Let the culture war rage

Let the culture war rage, let the full impeachment trial begin -- it's time for America to decide what its true values are.

By Steve Erickson
January 7, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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If you're still paying attention -- and no one would blame you if you weren't -- you know that in the last week a plan has begun to take shape in the
United States Senate that would dispose of the impeachment charges against
President Clinton in as few as four days. You also know that dismayed
conservative politicians and commentators, who see the president they loathe
once again slipping from their grasp, have responded vehemently that instead
there should be a full-blown Senate trial involving testimony by witnesses and
presumably lasting weeks if not months. They're right.

That they're right for the wrong reasons, having to do not with any reverence for the Constitution but bad faith, is neither here nor
there. They're right because, first of all, the Constitution calls for it:
When it says the Senate "shall" conduct a trial, "shall" does not mean "may"
but, in the parlance of the 18th century, "will," and by implication this
suggests not an "expeditious" hearing that sweeps matters under the rug, but
an exhaustive one. The second reason there should be a trial is that this is
no longer simply about Clinton. A trial will also be about the House of
Representatives and the Republican Party, and what they did last month and
why, and in a much larger sense about the presidency and impeachment itself.


In the most immediate terms, a trial will give the country one final
opportunity to assess the charges the House has brought against the president.
While House Republicans and the media constantly refer to perjury by Clinton
as though the fact of it is incontestable, the case is actually something less
than open-and-shut.

Certainly the president perjured himself in the Paula
Jones civil deposition last January. But he hasn't been impeached for that;
he's been impeached for his grand jury testimony last August. In a Senate
trial the House Republicans would have to do something they have declined to
do so far, and that's specify exactly what the perjurious testimony was. A
Senate trial would remind all who have conveniently chosen to forget it that
the president's grand jury testimony openly acknowledged the essence of the
accusation against him, and that therefore the perjury charge revolves
entirely around matters of detail: exactly when the affair began, exactly
where the president touched Monica Lewinsky, whether in his own mind such
contact constituted "sexual relations" -- all things virtually every legal
expert has said would not, in the real world, warrant prosecution, let alone

In more far-reaching terms, a trial will test the meaning of representative
democracy. Certainly congressmen are not elected to be robots, following
public opinion polls slavishly, but impeachment is a constitutional device
that by definition must take into account the public will because it exists
for the express purpose of allowing the country -- through its elected
representatives -- to reverse a grievously mistaken electoral decision. By
passing impeachment articles along narrowly partisan lines in defiance of
overwhelming public opinion, without allowing a censure alternative to come to
the floor for a vote, House Republicans told the country that it simply
doesn't comprehend the gravity of the president's misdeeds and that when it
understands the matter as well as the more highly evolved minds of the House,
a cloud of ignorance will lift and the "dynamic" of the scandal will change.


This was the same thinking that preceded the Republicans' decision last
September to release the videotape of the president's grand jury testimony,
after which his poll numbers rose six points and Congress' plummeted 12. It
was the same thinking that preceded impeachment itself, after which the
president's poll numbers rose yet another six points and the Republican
Party's fell to the lowest in recorded history.

A trial in the Senate will either finally justify this rationale once and
for all or expose it as exactly the sort of arrogance that accounts for
people's bitter and growing estrangement from their own government. A trial
will reveal whether, after the public rejection of impeachment in the November
election, the moderate Republicans in the House initially opposed to
impeachment who ultimately fell in line with their party did so because they
suddenly became men for all seasons -- "voting their consciences," to quote one
of the more droll catch phrases of the past month -- or because they were
gripped by a kind of mass hysteria borne from relentless pressure by the
party's right wing, about which history will reach its own conclusions in the
decades to come. A trial will reveal whether Tom DeLay -- who, as follower of
a particularly vicious Jesus, has become the religious right's most dependable
congressional ally, and from whose congressional offices the most prominent
religious right radio station in Washington, D.C., used to broadcast -- is now
in fact the most powerful man in one of the United States' three branches of

But finally a Senate trial will provide a truly suitable pageant to what's
been an American psychodrama. Unavoidably, in one way or another, a Senate
trial would lay bare the three great lies of 1998, which were, in ascending
order, the one the president told the American people in January, when he said
he never had relations with Lewinsky; the one Gloria Borger of U.S. News and
World Report told on PBS's "Washington Week in Review" last Friday night when
she said the media "never wanted to write this story," at which point a whole
country must have collapsed in convulsive laughter; and the one told so often
with such increasing solemnity by the political and media establishment that
they may have even come to believe it: that this entire scandal has nothing
whatsoever to do with sex.


In a prolonged Senate trial -- every last second of which should be broadcast
on television -- this biggest lie will either be repeated at peril to whatever
last shred of credibility the establishment still has, or shrewdly jettisoned
for good, since the rest of the country knows full well that this matter has
everything to do with sex, that sex has provided both context and motive for
everything that's transpired. It's what compelled the president to betray his
marriage, humiliate his wife and commit the single most spectacularly stupid
political mistake of recent memory; and it's what has fueled the rage of the
political right by typifying and confirming everything it's always believed
about this president.

The right simply can't get out of its mind the very
image of Clinton leaning against a wall in the West Wing of the White
House as there hovers before him, at a level somewhere down near the tip of
one of those ties she gave him with such devotion, the bobbing raven tresses
of the National Nubile, thankfully blocking from view the abominable act being
performed. It's this image more than anything else that's driven the right's
obsession with destroying a presidency it never believed was legitimate to
begin with, and all the expressed consternation over perjury and "obstruction
of justice" -- a charge absolutely no honest person can take seriously -- is as
much legalistic obfuscation as the president at his most notoriously slick.


It's interesting that as the rhetoric of moral outrage against the president
has escalated, the public has embraced him more. To have listened to some of
the language used against Clinton not only by Republicans but by terrified
Democrats, whose censure resolution in the House was in many ways more
unforgiving than the impeachment articles drafted by the Republicans, one
wonders what verbal nuggets of indignation could possibly be left for a
Moammar Gadhafi who shoots down airliners over Scotland. Thus, a Senate trial
would either force us to confront what William Bennett has suggested -- as
recently as this past Sunday on CNN -- is our moral bankruptcy, or would
implicitly ratify a national sense of morality that conforms to real life even
if not to Bennett's more uncompromising tastes.

In a Senate trial we'll come face to face with the greatest secret of 1998, which is our secret self. As the
sanctimony has been ratcheted higher and higher with ever greater fury, one
hypocrite after another decrying the president as reprehensible, deplorable,
disgusting and sick, a country full of good people with bad secrets has
thought to itself: They're talking about me. And to a president who has
politically survived one crisis after another by his sheer empathy with
people, the people have returned the favor, empathizing in return:
Clinton may be a rogue but he's their rogue. In retrospect it's not
particularly mysterious that three months ago people watched the videotape of
a president squirming his way through questions no one in a free country
should have to answer and related to him in a way that they will never relate
to Ken Starr, who makes their skin crawl.

In the last analysis then, there should be a Senate trial because if this
scandal is really cultural, as has become the conventional wisdom, and if all
things cultural in the 1990s are really about the 1960s, as George Will has
been insisting ever since hippies beat him up on the way to school 30 years
ago, then those of us who have been too long on the defensive should finally
stop sniveling and man the barricades. It's time for the rest of us to
finally define the national cultural conflict not as that between morality on
the one hand and sex and drugs on the other, as the paragons would have it.
It's time for those of us who are indeed children of the '60s -- for whom a war
in Southeast Asia was not an extension of American ideals but a breach of
them, for whom the basic institutional amends of a white society to the
descendants of that society's black slaves was not liberal guilt but a
reasonable attempt at justice and self-redemption, for whom "Otis Blue" and
"Blonde on Blonde" were soundtracks not of hedonism and decadence but passion
and liberation, and yet whose sex lives have been no more or less interesting
than anyone else's and who can count their drug experiences on the fingers of
one hand -- to start defining the conflict on our own terms, as between the
values of justice and democracy and those of authoritarianism and theocracy.


To this end it would be well to call as witnesses every single last one of
those who played a part in the psychodrama, from the president to Judge Starr
to Linda Tripp to Lucianne Goldberg to Betty Currie to our sexual Joan of Arc,
Monica Lewinsky herself. It would be well to see the thong in all its glory,
preferably on Monica rather than dangled abstractly in midair, so we might
best understand its narcotic effect on the president; to enter into the record
the cigar as Exhibit B; to relive each moment of Oval Office rapture, and if
it isn't realistic to expect an exact reenactment, it doesn't seem too much to
ask of Monica a small ecstatic demonstration -- a sigh, maybe, a moan. It's
likely to be the only true thing said in the United States Congress since
Illinois Rep. Abraham Lincoln told the House, "There are few things
wholly evil or wholly good," in 1848. Such a moan would be the Jeffersonian
moan of happiness' pursuit, and once the trial is over and William Orb has
slapped a technobeat on it, it should provide a national anthem for the new
century to come, and in those pathetic midnight moments while clandestinely
checking out my wife's Victoria's Secret catalog I can listen to it and feel,
for the first time in years, like a real American.

The arguments by liberal Democrats that the Senate should brush all this
aside for "more important business" is ludicrous. There is no business more
important, or even remotely as important. A Senate trial should be not
truncated but rather as long as possible; nothing could be more appropriate
for America in 1999 than that it last all year, right up to the stroke of
midnight Dec. 31 when the last senator casts the final vote. The
impeachment of President Clinton should go to trial because this is the way, on
Millennial Eve, we'll finally find out who we are, our national identity too
long paralyzed somewhere between Tom Paine and Cotton Mather, as opposed to
who those in power keep telling us we are. Their vision of us is what is
really on trial here, and whether Clinton survives as president is of
far less consequence than what we learn; it's time for us once and for all to
decide whether we're really willing to go on relinquishing to others our
vision of America or whether we're ready to stop acting like defendants and
ready to start acting like plaintiffs, prosecutors, hanging judges.

Let's rumble.

Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

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