The politics of paranoia

Published September 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting? ... This must be the product of a great conspiracy."

Those words might have been spoken on the Capitol lawn by one of those camera-hungry Republican members of Congress after the broadcast of President Clinton's grand jury testimony; or by House Whip Tom DeLay last week when he called on the FBI to investigative Salon's exposi of Henry Hyde's extramarital affair. The same words also might have been uttered at some recent staff meeting of the Office of Independent Counsel, with the frustrated prosecutors trying to parse the president's presumed perfidies.

But those sentences were actually declaimed in 1951 by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who claimed (falsely, as it turned out) to possess proof of widespread Communist subversion in the State Department. McCarthy's Cold War "great conspiracy" speech stands as the high-water mark of an outburst of national insanity that scarred the political landscape for years.

President Clinton, heaven knows, is no Red Scare blacklist victim; but the unremitting moral zeal on display in the president's broadcast grand jury interrogation, the preposterous logic of Kenneth Starr's "Referral to the United States House of Representatives" and the stampeding, irrational emotions that now grip Washington bear alarming comparison to the nation's cyclical witch hunts and outbreaks of paranoid persecution.

It's no exaggeration to say that normal, rational political calculus and process of law has utterly broken down. Consider: The Gingrich majority in Congress, which stands to gain nothing from disposing of a weakened President Clinton, seems nonetheless hell-bent on impeachment hearings, ignoring pleas for sanity from distinguished Republican lawyers like Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh and former Nixon Attorney General Elliot Richardson.

Monday, in defiance of the most minimal standards of responsible inquiry and due process, the House Judiciary Committee published reams of raw, uncorroborated grand jury records and investigative files. (Everyone in Washington seems to have forgotten that in 1991, when a single raw FBI report on Clarence Thomas bearing the name of Anita Hill found its way to the press, those same congressional Republicans went on an enraged leak-hunt.)

House Judiciary Chairman Hyde, who a few weeks ago was still discussing the very high standard of wrongdoing needed for impeachment, now leads the impeachment-hearing juggernaut; Gingrich and DeLay threaten Salon and other publications; while honorable Republican moderates like campaign finance reformer Christopher Shays stand silent.

At the root of all this is the Starr team's unshakable conviction -- evident both in the impeachment report and the interrogation of President Clinton -- that while conventional evidence for obstruction of justice by President Clinton doesn't actually exist, it must be so, for only a deliberate, organized effort by the president could explain how Clinton and Monica Lewinsky both decided to lie in their Paula Jones depositions last year.

As a matter of law, this argument doesn't make much sense. Banished for all time is Starr's image as a scholarly, careful, precedent-honoring conservative jurist, respected even by his philosophical adversaries. The Judge Starr of the impeachment report embraces unprecedented legal arguments in unashamed advocacy of presidential impeachment, supported by a wealth of sexual detail and balletic leaps in logic.

Media coverage has focused on Lewinsky's explicit descriptions of her sexual encounters with the president, and on Clinton's resistance to taking his testimony down that road. But it is the 11 "possible grounds for impeachment" with which Starr closes his brief that most reveal the independent counsel's mind-set. Starr claims that Clinton perjured himself in that grand jury testimony, which Republican leaders have seized on as a far more serious criminal charge than misleading or evasive testimony in the dismissed Jones civil suit.

Yet the only "evidence" of grand jury perjury offered by Starr is the contradiction between two lovers' descriptions of their encounters: Clinton, in the testimony broadcast Monday, maintains he didn't touch Lewinsky's breasts "with an intent to arouse," while she says he did. Starr's report says it "strains credulity" to think that the president would have settled for simply being serviced by his lover -- but somehow the strained Victorian credulity of Judge Starr hardly seems secure evidence of perjury.

Starr's report calls it "obstruction of justice" when the president challenged his grand jury subpoenas in court, and when secret service agents (backed up by former President George Bush, among others) sought exemption from testifying. And in the interrogation of Clinton, Starr prosecutor Robert Bittman suggested it amounted to obstruction of justice when the president answered only the questions put to him by Jones' lawyers rather than offering his antagonists additional information. By making impeachable offenses out of legal appeals or careful responses to a lawyer's queries, Starr proposes nothing less than criminalizing the most ordinary legal protections.

That prolix and dangerous interpretation of the law links Starr directly to the anti-Communist witch hunters of the McCarthy era, who in similar fashion criminalized the Fifth Amendment by turning witnesses' invocation of the constitutional right to silence into admission of subversion. Indeed, the wild events of the past week only make sense if you consider the Starr report not as law but as part of the particular American tradition of conspiracy-obsessed literature devoted to threats to the political and moral order, from the great crisis of 1798 -- when Federalists, convinced that opposition Jeffersonians were conspiring with French and Irish revolutionaries to undermine the new republic, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts and arrested dissenting newspaper editors -- through the McCarthy era.

To Starr's cultlike legal team and Jones' religious-right lawyers at the Rutherford Institute, Clinton epitomizes a 1960s-bred moral relativism that is the real "impeachable offense," a sort of moral subversion that fits within the Constitution's "high crimes and misdemeanors" clause. (Starr obliquely addressed this theme even while conducting his investigation, in one speech bemoaning the decline of "civility" and morals, in another in May defining "the good lawyer, the moral lawyer" -- with the clear implication that a certain law-professor-turned-president is neither.)

While Clinton's personal
morality is unlikely to win many friends on any part of the political
spectrum, it's the far right alone that since the 1992 election has
been unceasingly obsessed with the Clinton family's sexual politics as a
literal danger to the fabric of the country: Clinton "turned the White
House into a playpen of sexual freedom," Dick Armey declared to the Christian
Coalition's convention last week. This is an obsession rooted not in Clinton's relentless dogging around but in Hillary Rodham Clinton's
feminism, in both Clintons' support for abortion rights, in the early
presence of gay rights in the Clinton platform. It is sexual politics, not
sex, that lies behind the prosecution of President Clinton. This is why the
right sees no contradiction in attacking Clinton's morals (Clinton "doesn't
deserve forgiveness," Pat Robertson said last week) while embracing
adulterers Henry Hyde, Helen Chenoweth and Dan Burton.

The various elements of Starr's report that have left experienced lawyers
scratching their heads -- the seemingly gratuitous fixation on sexual
narrative, the leaps in logic amid an overwhelming mass of obsessive detail
-- are familiar to American historians from bestselling anti-Catholic
tracts of the early 19th century, from the Victorian-era anti-smut
campaigns of Anthony Comstock (who perceived a direct link between
pornography, contraception and political corruption) and from several waves
of red scares.

It's particularly rewarding to read Starr's report alongside
an essay written in 1963 by the great American historian Richard
Hofstadter. Hofstadter set out to define once and for all what he called
in the essay's title "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Hofstadter's take on
the quintessential witch-hunting "paranoid spokesman" immediately conjures
Starr's pietistic invocation of "truth" and his relentless inquisition:
"He is always manning the barricades of civilization. Since what is at
stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the
quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight
things out to the finish."

The nemesis envisioned by Hofstadter's
archetypal witch-hunter bears a striking resemblance to the Clinton of
Starr's "referral": "The enemy is clearly delineated: He is the perfect
model of malice, a kind of amoral superman, sinister, ubiquitous, powerful,
cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. The sexual freedom often attributed to him,
his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective
techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style
an opportunity to project and freely express unacceptable aspects of their
own minds."

Over the last few weeks Washington wags have pointed out that the very
social conservatives who promulgated the Communications Decency Act rushed
to publish Starr's sex-drenched report on the Internet. All this seeming
hypocrisy -- even the possible collusion between Jones' lawyers and
Starr's conspiracy-hunting prosecution team -- would have made perfect
sense to Hofstadter: "A fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is
imitation of the enemy ... The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point
of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and equally
elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and
quasi-secret operation."

Or as another historian, David Brion Davis of
Yale University, wrote of 19th century nativists, "By censuring the
subversive for alleged licentiousness, he engaged in sexual fantasies."
(Years ago, a friend of mine joined a marginal quasi-Marxist political
sect. Members stayed up all night copying and re-copying documents, telling
and re-telling their leader's utterly fictitious autobiography until they
became convinced that they were the vanguard in an imminent revolution. From a certain perspective, Starr and his legal team -- in their years of
isolated work, their shared commitment to a fairly extreme model of social
conservatism, their telling and re-telling of Clinton's sins until the
conspiracy seems self-evident to them -- may have come to resemble such a
self-ratifying secret society.)

All this would amount to idle speculation about Starr's
character except for how -- following the classic pattern -- his bizarre
report has collided with election-year opportunism by less fanatical
Republicans. While survey after survey shows the public suspicious of Starr
and anxious to lay the Lewinsky scandal to rest, the media continues its
all-Monica-all-the-time obsession, and Democrats, ignoring their own
pollsters, retreat into family-values defensiveness. The very language of
law and politics has overnight been distorted and debased for partisan and
paranoid ends, beginning with the Starr report's loose construction of
perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power and extending through
the overheated language that has now overtaken Congress. The president,
like so-called unfriendly witnesses called before the House Un-American
Activities Committee in the McCarthy era, is subjected to a degradation
ritual that will end only when Clinton acquiesces to an acceptable
confessional script.

Of course Clinton, unlike those blacklist victims, holds all the resources
of the presidency, and is no selfless social reformer. In both presidency
and personal life, he's a putz. And unlike McCarthyism -- which spread
irrational fear throughout the country and cost thousands of teachers,
actors, defense workers and professors their jobs -- this remains a crisis
of the elite, pitting well-funded conservatives against a popular president
in the high-wire arena of the electronic media.

But it remains a dangerous moment. In the short run, Starr and Capitol Hill
Republicans seem intent on pursuing a legal putsch, forcing
forward impeachment even though in poll after poll they enjoy the support
of no more than a third of citizens. But the longer-term fallout from the
precedents being set this week -- the irresponsible and
partisan release of grand jury evidence, the very notion of FBI
investigation of political reporting, the redefinition of high crimes and
misdemeanors, the criminalization of the president's legal appeals -- may
be far worse.

The past week -- beginning with the Starr report and
extending through Friday's House Judiciary Committee vote to release
Starr's grand jury records -- represents our generation's triumph of the
paranoid style. Historically, it is just such moments -- the intersection
of a conspiracy-obsessed personality like Kenneth Starr's with a divided
and opportunistic political establishment -- that have proven most
destructive to American civil liberties and democratic life.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

MORE FROM Bruce Shapiro

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Bill Clinton Newt Gingrich Tom Delay