The whole world is watching -- again

Left-wing literati turn out to block impeachment, but is it too little, too late?

Published December 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz left Washington after testifying against impeachment -- unavailingly -- before the House Judiciary Committee last week, convinced something more had to be done. And within 72 hours, there he was, onstage at New York University Law School's Tishman Auditorium, with Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, Jessye Norman, Elie Wiesel, Mary Gordon, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Alec Baldwin, telling some 800 people present that something very important was at stake for the nation in President Clinton's fight for political life.

Wilentz, red-haired and equivalently insouciant, won a slap from the New York Times for warning pro-impeachment Congress members, "History will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness." But a few days later the New York Times was publicizing the NYU event he thought up with a restive friend, New York writer Paul Berman, who talked to another restive friend, New Yorker film critic David Denby. Then NYU law professor Stephen Holmes was enlisted, and their phones started buzzing over the weekend, and electronic circuits got humming. And the next thing anyone knew, all the seats of the law school auditorium were filled Monday night at 7:30, and so was a spillover room of equal size equipped with two TV monitors, and the satellite uplinks were posted on the street outside, and the doors of the law school had to close to latecomers.

The crowd was mannerly, groomed, heavily white, middle class and cross-generational, though skewing toward the middle-aged. Some were in suits, some in white collars, hardly any in jeans or with metal piercings evident. Undergraduates were few. This was 1998, not 1968, and not a few in the audience knew the difference viscerally. For some moments throughout the evening, much of the crowd was combative and, at least in undercurrents, celebratory, too. "Are we glad we're here, or what?" asked Gloria Steinem. The sense of emergency was palpable. So was the sense of relief, that at long last like-minded people were rallying.

At a time when national moralism has come off the leash, cautions in biblical cadences were welcome. Wiesel, an infrequent visitor to public displays of indignation on American national themes, uttered a line many protesters took to heart: "Who shall judge the judges?" Doctorow distinguished between Reagan lies and Clinton lies, proposing that "perhaps the problem with President Clinton's lies is that they lacked grandeur ... Speak of perjury, if you will, but to me the whole thing smells of entrapment. The impeachment drive" -- Doctorow shifted upward the metaphorical gears -- had "all the legitimacy of a coup d'itat."

"Who started this coup d'itat?" asked Rep. Nadler a few minutes later. "Who paid for it?" (Considerable applause.) "What was the role of the Arkansas Project, paid for by Richard Mellon Scaife?" Sen. Torricelli: "I will never vote to convict this man [Clinton]. Never. Never. Never. Mr. President, I ask you this. Do not resign!" Huge applause.

Steinem characterized Clinton as "the first president elected by woman voters" and defended feminists against the hypocrisy charge in the Paula Jones case, noting that "Paula Jones refused to see Patricia Ireland, and not the other way around," and calling for "an end of the humiliation of Clinton but also of Monica."

Alec Baldwin represented the Hamptons side of the president's base with a pleasingly unpolished talk that culminated in a crack at "the sociopaths that run the Republican Party." Kennedy Schlossberg, a surprise guest, read her speech gamely and was moving by virtue of her being there. Philosopher Thomas Nagel, author of a brilliant piece in a recent Times Literary Supplement, repeated his argument that there is no civilization without privacy, including the freedom to dissemble.

Novelist Mary Gordon likened Clinton to the hapless Billy Budd and the Republicans to phobics (a nice touch, speaking of those who affect opposition to the culture of victimhood), and struck a nerve with Yeats' frequently quoted but too infrequently felt declaration, written around the time of Henry Hyde's birth: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." The number of speakers expanded past elasticity, but there remained for two hours, in this crowd, a good-humored willingness to give each speaker the benefit of the doubt. They had, after all, taken the platform. At last.

- - - - - - - - - -

A certain exultance was pardonable, though sobriety quickly took over as the crowd disbanded. This was probably the fastest-organized rally since the Cambodia and Laos invasions of 1970-71. It was also the slowest in coming. Which raises the question: Why the months of public inertia? Why have polls been permitted to stand in for political action? Why the long-running inactivity of the activists? These are questions to absorb the attention of what is laughably called the left during the long nights to come. Among the thoughts in circulation were these:

Disbelief triumphed, and triumphed, and triumphed again. First came months of Lewinsky drip. Yes, the right rode high, unhinged as they were. But public opinion remained staunchly unaffected by months upon months of leaks, barking heads, Starr chamber sessions, exercises in televisual humiliation and, lately, the injudicious theater of idiocy orchestrated by the House Judiciary Committee. So the coup seemed to have failed, right? So said the off-year elections, right? Newt was disgraced, right? Who would have thought the Grand Old Party would have so much blood in't? Who thought they could keep their Frankenstein monster humming after the repudiation of Nov. 3?

Even the White House was not sure they would. The press treated the turn against the Republicans as a victory for the Democrats and for Clinton, little noting that in a nation with 36 percent turnout, Congress has cut loose from the popular will as surely as the space shuttle pulls away from the gravity of Earth. Rep. Nadler didn't anticipate things coming to this pass. He told me this was the first protest event he'd been invited to. "I don't think anyone thought that impeachment was really going to happen," said Jill Steinberg, an NYU graduate student in media ecology.

But more deeply, Clinton had long estranged the activist networks that call themselves progressive. They were disaffected from him, or preoccupied with their issues -- which came to the same thing -- and barely if at all impressed by him in the first place. Just as the Republicans hated Clinton for, among other things, pirating part of their program, so did Democrats of the left hate him for NAFTA and for welfare, or for Iraqi sanctions, or the pharmaceutical raid in Khartoum, or all of the above. They had independently arrived at the Republican line that Clinton is only incidentally a twice-elected president lowly accused of high crimes.

The absolutists of the left have no dog in this fight. Not for them such bourgeois questions as that of constitutional justice. Not for them such tawdry questions as whether the poor would be better off if Clinton were deposed. They sneer at those reformist words "better off." They can live with the likes of Henry Hyde and Bob Barr, revealing the true (white, male) face of imperialism.

Even activist Democrats have been late to rouse themselves. Debra Cooper, executive vice president of the Upper West Side Ansonia Independent Democrats, who was leafletting the NYU rally with phone and fax numbers of coy Republicans, told me that at this late date, the state Democratic Party still hasn't been heard from. Parties don't dirty their hands except with money, these days.

And then, what of the uses, and seductions, of electronic politicking? An old friend of mine, with whom I marched on many a picket line in a bygone decade, whose name begins with "S," wrote me that his stepdaughter was e-mailing her local congressman, who is one of the Republican wafflers. Then he put this question: "Remember when we used to demonstrate, not send e-mail?" My friend is not a nostalgia buff. He is intellectually active on many issues in the palpably here-and-now. He is not a demonstration freak. Still, questions do come to mind: How virtual is a virtual demonstration? An online petition campaign?

But e-mail, requiring little effort from its deployers, has its uses, partly for that very reason. As the campaign shows, it can get protesters charged up, confirm them in the sense that they're in good company. For instance, longtime human rights campaigner Cathy Fitzpatrick took it upon herself Sunday night to send out a multirecipient e-mail that is striking in this respect. Fitzpatrick wrote, in her private capacity, that for months she had found the impeachment juggernaut an annoyance, but a sideshow to her main interest. Annoyance, however, turned to impediment. She had been trying to work with the White House on a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The White House had sounded cooperative, but as the Dec. 10 date drew closer, its staff pulled away. All attention had turned to impeachment. (A White House ceremony did take place. Notice it? The press didn't.) So she sat down at her keyboard to make the case that President Clinton does matter to human rights. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a major force in the world for the principle that women's rights are human rights. Gregory Craig, the president's lawyer, has taken time off from -- human rights work! So it was time for human rights activists to put some muscle into stopping impeachment. Fitzpatrick appended a list of Republican House members who might be swayed in the days to come. Many other such messages have been crisscrossing cyberspace.

It is hard to avoid the thought that after years of fatalism, ideological blur, specialized politicking, group preoccupation and plain disappointment, much of the left has forgotten, if it ever knew, how heavy is the right wing of American politics, how fierce, how organized, how elected, how capable of obstructing all the projects of the left (and the center) and how capable of acting in unison when they care enough to hate -- as they do Clinton, That Man in the White House. So it took until Monday night, Dec. 14, a mere three days before the House is due to vote on impeachment, before a cross section of the protesting class rallied. Some of the left was coming to life. Too late? Better late.

By Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin taught at Columbia University, wrote regularly for and Tablet, and was the author of "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street."

MORE FROM Todd Gitlin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------