Column

Why the Republicans hate Clinton's guts

They may not have been hip in the Sixties, but the GOP zealots are seeking the ultimate revenge of the nerds

Bob Levin February 8 1999
Column

Why the Republicans hate Clinton's guts

They may not have been hip in the Sixties, but the GOP zealots are seeking the ultimate revenge of the nerds

Bob Levin February 8 1999

Why the Republicans hate Clinton's guts

Column

They may not have been hip in the Sixties, but the GOP zealots are seeking the ultimate revenge of the nerds

Bob Levin

Somehow, all the talk of “history, history,” of “The Trial of the Century,” hasn’t quite done it. Nor has the sergeant-at-arms’ arcane “Hear ye, hear ye” or the great gravity and solemnity that descended on the Senate floor like dust on a textbook. We’ve all watched too much Seinfeld, too much Simpsons, too much Leno and Letterman. Irony is loose in the land, and no momentous mumbo-jumbo, however stirring to the history-obsessed, selfinflating senators, can quite silence the giggles, nervous ones though they may be. And, heck, if they wanted things solemn why did the Chief Justice sew racing stripes on his robes, and why did they lift that line from Andrew Johnson’s trial, “All persons are commanded to keep silent on pain of imprisonment”—which is lovely Monty Python material? No, there’s no escaping it: if history repeats itself, appearing, as Marx said, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” then surely we’ve arrived at the farce part.

Except, of course, it’s not really funny. Pathetic, tawdry, disgraceful, definitely sad—all that, yes, but not funny. And not necessary, for, as Americans keep saying, lying about sex may sink a man to the level of lowlifes but does not elevate him to a high constitutional criminal.

So why do it? Why take Clinton’s seamy little gropings with the office ditz and transform them into this grand, sorry, seemingly endless spectacle?

The Republicans have a ready answer—the pure, politically courageous pursuit of justice, etc.—and some of them may actually believe it. Joe McCarthy, after all, really did want to root out communists; the Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t like Salman Rushdie’s book. But, truth-and-justice lovers though they may be, the GOP zealots doubtless have more complicated motives than they profess. Like, it’s personal, it’s visceral: they simply hate Clinton’s guts. And here we must travel back in time, back to the notorious Sixties and early Seventies, for, as others have noted, the perplexing prosecution of William Jefferson Clinton can best be understood as the settling of old cultural scores.

Maybe you had to be there. But “culture wars” is more than just an abstract theory. There would be no impeachment without that son of a Texas preacher, Ken Starr, who wrote the (pornographic) Bible on it, and without the Southern right-wingers who rule the Republican party with the fervent support of Christian crusaders. To them, Clinton, this first son of the Sixties to reach the White House, is a counterculture caricature—draft-dodger, pot-smoker, fornicator—from the days of protest and Free Love and Flower Power. And beyond the buzzwords, beyond the current movie and ad soundtracks, the era’s reality was this: a gaping, wrenching divide in American society.

I went to college in a sturdy Midwest town, the heart of the heartland. Here, American flags flew ubiquitously from frame porches, Detroit-built cars bore “America, love it or leave it” bumper stickers and their owners proudly sported “Nixon’s the One” buttons—“He has that Christian look in his eye,” explained one Main Street stroller. Then there were the college kids, many of us longhaired, East Coast exports; those who wandered off-campus (or drove in our rusty VWs) were often stared at and pointed at, called hippies and Commies and worse. In turn, we viewed the shorn, hot-car-driving townies as some sort of throwbacks—anthropological curiosities—and only in hindsight is the awful elitist streak apparent, the divisions not just of generations and geography but of class. It was one thing to oppose the war, quite another to scorn the poor and blue-collar kids forced to fight it.

And then things changed. America fled Vietnam and straight heartland kids began smoking dope and sprouting hair. (“Why’re you gettin’ a damn haircut?” jeered one shaggy local, passing a barbershop where I sat preparing to enter the Real World of job hunting.) Nixon’s Watergate demise left the most pie-eyed patriots disillusioned (another Sixties word). Not even Ronald Reagan could turn back the clock. As governor of California, Reagan had said this on controlling campus unrest: “If it takes a bloodbath, then lefls get it over with.” As president (or an actor who played one on TV), he conjured up America as a “shining house on a hill” while decrying the Sixties as a time of excess and immorality—a bad time that did bad things to his beloved country.

Now we have Bill Clinton, the living proof, and they want him gone. Oh, they may not have been hip in the Sixties, but these Republicans have launched the ultimate revenge of the nerds. You heard it in their questioning of his mid-impeachment Iraq attack, the knee-jerk assertion that a man who avoided the armed forces has no business commanding them. And you hear it in “the rule of law,” a phrase they wield like a billy club and which, come to think of it, sounds a bit like Nixon’s “law and order.”

Except justice is not supposed to be a blunt instrument. It’s supposed to be a blindfolded woman carrying scales, weighing whether the punishment fits the crime. And most Americans—who are not rabid Clinton-haters, who know real life is messy and of course politicians lie (more Sixties lessons)—are less distressed by a slimy president than by a prurient prosecutor and congressional morality cops. They also know that Clinton, the ambitious, calculating kid who sought to maintain his “political viability” even as he dodged the draft, doesn’t embody the Sixties any more than Charles Manson or Tiny Tim do.

But never mind, there’s no stopping it now. Hear ye, hear ye: the terribly serious, historically monumental trial of Slick Willy and his Sixties ways is still in session. Here come da judge.