A battle for the soul of America

Steve Erickson argues that it's time for the American people to realize that Clinton trial isn't really about Clinton -- it's about democracy.

By Steve Erickson
January 21, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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In Steve Darnall and Alex Ross' new graphic novel "Uncle Sam" (Vertigo/DC), the title character wanders the country homeless and ragged, red-white-and-blue wardrobe in tatters, hat missing and white hair and beard caked in the drool and dirt of sleeping in the streets. His memory is a mass of whispers, from "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" to "I have a dream" to "I'm not a crook" to "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" to "You can't say Dallas doesn't love you, Mr. President" to "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." From these whispers he's trying to piece together an identity, trying to figure which of his various incarnations is real, until of course he must accept that they're all real.

Reading the novel last week, I fully expected Uncle Sam at some point to morph into Tom DeLay. But maybe that's the sequel: "Uncle Sam II: The Exterminator," to cite House Republican Whip DeLay's earlier line of work, or "Hammer Comix," to cite the endearment by which he's currently known in the halls of Congress. Or maybe when they were writing "Uncle Sam" it was beyond even Darnall and Ross' darkest imaginings that DeLay would someday be one of the two most powerful men in the United States government, assuming you still count President Clinton as the other. While it would be inaccurate to suggest that the media has altogether ignored this development, it's certainly been discreet about the implications, maybe because the implications are so unseemly, maybe because it's the media's congenital predisposition to tacitly lend even DeLay the imprimatur of respectability, maybe because DeLay himself has been shrewdly circumspect about how publicly he wields his power.


But as stark exception to the dictum that if you're going to try to kill the king then you better kill the king, this is the man who not only survived his failed attempt to overthrow Newt Gingrich but whose power alone among that of the Republican congressional hierarchy remained unchallenged in the wake of November's election. He's the man who roughly pushed Bob Livingston out of his nascent speakership when Livingston's various infidelities were exposed by Citizen Flynt, and he's the man who then installed as speaker with dizzying dispatch a right-hand flunky you've never heard of and whose name you probably still can't pronounce correctly. In the twilight of the Terror, with the Robespierres and Dantons of the '94 Republican "revolution" lopping off each other's heads, DeLay's Madame Defarge has somehow managed to couch himself safely in the blade's shadow, knitting a new stitch for every cranial splat on the cobblestones. He's also the man who has, almost single-handedly, impeached the president of the United States.

In so doing it is DeLay, more than anyone else, who now leads America through the glass darkly. Like a 6 turned upside down to become a 9, over the course of the last 30 years American radicalism has shifted from political left to political right until the counterculture rage of the 1960s has become, in the 1990s, the same rage of an entirely different counterculture, no less furious or ruthless than the Weathermen once were. Up to a point, of course -- presumably somewhere short of blowing up federal buildings -- hating the government is as American as the Boston Tea Party. But sometime in the last 30 years the hatred of government in the name of freedom and justice passed a point where it became a hatred of democracy in all its messiest pluralist promises.

Whether this occurred with Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the early 1980s or the Pat Robertson presidential campaign of 1988 or the Pat Buchanan campaign of '92 or the religious right's triumph in the '94 election or Oklahoma City in '95 isn't clear. If equating the '95 bombing with the '94 election is obviously unfair, the lineage is nonetheless indisputable. For about a week after Oklahoma City, in a rare burst of courage and imagination, the media addressed this lineage before beating a hasty retreat the moment Rush Limbaugh cried foul in the pages of Newsweek, when he called the suggestion of right-wing responsibility "immoral" (as opposed to the bombing itself, which was merely "tragic"). But the same political mind-set that has always questioned the very legitimacy of Clinton as president -- as the religious and cultural right has so questioned ever since November '92 -- is a mind-set that thereby implicitly questions the legitimacy of any democracy that would elect him. And if it doesn't automatically follow that the mind-set that questions the legitimacy of democracy automatically blows up buildings with children in them, it does follow that the mind-set that blows up children attacks the legitimacy of democracy in the process.


From the earliest days of the Clinton presidency, when House Majority Leader
Dick Armey was calling the first lady a Marxist and referring to Clinton, in comments to Democratic colleagues, as "your" president, the religious/cultural right has regarded Clinton as an aberration, and the secular democratic process that produced such an aberration as a betrayal of God. A few years ago, when I interviewed religious-right pooh-bah Gary Bauer, I asked whether he considered the defining text of America to be the Constitution or the New Testament. This wasn't a trick question. Bauer tried to finesse it, answering both ways and suggesting the Constitution was basically a religious document anyway, rooted as much in Judeo-Christian values as democratic ones. Either Bauer is utterly ignorant of American history or, more likely, indifferent to it. Whichever, in his answer lay the religious right's true intentions, which are to remake American democracy into the sort of theocracy that takes care of the Bill Clintons once and for all, and maybe you too.

This is important because these are the unspoken stakes of the Clinton impeachment trial. As the man who would not let impeachment die when everyone else thought the body was buried, Tom DeLay is also not only the religious right's inside guy in a profane Congress, but the inside guy for a movement that is at its core -- no matter how polite Time or Newsweek or the New York Times or ABC News choose to be about it -- antidemocratic. This is why DeLay is not especially impressed when the public makes clear over and over, in polls and elections alike, its opposition to impeachment; in the scheme of DeLay's America, the feelings of the public couldn't be more incidental, because this is the same public that elected Clinton in the first place, and its feelings are therefore, by definition, depraved and corrupt.

Obviously this isn't to suggest that in the current Senate trial everyone who believes the president should be convicted is driven by DeLay's theocratic vision or well-documented political malevolence. Most of those behind impeachment are motivated by everything from venal partisan politics to true convictions of conscience; and those who are opposed to Clinton's removal and who watched the Senate proceedings last week had to have felt some disquieting moments when House managers Asa Hutchinson, Jim Rogan and Lindsey Graham made intelligent, cogent and passionate arguments, particularly on behalf of the basic principle that presidents, sworn above all others to protect the law, should not blithely be committing perjury.


But let us speak hypothetically. Let us pretend for a moment there is no perjury or obstruction of justice at issue, or any question of legal transgression. Let us say all that's involved is the president of the United States receiving oral sex from an intern half his age in the Oval Office of the White House. Can Gary Bauer or William Bennett or William Kristol or Kenneth Starr or Tom DeLay look anyone in the eye and claim they do not personally believe that this and this alone would still justify the president's removal from office? In the final analysis the president has been impeached not because his conduct offends our democratic and legal values but because it offends the religious and sexual values of people who have always believed him spiritually unworthy of the office in the first place.

At one point on a Sunday morning show a month or two ago, DeLay blurted out that people were always attacking him for being a Christian; these days, he said bitterly, being a Christian is apparently worse than being a womanizer and liar. All DeLay's pathology and dark-heartedness were suddenly there on the TV screen: the resentment, the petulant self-pity, the wounded sense of megalomania and martyrdom. In its black bile, it wasn't exactly a moment infused with the generosity of Christian spirit, but then no one much expects DeLay's Jesus -- whenever he decides to return -- to resemble the old Jesus anyway, wasting his time with the whores and criminals and outcasts who made up his flock a couple of millennia ago. DeLay's Jesus will be drinking gin martinis at the Houston country club with the other Republicans, plotting the destruction of the Environmental Protection Agency, which DeLay once compared to the Gestapo. Inevitably at some point, whether in the course of this Senate trial or not, but sooner or later, you and I and the rest of us will have to decide whether DeLay is now the face of Uncle Sam and whether we can therefore permanently erase "with malice toward none, with charity for all" from the whispers that make up the American psyche.


We're not talking here about a mere difference of political opinion or point of view -- liberal as opposed to conservative, Democrat as opposed to Republican. It's more profound than that, having to do with the meaning of America itself. And you can't depend on either the political or media establishment to lead the debate, because both are ethically parasitic by nature and have a vested interest in not taking any stance that might, with even the most fundamental shift of the wind, strand them on the other side of a very bloody line; Edward R. Murrow died a long time ago, in a braver age. That leaves the matter up to those of you who have no voice other than the cacophony of scattered electronic whispers that may or may not be too late to pass the lips of whatever embodiment of Uncle Sam you think still exists. There's no destroying the village in order to save it; you'll have to answer the DeLays in a way that defends to the end their right to hate democracy even if they're too smart to say it in so many words. You do that because only by defending DeLay's right to hate democracy do you defend democracy itself, along with your own right -- assuming you're at last ready to exercise it -- to stop kidding yourself and finally start calling him what he calls you: the enemy.

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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Bill Clinton Newt Gingrich Tom Delay