case we were so obtuse as not to notice it before, we have learned from the way Monica Lewinsky has been treated that a young woman no longer need fear being condemned for committing sexual acts whose exposure would only yesterday have caused her unbearable humiliation and shame. (But this is putting it too gently: even the grand jury before which she recanted the lies she had earlier told in a deposition about her relations with the President went out of its way to express sympathy for her and wish her well.)
Yet no sooner do I see myself giving vent to such judgments than a thousand qualifications rise up before my eyes and I begin drawing away from a summary so unmodulated and so lacking in nuance. Obviously, plenty of people do not get away with murder. And since about 115 poor saps are currently sitting in prison for doing exactly what Bill Clinton did in testifying before a federal jury, while countless other men who had uncoerced sex with subordinates in the workplace have been summarily fired, it is equally obvious that not everyone gets away with lying under oath or violating the laws against sexual harassment. Finally, from what I hear, the word “slut” is still being freely hurled at girls like Monica Lewinsky by both sexes even in the most “sophisticated” high schools of the land.
I might also add that in some sense neither O.J. Simpson nor Bill Clinton nor Monica Lewinsky has gone scot-free. Moving down the ladder of criminal and/or moral seriousness, Simpson has been punished through a civil suit and turned into a pariah. Clinton has been put through a legal and financial wringer, and, whether or not he finishes out his term in office, he has already besmirched the “legacy” and the historical record about which he is evidently so concerned and has simultaneously undermined his own presidential powers. And, at the lowest rung, Monica Lewinsky too has paid a price in notoriety for which she will not easily be compensated, especially as the deal she reportedly made for her inevitable tell-all book turned out to be far less lucrative than she had hoped.
So where does this leave us? Well, at the very least, there remains not a shadow of a doubt that standards so recently prevalent in the three areas I have singled out—the criminal-justice system, the political world, and the sexual arena—have drastically declined. Of course, many Americans out there consider such changes a sign of great progress: more maturity, more tolerance, less repression, more freedom, etc., etc. But there are also many who regard these same changes as confirmation that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was even more on target than they may originally have thought when he spoke of “defining deviancy down.” The great social question is how to determine the balance of power between these two opposing groups, whom I like to call the liberationists and the traditionalists.
Some of my closest friends in the same traditionalist camp of which I am a member believe that the last election definitely confirmed what the polls had already led them despairingly to suspect: that the liberationists have won, and that the various cultural viruses let loose in the 60’s have by now infected the American people as a whole. I resist this conclusion. My own view is that the two armies waging the “culture war” not only have been fighting each other but have also been engaged in a kind of tacit negotiation through which accommodations are being reached.
To illustrate, let me restrict myself to the political realm and perform a “thought experiment” by eliminating from consideration the sexual and other scandals in which the Clinton administration has been embroiled, and let me focus instead entirely on what he has done to the Democratic party. The result of this experiment is to make it clear that (admittedly after a shaky two-year start) Clinton has accomplished what some of us spent so many years clamoring for: he has de-McGovernized the Democrats and pushed them toward the Center. (I should stress that I am talking only about domestic affairs: in foreign policy, McGovernite language may have been purged from the speeches of the President and his people, but the McGovernite dybbuk remains to be exorcised from the actions they have taken or have been reflexively inhibited from taking.)
I would even go so far as to claim that this move to the Center is one of the main reasons the Democrats did better in the last election, and the Republicans less well, than everyone had anticipated. Yes, the state of the economy was a major factor. Yet even there, it is worth noting that Clinton shed the anti-business bias that was a principal element of McGovernism by keeping Alan Greenspan on as chairman of the Federal Reserve and appointing Robert Rubin as Secretary of the Treasury. Think also of the new harder line taken by Clinton and other Democrats on issues like welfare and crime, and the rhetorical bows they all feel forced to make in the direction of “family values” and religion. Of course Clinton himself is being hypocritical when he does this, but hypocrisy is still the tribute vice pays to virtue, and therefore is a form of affirming the validity of virtue even while failing to practice it.
In this connection, I want to stress that though there certainly are a number of conservatives who might be characterized as driven by “a neo-Puritan zeal,” it is simply absurd to suggest that this condition has extended to conservatism in general or to conservative intellectuals in particular (never mind the Republican party!). Many of us, to begin with, oppose the laws against sexual harassment and deplore the fact that some conservatives, in their eagerness to unseat Clinton, have stepped in to defend those laws just when their liberal and feminist progenitors—in their eagerness to defend Clinton—have brazenly been pretending that this was not what they meant at all.
Many of us conservatives have also lived through enough to understand the moral complexities of the sexual life, thank you. But we also understand that no society—not even this one—is made up of isolated individuals. From which it follows that there is no such thing as a purely private act where sex is concerned; spouses, children, and the society at large are inevitably unwitting partners and potential victims, or, in the best of circumstances, beneficiaries. We are therefore still struggling with the problem of how to reconcile the newly expanded zone of toleration in which all Americans—the vast majority of conservatives willy-nilly included—now live with our repudiation of moral relativism and our conviction that one need not be either a theologian or a rocket scientist to tell the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. As part of this ongoing struggle, we are still trying to figure out how best to discharge our citizenly duty to encourage what is right and good and to discourage what is wrong and evil.
I think Clinton deserves to be removed from office, but it now seems highly unlikely that he will be, and this failure is bound to exact moral and political costs of indeterminate size. But so far as I am concerned, there are silver linings in this dark cloud. One is that the wretched law which established the Office of Independent Counsel—a law Clinton himself prevented from expiring when he had a chance to do so—may at long last be abrogated now that the Democrats have discovered (I daresay to their self-righteous astonishment) that it can be used against them as well as against Republicans. With it into the trash heap of American history will go, if we are lucky, the banana-republic habit we have developed of conducting political battles through investigations instead of through arguments, and through criminalizing opponents instead of working to beat them at the polls.
On the whole I would say that liberalism is not doing so well in the moral/cultural realm as many who look only at the surface have persuaded themselves, and that conservatism, for all the Republican hand-wringing and the Democratic crowing over the election, is still not doing so badly in the political realm. In any event, the accommodations to which I referred above mean that both sides win some and lose some, and that neither side is going to get everything it wants. Not, that is, unless we have another actual civil war, and—thank God—no such calamity seems to be in the offing.
James Q. Wilson
Those who distrust Bill Clinton may not like it, but the American people in 1998 voted as they usually do: when times are good, they support the incumbents, especially those of the President’s party. The economy is strong—low unemployment, little inflation, and (as of late November) a still-robust stock market. Crime rates are down sharply, and people, though still concerned about crime, no longer assign overriding importance to it. The country is at peace.
In these circumstances, it would have been astonishing if the incumbents had not done well. People who thought the economy was faring poorly tended to vote Republican in 1998, just as they had in 1994. But there were far fewer such people this time around—45 percent fewer—than there were four years ago, a shift that greatly aided the Democrats. And so, for the first time in decades, the President’s party gained House seats during an off-year election.
Even more impressive was the extent to which voters told interviewers that the problems of President Clinton and the looming impeachment hearings played no role in their voting decision. This has troubled many observers, and for good reason. When the Lewinsky story first surfaced, most Americans said they felt the President’s sex life was a private matter unless and until it could be shown that he had committed perjury or obstructed justice; if that happened, he should be impeached. After the Starr report appeared and after the November elections, the great majority—over four out of five—thought he had lied under oath and most thought he had tried to obstruct justice. But now it no longer mattered. They voted for his party, they thought he was doing a good job, and they opposed impeachment.
There are four ways to think about this puzzle. One is to say that many voters have sold out their morality in exchange for fat wallets and low inflation: good times produce lax judgments. The second is to believe that lying about adultery is less important than lying about whatever voters may think is more important. The third is to accept that many Americans do not care very much about politics: the President is dishonest, but his actions do not affect me enough to make me think it worth the country’s while to judge him. The fourth is to believe that for the voters, a kind of political statute of limitations has expired: the President is a liar, but we have spent enough time on this and should get on to more important things.
The first view is probably true of some people, though they would not phrase it as I have done. To them, Clinton’s public good deeds (whatever they are) justify his private misdeeds. Some probably have convinced themselves that he has done nothing really wrong. One-third of the voters today think that the President is not only a good President but a good person. As a social scientist I recognize the human tendency to make the world seem rational by denying anything inconsistent with your prior convictions. As an ordinary person I deplore it.
The second view is a variant of the first. As David Gelernter has pointed out in the Weekly Standard, many no longer take adultery very seriously. Perhaps the President made a mistake with Monica Lewinsky, but that kind of mistake ought not to count for very much. Lying about it is expected—we all do it—and lying about it under oath is not as bad as lying about the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. What this view ignores is that there are people in prison today for having committed perjury about seemingly small matters. Persons holding this view, therefore, have used their indifference toward adultery to grant to a celebrity a license that is denied to ordinary people.
I do not know how many people hold the third view—that government may be important in some ways, but it is not important to them personally. The numbers cannot be trivial, to judge from the high proportion of citizens who rarely vote. We may worry that this “apathy” is unhealthy, but we must admit that the opposite case—one in which everybody thinks politics is very important—is also unhealthy. Surely we do not want to be faced with a choice between the political equivalents of teenagers in a shopping mall and angry activists at a protest meeting.
The fourth view—the President is a jerk, but we have spent enough time on this and the government ought to get on with more important things—is, I suspect, the most telling one. Reinforcing it all along has been the absence of compelling, visible confirmation of the extent of the President’s perjury and the degree to which he obstructed justice. When Richard Nixon was accused of covering up his aides’ role in the Watergate break-in, public opinion did not turn against him until incontrovertible evidence—the testimony of John Dean and the release of the White House tapes—made the President’s involvement in obstructing justice entirely clear. Little evidence of this kind has been presented against Clinton.
The Starr report alleges—plausibly, in my opinion—that Clinton did attempt to obstruct justice, but to accept that finding one must first study the report carefully or listen closely to Starr’s congressional testimony. I have read the report and listened to Starr’s testimony and I think he is reasonable, and so I believe Clinton has acted wrongly. But not many Americans have done this, and the press, aided by Clinton’s staff, went to great lengths to make Starr seem like an obsessive, out-of-control Puritan with a deep grudge. In the face of this, and without an authoritative witness to testify in widely televised hearings, Clinton’s survival seemed assured.
The problem with the fourth view is that it treats the President as legally more worthy of deference than is the ordinary citizen. Whether it is about sex or anything else, ordinary people are often punished for perjury, even in civil cases. Many of them are now behind bars, sent there by judges who do not, by and large, read opinion polls about the accused. The President can only be punished by Congress, and Congress is manifestly driven by opinion polls.
People now in prison for perjury may wonder why they have been treated so harshly when a man often described as the chief law-enforcement officer of the country is treated so generously. Would another law-enforcement officer—a sheriff or a police chief—be treated so well? Was Richard Nixon? I think not.
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Clinton, the Country, and the Political Culture
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.