In the aftermath of the Senate trial of the president, the nation has
been struggling to "move on," to put the scandal
and the partisan standoff over the impeachment process behind it and to
get on with the political business at hand. Both left and right have stakes
forward, particularly as a new election cycle approaches. With a few
exceptions, the consensus on both sides reflects this desire. Nonetheless,
closure is not a foregone conclusion.
One distraction has been the testimony of Juanita Broaddrick, previously known as Jane Doe No. 5, whom the president
allegedly raped in an Arkansas hotel room 20 years ago. Another is
Monica Lewinsky's TV appearance and the publication of her gossipy book. Both have poured fuel on old fires.
Some suicidal Republicans, Bill Kristol most prominent among them, have
called for new congressional investigations into the Broaddrick charges.
In a Weekly Standard cover editorial that asks, "Can't we just move on?"
Kristol throws down this regrettable gauntlet: "The only honorable
answer to the question is no." Democrats, on the other hand, have
responded to the new charges with an equally familiar posture --
agnostic attitudes toward the allegations themselves coupled with pleas
to bury the whole mess, so that once again they appear, as a group, as partisan
defenders of the reprobate himself.
The real problem underlying this stasis is that none of the major
players really want to examine the events of this deeply troubling year in
a way in which they would have to admit where they went wrong.
Mercifully, one group has actually begun to do just that,
and, as unlikely to Salon readers as this may sound, it is the Christian
right. In a reaction triggered by the impeachment failure, several leaders
of the Christian political community have begun to discuss whether religious
conservatives should now withdraw from the political process altogether. In
a stunning confession of misjudgment, Paul Weyrich -- the man who gave the
Majority its name -- has announced that his movement's 25-year
political effort has been based on an assumption he now realizes
was an error. This is the assumption that the majority of the American
people share his moral outlook. Weyrich puts it this way: "If there
really were a moral majority out there, Bill Clinton would have been
driven out of office months ago."
This is certainly correct, and refreshing. (Would that more politicians
had the courage to admit publicly they were wrong!) Weyrich's view of
his political failure and of America's unreceptive attitude toward his
moral viewpoint is quite stark. "We got our people elected. But that did
not result in the adoption of our agenda. The reason, I think, is that
politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the
collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an
ever-wider sewer. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural
collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply
Weyrich is certainly wrong about America. In the popular culture, it's
the year of romance ("Shakespeare in Love") and duty, honor, country
("Saving Private Ryan"). As for the civic culture, every social indicator
Bill Bennett and other conservatives have used to describe its downward
arc through the era of liberal irresponsibility is currently headed in the
right direction. Crime rates, teenage pregnancies and out-of-wedlock
births are on the decline. Combine that with full employment and it would
be more appropriate to say that things haven't been better for a long time.
Only someone attached to an irrecoverable past, and therefore hostile to
change as such, could react so negatively toward a culture that is doing all
right by any reasonable measure.
But Weyrich is correct about religious conservatism like his.
In fact, he is right about religious politics across the board. One of
the most enduring negative consequences of the '60s "revolution" was
the injection of chiliastic ambitions into the normal political culture.
The utopian idea of a "liberation" that would encompass both the
personal and the social has roots not only in Karl Marx and the Paris
Commune, but in Martin Luther and the Puritan settlement. "The personal
is political," a '60s slogan that originated with the feminist left,
could just as well describe the moral aspirations of the Christian
right. Moreover, it could easily stand as a summary statement of the
attitudes that created the impeachment debacle.
"The great debates in American politics," according to Christian
candidate Gary Bauer, "end up being essentially moral debates." In his
current stump speech, Bauer likes to compare the anti-abortion crusade
to Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery struggle. It is, he cries, "the
soul of the Republican Party." In fact, the abortion issue is not the
soul of the Republican Party but rather its most divisive issue. In
comparing abortion to slavery, moreover, Bauer conveniently overlooks
the fact that the slavery issue was too morally divisive to be resolved
by the political process. It took a bloody civil war to do that. If
civil war is what Gary Bauer wants, he should be prepared to say so and
to recognize his brotherhood with other radicals of the past, including
the '60s activists who used that identical analogy to identify (and
legitimize) their war with America. This is not the voice of responsible
politics and has no place in a pluralistic polity, let alone a party
that aspires to be "conservative."
Everyone who subscribes to the idea of American pluralism thereby
accepts the idea that there are limits to what politics can accomplish,
and to what is proper advocacy in a democratic society. Democracies work
through coalitions, achieved through compromises that are both moral and
political. Compromise is the condition of civil stability and peace. To
articulate what is, in effect, the political equivalent of a call for
civil war in a democracy like ours is nihilistic and destructive. The
fundamental premise of pluralism is that morally incompatible
communities agree to live with each other and respect their differences,
and work together through political compromise.
That is why the new sober turn in religious conservatism is to be
welcomed. The religious right has contributed greatly to the renewed
public sense of responsibility and accountability in America over the
last few decades (a fact the secular culture seems incapable of
acknowledging). But now several of its leaders are beginning to
acknowledge that the movement may be approaching the limits of what it
can hope to achieve politically.
Paul Weyrich concedes that the majority of Americans do not share his
values and, unlike Bauer, accepts that the political agendas of a
democracy are necessarily circumscribed by the shared values of its
constituencies. Those who are unhappy with those values must turn to
avenues other than politics for the answers they seek. Moral goals can
be achieved only by persuading a majority that those goals are right. And
politics, which is an arena of moral compromise, does not provide the
best means for accomplishing that task.
A new book by two former leaders of the Moral Majority makes the point
clearly: "Those who are looking in whole or in part to the government to
correct the problems of America are looking in the wrong place." As one
of the authors explained to a reporter for the New York Times, "Moral
transformation will come one person at a time, one family at a time, one
street at a time, one community at a time. It will not come from the
government." This is exactly right, and political moralists on both
sides of the aisle (including the sin-taxers in the White House who want
to save citizens from their bad habits) would do well to heed it. The
failure to heed it is what led to the political fiasco of the
Now that the evidence is in, few people would deny that President
Clinton is morally corrupt and that his corruption has had serious
consequences for his office and for the general welfare of the American
people. What could have been done to deal with this problem and how was
it botched? These are critical questions because it is the manner in
which the corruption of the presidency was dealt with on all sides
that lies at the heart of the present impasse.
In the first place it is important to recognize the origins of the
problem in the president's own response to the exposure of his behavior.
Once this happened, the president should have acknowledged that he had
compromised his office and his own ability to fulfill his
responsibilities. Then he should have resigned. He should have resigned
not because he was morally impure or exceptionally dishonest (although
he was both), but because of the damage that would inevitably ensue to
the nation and his party if he decided to stay. (That was, after all,
why Nixon stepped down when he did, instead of taking the fight to the
bitter end.) Unfortunately, neither his responsibility to party or
country seems to have mattered to Clinton, who often seems to exhibit
certain classic sociopathic traits.
Absent a presidential conscience, the leaders of the Democratic Party
should have stepped into the vacuum and attempted to persuade Clinton to
leave. Once again, there is a parallel with Nixon. It was Barry
Goldwater and Howard Baker who finally informed Nixon it was
time to leave. Had Democrats followed their example and joined the
chorus of 150 American newspapers who had called on Clinton to resign,
Clinton's departure would have been almost inevitable. Had he still
refused to resign, he then would have been impeached and removed by a
truly bipartisan vote.
That didn't happen, however. Instead, Democrats went into a defensive mode in which they lost all connection to any discernible principle other than
partisan political interest. (It is only one of the many bizarre aspects
of these events that while they marched in a remarkable lockstep,
Democrats were able to pin the "partisan" label on their Republican
Given the resistance of the president and his party to an appropriate
remedy, the president's prosecutors and political opponents responded
with a series of miscues that greatly compounded the already existing
Independent counsel Kenneth Starr, to pick the most important offender,
should never have entered the murky waters of the Paula Jones case in an
attempt to make his own against the president. The sexual harassment law
that allows prosecutors to probe the intimate personal histories of
defendants is a brainchild of the moralists of the left. In particular,
it is the work of the same feminists these events have discredited by
slamming them up against a human complexity that remains forever out of
reach of their ideological catch phrases. The bottomless probing into
the emotional quicksand of human relationships is the very stuff of
"sexual McCarthyism." It is a pursuit that conservatives above all
should find both dangerous and abhorrent.
It is true that, as Republicans claimed, the president lied under oath.
But it is also true, as the Democrats maintained, that the lies were
about sex and that the law, as the saying goes, is sometimes an ass.
Particularly a law devised by radical feminists to ensnare demonized
males. What Clinton's lies revealed about his lack of character is one
thing. Whether the crime he was shown to have committed actually merited
his removal is quite another. This question is now moot, because the
House Republicans failed to convince the American public that it was.
The impeachment process is a political process, not a legal or moral
exercise. For all their political courage and for all their concern for
constitutional principle, the House Republicans and the Republican Party
failed in the only political task that really mattered: persuading the
American public that the president should be removed. Therefore, the
appropriate course for them was to concede the terrain, as Paul Weyrich
has done: to admit defeat. They could have done this after the November
elections sent a strong message as to where the American people stood:
They did not believe their president; they were pretty well convinced he
had committed a crime; they did not want him removed. Instead,
Republicans pushed the process where it could not go and inevitably came
up short. This effort won them respect from the rank and file
convinced that the president should be impeached and gratified to see
their party stand up for principle. But it also wasted precious
political capital and precious months of political time.
Now that the impeachment process is over, some conservatives
don't want to move on and are calling for renewed
investigations into the Broaddrick allegations. But if the last year has
taught us anything, it's that these calls and allegations should be ignored.
Disturbing though the claims of Juanita Broaddrick may be, they are
irrelevant to the political process and should be disregarded by those
who have a responsibility to govern. The reason is simple. No one will
ever know what happened between Broaddrick and Clinton in that
hotel room, and no one can assess how it affects the president's conduct
of his political office now.
Whatever happened to Juanita Broaddrick happened 20 years ago. It
was not reported then and she herself has lied about it since, under
oath. Even the courts -- which are the appropriate venue for establishing
the truth or falsehood of such charges -- recognize the extreme difficulty
of establishing facts so long after the event by imposing a statute of
limitations (which the Broaddrick incident has already exceeded). The
political process, beset by partisan agendas and lacking even a jury
insulated from the defendant, is certainly incapable of doing do so.
Without the possibility of ascertaining the truth, a congressional
investigation would be just another partisan smear campaign similar to
the Democrats' successful campaign to remove Sen. Bob Packwood. (The
fact that feminists have begun to rally to Broaddrick's cause -- now
that the president who champions their political agendas can no longer
be removed -- should be a caution to Republicans who entertain these
ideas. Sometimes, who your allies are does tell you something.)
This entire destructive course in America's political life began, of
course, with the most disgraceful episode in the history of American
liberalism -- the public lynching of Justice Clarence Thomas seven years
ago over the unproved and unproveable allegations of a probably spurned
and certainly spiteful woman seven years earlier. One of the chief lessons
of the Clinton scandal is that the Anita Hill era is over. Another
should be: Good riddance.