Forgive and Forget

It's no wonder scandals don't stick. Politics today isn't about who's got the best ideas -- but who's got the best excuses.

Published January 27, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

according to the most devout conspiracy theorists, the easiest way to find out who is responsible for a particular nefarious act is to ask the question: "Who gains from it?" By this logic, the person responsible for the range of accusations now arrayed against Bill Clinton -- from Paula Jones' charges of sexual harassment to the murky mess of the various fundraising irregularities -- must be none other than ... Bill Clinton himself. Or so a conspiracy theorist might conclude from a series of recent articles arguing that the various Clinton scandals have served, in a deliciously ironic twist, to bolster Clinton's own political fortunes.

In a remarkable essay in the January 27 Weekly Standard, David Brock takes aim at "my scandalmongering problem, and ours." Brock, whose "Real Anita Hill" ushered in the contemporary era of scandal politics, now finds scandals distasteful -- and scandalmongering a futile and ineffective way to get at political opponents. According to Brock, conservatives have "undermined and trivialized" the case against Clinton by peddling "indiscriminate and sometimes patently absurd allegations that delegitimize and discredit more serious charges."

Indeed, Brock goes on to suggest, the current wave of scandalmongering seems to have helped Clinton more than it has hurt him. The president's "questionable character" may actually be a "net plus" for him, allowing him to play "the role of a wayward child who does wrong, then bites his lip and asks for forgiveness." The promotion, by overzealous right-wingers, of "unfounded and irresponsible stories has been a tremendous boon to White House damage-control efforts." With new accusations appearing in the press and on the Internet every other day, no one can distinguish serious scandals from frivolous accusations, and Clinton can dismiss them all as partisan sniping.

Meanwhile, New Republic media critic William Powers offers a similar theory to explain Clinton's ability to brush off one accusation after another. In his "Media Rex" column in the February 3 issue of the magazine, Powers argues that "the White House needs conspiracy nuts as much as the nuts need Clinton. By putting the far-out stories beside the more credible ones and suggesting equivalency, the president's defenders sow doubt in the media about the validity of the stories the administration is really worried about -- the ones based in fact."

It's easy enough to dismiss the bearers of this particular bit of news. In The New York Times, Frank Rich pointed out the obvious irony in Brock's Weekly Standard piece: Here was the consummate scandalmonger decrying the very thing that had brought him prominence in the first place. "For him now to lecture others about abject scandalmongering is akin to a drug lord imploring junkies to 'just say no,'" Rich sniffed. One could point out a similar inconsistency in Powers' argument. Not quite two months ago, Powers was arguing that Clinton had benefited from a media that was intensely "scandal shy." Contrary to all outward appearances, Powers suggested, the mainstream media was in fact unwilling to "focus intense, sustained attention on the stories that could have been most threatening to the president's chances of re-election." Now that the media is focusing "intense, sustained attention" on these very stories, without notable effect on Clinton's approval ratings, Powers has changed his tune.

Still, Brock and Powers have a point. While it's doubtful that slippery Clinton aides cruise the Net at night, deliberately spreading misinformation about Vince Foster in to rile up the right-wing kooks, it's arguable that the current glut of scandal stories has left the American public distrustful of nearly any accusation, however valid it might be. As scandal expert Suzanne Garment noted recently in the Los Angeles Times, "years of incessant finger-pointing" have made it "impossible [for] people [to] understand the differences between trivial and serious offenses. Almost no matter what abuses are disinterred, a chorus will be on hand insisting, 'both sides do it.'"

The current scandal vogue is often described as the result of partisan ideological bickering. Partisan it surely is, but ideological it isn't. Scandalmongering is the lowest form of politics, the last resort of those too afraid or too unimaginative to challenge their opponents' politics directly. If you don't have the issues on your side, you bring up your opponent's "character." In America, scandals have come to replace real politics.

The cynics are right: Both sides do indeed do it. Lacking the courage to forthrightly challenge Clarence Thomas on ideological grounds, liberals seized on Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment. The effort backfired then -- Thomas, you may recall, now sits on the court -- and similar efforts by conservatives today are also likely to backfire as well. Unable to directly challenge a president who has co-opted all their most popular issues, conservatives have talked endlessly about Clinton's "character" -- to little effect. Polls show that most Americans think Clinton is dishonest and unethical -- yet 60 percent of them also think he's doing a good job as president.

Democrats have no right to complain about the intensity of Republican scandalmongering. They sling mud with all the fervor of their Republican enemies; they're just not as good at it. Neither should Republicans complain about Clinton's remarkable ability to emerge from scandal after scandal with his popularity intact; he's merely following in the footsteps of another affable president with an invincible coat of Teflon, Ronald Reagan.

For all the outrage we show when scandals are initially excavated, we Americans are a pretty forgiving lot, ready to forget nearly any infraction so long as we can identify even a little with the wayward perp. "[A]s we need to be punished and then absolved of our guilt," Janet Malcolm wrote in "The Journalist and the Murderer," "so do we punish and then absolve those who actually do what we only dream of doing." America is a land of hucksters and would-be hucksters. How can we stay mad at those who've fallen into shady financial dealings that no one but powerful lawyers can even understand, or who've met in hotel rooms with women other than their wives? Oh, sure, we pretend we feel a certain indignation about it all -- but we're willing to accept any plausible excuse, so long as the transgressor is someone we basically like.

Similarly, we're willing to believe the worst about those we don't like. Americans don't hate Newt Gingrich for his ethics violations; they hate him for his narcissistic arrogance. Few Americans could tell you precisely what Newt has been reprimanded for; nearly all of them can recount how he shut down the government because he couldn't get a seat in the front of the plane.

Actual policy positions seem increasingly irrelevant to the conduct of American politics. Our ideal candidate today is not the one with the brightest ideas, the most stirring rhetoric, or the most powerful campaign organization -- but the one with the best excuses.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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