In a year of low points in Washington, the lowest may have come on the morning of the Saturday before Christmas. American missiles were pounding Iraq. The top Republican had been exposed as an adulterer and was slinking off the national stage. And the House of Representatives was about to impeach the President. In short: a mess. Tom DeLay, the hardest of the hardline Republicans, a Texan known on Capitol Hill as The Hammer, was so moved by the moment that his eyes brimmed with uncharacteristic tears and he waxed philosophical. The debate over what to do about Bill Clinton’s philandering and deception, he told the House, was not the partisan mudfight it appeared to be. Rather, “it was about honour and decency and integrity and the truth—everything that we honour in this country.” And not only that: “It is also a debate about relativism versus absolute truth.”
It was, perhaps, unusually abstract thinking for a man whose occupation before politics was as an exterminator.
But for many who have followed the twists and turns of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, DeLay had hit on something profound. It was a year ago this Thursday that the story broke across the front page of The Washington Post—turning Lewinsky, Linda Tripp and the rest of the sorry crew of
ment—turned into astonishing reality. Months before the scandal broke, the Christian Coalition was distributing Visualize impeachment” bumper stickers. Last week, there was no need for imagination: all 100 United States senators sat in silence as prosecutors from the House of Representatives methodically laid out the case for removing the errant President from office for covering up his affair with the White House intern.
The Lewinsky saga was a juicy tale, to be sure, but what did it all mean? The answer became clearer as the battle lines were drawn last year—conservatives lining up with independent counsel Kenneth Starr; liberals jumping to the defence of their libidinous President. Gradually a consensus emerged: this, the deep thinkers concluded, was the the latest round in the socalled culture war, the struggle over values and symbols that has rocked American society for three decades. Time and again, both sides evoked the pantheon of generational touchstones—Vietnam, Watergate and that most divisive decade, the 1960s. For liberals, it was about beating back an assault from the moralizing right, about defending tolerance against the Puritan streak that has ever run through American society. For conservatives, it was about affirming eternal values against an imagined Spirit of the Sixties, when all that was traditional and
scandal characters into national figures. What had once been the fantasy of hardened Clinm ton haters—impeach-
good was under siege. In DeLay s words, “relativism” was locked in mortal combat with “absolute truth.”
It is a tempting thesis—and it at least gave meaning to a year otherwise defined by the tawdry details of Bill and Monica’s sad little adventure. And there was ample evidence for it. When the impeachment battle was at its most bitter late last year, the divisions in the wider society were on full display to anyone sitting in the hearing room where members of the House judiciary committee went at each other. On one side were 21 Republicans—all white, all but one male, mostly buttoned-down, hair-in-place southern Christians. On the other sat 16 Democrats—five black; four women; most from the liberal northeast.
And listening to both sides provided plenty of fuel for the notion that the United States is still riven by the “culture wars.” For rightwingers, of course, Clinton has long been a symbol of everything they think went wrong in the Sixties—from antiwar protests to indulgence in recreational drugs and sex. For them, he will always be the slippery draft-dodger and truth-parser. Then, he managed to avoid Vietnam while denying he avoided the draft; he smoked marijuana but “didn’t inhale.” Now, he goes before a grand jury and fences with his accusers over the meaning of the words “alone” and “is.” He drives conservatives nuts—the way Richard Nixon provoked liberals to distraction. It wasn’t just his policies; his very essence offended them. David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, calls Clinton “our Nixon. Just as liberals knew that Nixon was bad, so we know in our bones that Clinton is bad. There is nothing honest about him.”
Other conservatives took up the theme as the Lewinsky scandal ground on last year. When Starr released his report in September, accusing Clinton of lying and obstructing justice, The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Starr was “not just prosecuting Bill Clinton; he was prosecuting the entire culture that gave birth to what Bill Clinton represents.” Robert Bork, the ultra-conservative jurist, suggested that convicting Clinton would help to “kill off the lax moral spirit of the Sixties.” Bork, author of the 1996 tome Slouching Towards Gomorrah, champions the view that America is in the thrall of a radical individualism that breeds what he calls “degeneracy”—the kind of furtive behaviour, presumably, that Clinton and Lewinsky so famously engaged in.
On the other side of the shouting match, liberals were just as eager to endorse the notion that they were engaged in a Bigger Cause. Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard University lawyer best-known for his part in the defence of O. J. Simpson, leapt to Clinton’s side with a book entitled Sexual McCarthyism. Starr’s pursuit of Clinton’s sexual misdeeds, he argued, was in the tradition of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used sexual investigations as part of his persecution of Communists and liberals in the early 1950s. Both men, he wrote, “investigated the private sexual behaviour of public figures in order to influence their public actions.”
Clinton’s most loyal defenders were found among feminists and black Democrats, who managed to compare his plight to those of persecuted minorities. Maxine Waters, a congresswoman from Los Angeles, evoked the memory of her “slave ancestors” as she argued that Clinton was being hounded by Republicans for pushing the old ideals of the 1960s and refusing to knuckle under to what she still called “the Establishment” “Bill Clinton is guilty of not being owned by the good ol’ southern boys, or the good
ol’ eastern Establishment,” she said as the House debated impeachment in December.
So it would seem the ground is clearly staked out: the impassioned rhetoric over impeachment is the latest instalment in a series of struggles over hot-button issues like abortion, civil rights, affirmative action, immigration and homosexuality. The problem is that for both sides, reality fails to fit the rhetoric. American liberals find themselves going to the wall for a President who is among the most conservative Democrats of modern times. Clinton, after all, has resurrected his party precisely by adopting Republican policies as his own, and has a track record in such areas as civil liberties that would draw outrage from the left if he belonged to the other party. In Sexual McCarthyism, even Dershowitz accuses Clinton of being “worse than Nixon” in curbing such freedoms—for example, by authorizing a wider-thanever use of wiretaps, eliminating nearly all legal appeals from death row and virtually abolishing due process in appeals against deportations under immigration law. And perhaps his most significant domestic policy move was the 1996 welfare reform bill—a measure bitterly opposed by liberals when Republicans proposed it
For conservatives, too, refighting the “culture wars” around Clinton brought only grief. William Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s former education secretary, has carved out a new career as fulltime decrier of American moral decline through such works as The Book of Virtues. He and other right-wingers spent last year waiting for voters to finally get it, to agree with them that Clinton was not only morally bankrupt but a lawbreaker as well. Of course, the voters never did. Clinton’s approval ratings only soared higher as proof piled up that he had lied and manipulated others to lie on his behalf. Bennett finally admitted that it was he who was “not in sync,” and sadly titled his latest lament The Death of Outrage. November’s midterm elections, in which Clinton’s Democrats actually picked up support, drove the final nail in the coffin of conservative self-confidence.
It may not be only that conservatives misread public opinion, although they did do that. The evidence of the past year suggests that much of the rhetoric surrounding the impeachment battle was way off base. Instead of lining up behind rival champions in an ongoing battle over values, the vast majority of Americans have moved on—leaving the cultural warriors to conduct a loud but lonely argument among themselves. After watching the laxness of the ’60s and 70s give way to the conservatism of the ’80s and early ’90s, Americans have found peace by agreeing on a synthesis of new and old values. Most agree there should be firm standards of right and wrong, but they temper that with a tolerance for those who fall short that owes much to the do-your-own-thing spirit of the 1960s.
Evidence for such a view can be found in an influential work by Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe that was published, coincidentally, just a few days before the Lewinsky scandal became public. Entitled One Nation, After All, it drew on extensive interviews with middle-class Americans, and concluded that the much-publicized culture wars engage only tiny elites while the vast majority of Americans have come in the late 1990s to share a broad consensus on social values. Americans, Wolfe wrote, “believe in the importance of leading a virtuous life but are reluctant to impose values they understand as virtuous for themselves on others.”
At the same time, Wolfe found, Americans reject “morality writ large”—pronouncements from big organizations such as government, political parties or the news media. ‘When government becomes involved in moral matters,” he wrote, “Americans are no longer sure they can trust it” That goes far to explain why the public was so cool to Starr’s investigation and so hostile to Republican efforts to eject Clinton from office. Not that they approve of his behaviour, or look to him as a model for their own fives. But they concluded months ago that if judgment is to be rendered on their President, it should not come from such unyielding folk. They prefer to judge him as a man in full, and hope to be judged that way themselves. □
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