A kinder, gentler lynch mob

The 'peachy-keen GOP has shown its true colors -- and they confirm the most brain-dead radical stereotypes from the '60s.

Published December 15, 1998 7:38PM (EST)

I grew up believing that Republicans were the incarnation of all evil. This was a harsh and unsophisticated judgment, but the political discourse of 1960s Berkeley, where I grew up, lacked a certain refinement. In fact, to be honest, it was pretty much taken straight from Saturday morning cartoons. In our righteous view, "the people," whoever they were, were always being "oppressed" by The Man, a bloated GOP plutocrat mouthing pious moral maxims. It went without saying that Republicans were self-righteous, mean-spirited rich white men who secretly napalmed Cambodian villages, turned loose the dogs against civil rights marchers and dug the Carpenters. They were Bad, and if we could somehow get rid of them -- meanwhile taking lots of acid and listening to Hendrix -- Good Things would happen.

Later, like many of my co-religionists, I became embarrassed by these sentiments. Such crude beliefs were unseemly. Sophistication demanded a more nuanced view. Republicans, I now realized, could be decent men and women who were just parroting the country-club line. Even the Reagan Age -- that endless period I as a Californian was forced to spend under the Great Communicator's genially callous thumb, while the Woolly Mammoths died out and Ice Ages came and went across the globe -- couldn't make me return to the wooden Stalinist sloganeering of my youth. I even reevaluated the Carpenters.

And then came the Starr referral and Henry Hyde and the House Judiciary Committee vote, and I realized I had gotten it right the first time.

When the Republicans in the full House vote to remove President Clinton from office, as they will almost certainly do, they will prove that those brain-dead radical stereotypes about them really do apply. They will be revealed as mean-spirited, partisan hacks, hypocrites, moral absolutists hiding their craven desire for vengeance and power beneath a ridiculously transparent façade of pious "deliberation" and "respect for law." The GOP will stand exposed before all of America as the party of vicious, petty ideologues who, in their outrageous desire to undo the results of two lawful elections, seized upon a grotesquely acquired legalistic evasion that falls so far short of meeting the constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors as to be laughable.

Or, let's give them the benefit of the doubt, as the ever-generous New York Times did in a recent editorial. Let's assume that some of them are actually sincere in their belief that lying about sex -- in an obvious vendetta case brought by a biased and obsessed "independent" counsel who, after utterly failing to find any serious misdeeds, connived to lay a perjury trap -- constitutes an impeachable offense. But if they really believe that, then we must conclude that either their grasp of the Constitution is so weak that their fitness to sit in any elected office is highly questionable, or that they are so rigid in their moral purity as to be Torquemadas in power ties, quasi-theocratic inquisitors who would turn America into a frightening Bible Belt version of 15th century Spain or 20th century Iran.

Why are the Republicans doing this? Why, defying the express wishes of the American people, are they trampling on the Constitution, weakening the presidency and inaugurating a hideous new political world of blood feuds and true hatred? And why are they ignoring the warnings from the business community -- to which they used to listen -- that impeachment is dangerous and destabilizing?

The answer is simple: This is who they are. This action reflects the GOP's true nature. This is a party so desperate to burn a president they dislike at the stake that they'll incinerate the Constitution to get the fire started. All that hoo-hah a few weeks ago about how Robert Livingston was going to bring a new "moderation" to the party now that nutty professor Gingrich was gone stands revealed as empty verbiage. The truth is that this is now a party of zealots and ideologues, obsessed crusaders who have completely lost touch with the common sense, fairness and decency of the American people. Like Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, who declared a purifying "Year Zero" when history's slate was to be wiped clean (and all nonpeasants were to be killed), these high-minded crusaders want to restore America's sense of moral purpose -- and if they have to trash the country in order to do it, well, extremism in the defense of virtue is no vice! To the tumbrels with the parasites, citizens, while the Times and the Post knit their stern editorials! GOP "moderates"? What moderates? The few "moderates" who are trotted forth on TV to be shown to the mob, like condemned Chinese dissidents with signs hanging around their necks, seem barely sentient.

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The façade of "judiciousness" and "bipartisanship" that the pious media, ever cowed by the musty aura of Historic Constitutional Events, dark-wooded chambers, invocations of "our national honor" and other useful fig leafs for skullduggery, tried to sell us has vanished without a trace. Hyde, the Iran-contra apologist and wisecracking GOP attack dog who was elevated to Solomon-like heights of wisdom by the media before the disgraceful House Judicial proceedings began, has now taken up final residence in the trash can with unsavory American byproducts like our anal home-grown Robespierre, Kenneth Starr, and the maniacal Bob Barr, who apparently believes that Clinton should have been impeached at birth. There was Hyde this weekend on the talk shows, saying that Clinton should resign. This paragon of impartiality apparently modeled his jurisprudential approach on the Red Queen in "Alice in Wonderland," who, as a witness departs in the trial of the Knave of Hearts, says under her voice, "And just take off his head outside." But, gosh, he sure sounds courtly talking that parliamentary talk.

In fact, Hyde may have been taking those groveling Times setup pieces a little too seriously, for this weekend he began to invoke no less a figure than Jesus Christ. Asked by Cokie Roberts why he advocated impeachment and didn't think censure should be an option despite popular opinion, he replied, "If Jesus Christ had taken a poll, he would never have preached the gospel." This is a wonderful addition to the great American tradition of reactionary invocations of Jesus, who after patriotism represents the best refuge for scoundrels. (The all-time winner remains that English-only advocate who declaimed, "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me.") With all due respect to the pious motivations behind Chairman Hyde's religious parallel, however, it may not be a good strategy for him to go there. Somehow, when one looks at the faces of Clinton's judges -- the pig-eyed ex-exterminator Tom DeLay; the robotic, hate-filled Barr; the snidely, vitriolic David Schippers; the priggish choirboy-judge Bill McCollum -- the loving face of the Savior does not exactly rush into one's mind. In fact, these worthies recall somewhat less inspiring figures from the New Testament -- namely the Pharisees, those vengeful, legalistic Jews who denounced Jesus. (The "moderates," who will doubtless be washing their hands avidly in the days to come, conjure up that noted Northeastern GOP fence-sitter, Pontius Pilate.) Admittedly, the mushy-souled escape artist President Clinton makes a truly terrible Jesus, but the imagery still isn't good.

The Republicans are zealots, but they're crafty zealots. Their attempt to take Clinton down may blow up in their faces, but they have reasons for thinking it won't. They think they can get away with this without being punished at the polls, even if they don't kill Clinton. But they cherish a secret hope that they will kill him -- that once impeachment is a fait accompli, with all the previously mentioned flag-waving, invocation of the Founders, gravity of the charges blah blah blah, public opinion will turn against Clinton, leading either to his resignation or to his conviction and removal by the Senate. And that hope is based on their belief that Clinton's support is inch-deep -- that once the American people realize he's in trouble, they'll desert him like rats abandoning a sinking ship.

It's the self-fulfilling prophecy strategy, and it is astonishingly contemptuous. It presumes that the American people have no memory, no spiritual or moral consistency, that they are incapable of holding onto any position any longer than a jittery kid with a remote can watch one TV program. The GOP believes this for several reasons. First, they too are children of our Warholian society of the spectacle, in which everything that flickers across the screen has equal weight and nothing stays on the screen for more than a few seconds. As such, they too have been seduced by the belief that, in Marx's words, "all that is solid melts into air." Yesterday's Clinton supporter is today's impeachment supporter.

The scary thing is, they just might be right. There have been very few tests of our national consistency in the channel-changing age. The public might be influenced by the media, which has begun running this-is-a-whole-new-ballgame-now stories. The Times, much of whose Clinton coverage continues to appall, splashed on its cover a thin reaction story (ominous headline: "Gravity of the issues sinking in for a public weary of scandal") that featured two or three people in that multicultural mirror of America, Tarrytown, N.Y., saying they were now leaning toward impeachment. (How odd, considering nothing in this story has changed in months except the vote to impeach.) But it would be bitterly ironic (although perfectly consistent, considering their fealty to the most ephemeral and history-destroying forms of commodity capitalism) if the Republican Party, which at its best represents community and continuity, were to use postmodern public amnesia to flick a president off the screen.

The second reason the Republicans think they may be able to change people's minds is that their own Pharisaism, their residence on the Gothic side of America's great cultural divide, makes them incapable of understanding that the American people's so-what reaction to Clinton's sexual escapades and subsequent lies about them is not mere empty situational ethics, not a debased version of a '60s "whatever, man" ethos, but is a coherent and reasonable moral vision. That vision represents the pragmatic spirit of one of our culture's great achievements, the English common law, whose guiding word is reasonableness. And it also reflects the lessons most of us learn from our parents. You should never lie, our parents teach us when we're young, and that is an essential lesson. But later they also teach us to understand why people lie, to distinguish between different kinds of lies -- and to forgive when forgiveness is called for. We learn that the real world doesn't entirely correspond to the black-and-white moral universe our parents taught us. In the real world, for example, we learn that politicians make moral compromises -- and flat-out lie -- all the time. We also learn that august politicians, and even men with the word "judge" before their name, can be hatchet men. That doesn't mean we don't strive to do the right thing, or expect that our leaders do the same, but that we realize that sometimes it isn't clear what that is. And we learn that often the people who are the most certain what the right thing is, the people with the answer, the really moral people, are the most dangerous of all.

Because the moralists who have hijacked the Republican Party don't understand that the American people's morality, as evidenced in its reaction to Clinton, is deeply rooted and coherent, they think it's shallow, a mere cover for selfishness or laziness. They believe that once America grasps that high moral "outrage," to use William Bennett's word, is called for, it will condemn Clinton and reach new ethical heights. We must again, we hear over and over, become a country of laws, not of men. They ignore the fact that no one wants Clinton to be above the law -- people just don't want him to be below the law, to be prosecuted for things no one else would ever be prosecuted for. And they conveniently forget the fact that Clinton has been prosecuted for four years not by "the laws" but by a highly flawed man.

In this vicious partisan climate, in which appeals to high moral purpose cloak the intent to commit political assassination, the incessant demands by the New York Times' editorial page that Clinton admit he lied under oath -- say "those missing magic words," in the words of the headline of Monday's leader -- are positively bizarre. Demanding that Clinton fall to his knees in an act of national self-abnegation that might sway those fabled "moderates," the Times insists that the most important issue facing the nation is not the unprecedented and stunningly irresponsible action taken by the House Judiciary Committee, not the likelihood that the GOP rank and file will follow its jackbooted leaders and shut the country down, but whether or not Clinton says "uncle." This is ridiculous. There's no reason to suppose that the rabid GOP dogs who have been calling for Clinton's head all along would suddenly become docile, censure-amenable laphounds if he admitted to perjury. There's a lot more reason to assume that the long knives would come out in earnest, whether now or after Clinton left office. (Republicans who are now saying they won't consider censure unless Clinton admits he lied are using the issue to hide: They know he can't admit that for legal reasons, but it gives them an excuse to vote for impeachment.) Clinton has set the world record for public humiliation, but apparently that is not enough for the Times. Out of some inexplicably punitive and moralistic impulse, it pays less rhetorical attention to the appallingly partisan Judiciary Committee proceedings (which it criticizes almost in passing) than to whether Clinton has groveled low enough.

Maybe the go-for-the-jugular Republican strategy will work, and the American public will be won over to impeachment. But it probably won't. And there is reason to think that the day of the impeachment vote -- most likely Dec. 17 -- will be a day that will live in GOP infamy -- that it will be remembered as the day that the party lost its moral standing, became a marginal home for dogmatists and cranks and cynical political opportunists willing to ignore the wishes of the majority to satisfy the ravings of true believers. The Republicans thought they could get away with spitting in the face of the American people, but they may be spitting against the wind.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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