Moral majority

The American people acquitted Clinton long ago.

Published February 13, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The sense of letdown that threatened to set in before President Clinton's inevitable acquittal Friday was already starting to lessen before the vote was even taken. Janet Reno's long-overdue announcement that the Justice Department was investigating Kenneth Starr for ethics violations had something to do with it. And, though the White House has denied it, so did the press reports that Clinton is targeting the Republican House managers for defeat in the 2000 congressional elections. We know that neither case is going to provide a wholly satisfactory result. Starr won't wind up in the orange jumpsuit he so richly deserves, and a number of the Republicans of the House Judiciary Committee will still be polluting the country's political life after the next election. But the danger that was always lurking in the country's wish to put this whole thing behind it, the danger that the real villains would simply walk away without being named as such, doesn't seem quite so strong.

The phoniest notes of the last few weeks have been the Capra-esque groaners about how this whole process reaffirms the strength of our system, the functioning of which, we're told, triumphs over even the most bitter partisanship. In Friday's New York Times, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe paints a picture of the impeachment trial as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Most of the people I know have felt like they've been watching "The Wrong Man," Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film (a true story) in which Henry Fonda plays a nightclub musician accused and nearly convicted of a string of hold-ups he didn't commit. Tribe ends his piece by saying of Clinton's acquittal, "I believe history is more likely to view it as a verdict that kept the Constitution's process of impeachment and removal intact so that they might serve their crucial mission if and when we face a genuine threat of tyranny."

Yes, but as in the Hitchcock film, the more pertinent point is that a trumped-up accusation was able to proceed without any violation of constitutional process. "The Wrong Man" turns on the moment when a juror is so eager to convict that the judge has no choice but to declare a mistrial. Fonda is freed by a fluke: He's out on bail awaiting a second trial when the real thief is caught. Clinton's fate turned on the public's perception of the basic unfairness of the proceedings against him, a perception that a majority of representatives and a not-insignificant number of senators were willing to ignore. The terrifying thing about how close we came to a right-wing nullification of two presidential elections is that it was all done in the guise of democracy by elected officials so bull-headed they called the very name House of Representatives into question.

Still, there are at least two things to celebrate here. One is the apparent self-destruction of the right wing and its willingness to take the entire Republican Party down with it. The other is something that would have seemed unthinkable a year ago when the Monica Lewinsky story broke: the relative sophistication of the public's insistence that private sexual behavior is not a gauge of how well an elected official does his job.

As always when it comes to America and sexual morality, what's going on here is complicated. Alongside Clinton's high approval rating and the majority's belief that he should remain in office has been an equally high disapproval of his behavior. Those high numbers may be partially due to the impossible ambiguity of the question "Do you approve or disapprove of the president's behavior?" What behavior is it referring to? The allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice, or Clinton's dalliance with Lewinsky? And if it's the latter, just what do people disapprove of, that he cheated on his wife, or that he fooled around with an intern considerably younger than he was?

But I think the real reason for the strength of both Clinton's approval ratings and the disapproval of his behavior (which I take to mean his sexual behavior) has to do with what some commentators have rightly maintained is the way the public recognizes its own shortcomings in Clinton. There are plenty of people who've strayed in their own marriages and know that it's still possible to love your spouse, who don't think of themselves as bad people and who believe that whatever happened is their own damn business. But even those people still feel a need to maintain the expected public stance that holds that good people just don't fool around. It's not that the public is incapable of both disapproving of Clinton's behavior and deciding that it doesn't warrant removal from office. It's that Americans tend to be more direct than that -- if they were truly disgusted at what he did, Clinton would be gone.

What's being played out here is the classic disjunction between what Americans know about sex and the chaos it wreaks, and what they allow themselves to acknowledge. What was being played out by Dianne Feinstein and the other Democratic senators pushing for censure -- even with acquittal an inevitability -- is exactly what Phil Gramm characterized it as: covering their asses. While we largely have the prudish zealotry of the Republicans to thank for Clinton's acquittal (as well as their own hara-kiri), one of the most troubling aspects of this whole process has been how even Democrats have accepted the assumptions of the right about what constitutes morality.

Just think of the look of constipated conscience that Joseph Lieberman seems unable to wipe off his puss, or the stentorian tones affected by the Foghorn Leghorn of Senate tradition, Robert Byrd. (How, a friend of mine recently wondered, do the journalists who interview Byrd keep from laughing in his face?) Referring to Lewinsky, both the left and the right have often sounded like outraged Victorians defending imperiled maidenhood. (Almost no one has mentioned the sexism inherent in treating an adult woman -- even a young one -- as though she were a child offered candy if she'd get into a stranger's car.) Even among the most vocal of Clinton's defenders, and some of the most eloquent under fire, like the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, there were frequent references to how appalling and reprehensible his behavior was. I suppose they had to refer to the affair somehow. But the president had already given them the perfect phrase during his grand jury testimony: "the most mysterious area of human life." Despite Clinton's undeniable caddishness in referring to Lewinsky as a stalker, I keep coming back to what his voice and manner betrayed as he spoke of the affair during his testimony, as something he remembered fondly, something he refused to turn into political capital by taking the opportunity to heap loathing upon it.

But that is exactly what Democrats have done by talking about how crucial it is for the Senate to censure the president. Feinstein does not strike me as a stupid woman. But I listen to her calling for censure and I want to grab her and ask, Don't you get it? Don't you see that this willingness to make political judgments on the morality of private behavior is what got us into this mess in the first place? But apparently neither she nor any of the Democrats who supported her move to censure understand that. Partly, it's a function of their position. They are adopting the same public stance as the Americans who tell pollsters that they disapprove of what the president did. They think this affirmation of conventional good/bad morality is what's expected of them. But they need to listen to what's underneath the poll numbers expressing disapproval, they need to hear people struggling to find a way to reconcile the truth of their experience with their social disguises.

It made perfect sense that Clinton's brief remarks following Friday's votes were directed to the public. They have really been the only parties communicating over the course of the last 13 months. Many in Congress and the press have simply ignored what the public has been telling them, or taken it at face value, which (especially for a journalist) amounts to the same thing. For me, the moment that summed this up better than any other occurred last Sunday on CNN's "Reliable Sources," when Newsweek's Ann McDaniel talked about how Clinton didn't reach out to the power structure when he arrived in Washington and thus didn't find too many supporters when he got in trouble. There was a blissful arrogance in McDaniel's reduction of Clinton's support to Washington's movers and shakers. The patent absurdity of talking about the lack of support for a president with a 70-percent approval rating didn't occur to McDaniel. If it had, the entire concept of politics as an exclusive club would have come crashing down around her, and in much of the press (like the gasbag indignation that has wafted off the New York Times editorials for months now) there is simply no indication that that's going to happen.

No matter how trivial its origin, the meaning of the Clinton impeachment trial was finally anything but. It presented us with a vision of just how easily we might be cut out of the political process. And now, with talk about the public's short memory already a staple of punditspeak, we're being told in effect: "OK, you've had your time in the spotlight, things have turned out the way you wanted them, but we all know that you're so shallow that none of this is going to mean squat a few months down the line, so why don't you just get out of the way and let us go back to writing you out of the equation." A stale air of desperation had crept into the debate long before Friday, whether in the House managers' lining up to don their martyr's robes or the seen-it-all insider stance that press commentators have fallen back on when it became clear that they couldn't predict the public's reaction. There's a sense that the party has moved on without them, leaving them all bathed in flop sweat.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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