• U.S.

Where The Right Went Wrong

9 minute read
Richard Lacayo

In this year of unrequited love and loyalty betrayed, the most painful story of broken hearts doesn’t involve Bill and Monica or Bill and Hillary or even Monica and Linda. It’s American conservatives and the American people. And the saddest romantic outcry of the year wasn’t Monica telling Bill, “I need you right now, not as a President, but as a man!” It was the sigh of perplexity that issued a few weeks ago from William J. Bennett. It appeared in the New York Times in a story about how conservatives were coming to grips with the fact that most people did not want Bill Clinton pushed out of office. And Bennett, the author of The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, was left to shake his head at how the American people had abandoned him. “For the first time in my adult life,” he said, “I’m not in sync. I don’t get it.”

That wasn’t just Bennett’s customary gravitas. It was the sound of conservatism in despair, a bewildered keening that could just as easily have come from Gary Bauer or Robert Bork or William Kristol. All year the political right awaited the moment when everyone would agree that Ken Starr’s investigation was the institutional expression of a national consensus, namely that the President’s relationship with Lewinsky was not simply wrong but criminal. That means it was something that it was the proper business of government to discover, interrogate, rip to pieces, expose and punish. What happened of course is that most people signaled, through polls and then on Election Day, that maybe they didn’t feel that way. As the events of December made plain, how those people felt didn’t matter much. Even so, Clinton’s most headlong pursuers were denied the pleasure of imagining that everybody else was cheering them on. While the President was finally caught in the machinery of impeachment, it was a climax that most people said, again and again, they did not want.

How did conservatives, who used to boast that they were at one with ordinary Americans, get it so wrong? The answer begins with the end of the cold war, when the collapse of the Soviet Union gave them the opportunity to focus on the culture wars at home. Optimistic libertarians, the kind who believe that free choice is good and that free markets foster it, are still to be found in the Republican Party. But the more influential voices on the right these days are bleaker. They see America becoming a cesspit of promiscuity and godlessness and blue dresses with who knows what on them, a place where some sexual interludes have to be specified as being “in person,” as the Starr report does, so you can distinguish them from the ones you might have, say, over the phone.

For them, government interference with private economic behavior remains a bad thing, but regulation of other kinds of private behavior, chiefly meaning sex, is something America needs more of. This is the line of thought represented most famously by Robert Bork in his 1996 best seller, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Bork warns that America is in the grip of a radical individualism that recognizes no limit to the right of personal gratification, one for which the pleasure principle is the only principle that counts.

Bork blames it all on the triumph of “modern liberalism,” the mixture of hedonism and egalitarianism that is the legacy, of course, of the 1960s. One thing his analysis sidesteps is the way muscular, indelicate capitalism, which he largely favors, chews up every precious thing that stands in its way, including small towns, small farms, old institutions and you. Also overlooked is the way in which an extra measure of freedom has made life just a tad more livable for women and minorities. In Bork’s view liberalism, all by itself, is at the root of all current predicaments. And he is worried that after 30 years its contamination of American life is irreversible. “We must, then, take seriously the possibility…that the degeneracy we see about us will only become worse.”

Considered that way, the nation’s failure to rally around Starr is further proof of the general moral decay. It used to be an article of faith among conservatives that the natural goodness of the American people would be unleashed once we got the government off our backs. (Remember Newt Gingrich?) Lately, however, conservatives find themselves entertaining the opposite thought, that we have all become so heedless and self-regarding that we can no longer be relied upon to make moral judgments. This summer James Dobson, the Christian radio broadcaster, was all but calling for a new American people to replace the defective present model. Before the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr thing is over, it will have pushed conservatism into an oddball neo-Platonism, one that envisions an ideal “American people” of whom the real ones are just a shabby reminder.

The moralists misunderstand two things. One is that Starr’s rejection by most Americans was itself an ironic triumph of conservatism. For the past 50 years the right has claimed that government can’t perform most public purposes, whether those might be educating kids, caring for the poor or buying toilet seats for aircraft carriers at popular prices. This was an attack that started, of course, in the antigovernment rhetoric of the 1960s left. In the ’90s Gingrich and his House revolutionaries consolidated that critique and focused it on Congress, assuring us that the place was a ship of fools. Two years ago, when former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander ran in the G.O.P. presidential primaries, he built a campaign slogan around the ineptitude of Congress: “Cut their pay and send them home.” Abbie Hoffman couldn’t have said it better.

That line of thought is now embedded in the national psyche. If people flinched at impeachment this year, it was partly a sign that Washington has been more effectively delegitimized than anybody, left or right, ever dreamed possible. When it came time to decide what institution should judge the cross-eyed blunderings of Bill Clinton, who was left to say government was up to the job? And because of the way that both the Starr investigation and impeachment went forward–sometimes a legal process, sometimes just politics where the rules of prosecution didn’t apply–it was also hard to claim that the ideal of law lent the thing an extra measure of ironclad credibility.

More than that, the whole mad pursuit touched too crudely upon sex. Privacy is a vexed area of American law. We know the Bill of Rights marks off certain areas of life. After two centuries we don’t know which. Neither does the Supreme Court. What we are certain about privacy is that it’s something like what Potter Stewart, the late Supreme Court Justice, said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” In an age of hidden cameras and high tabloid journalism and lawyers for everything, people sense that their lives are in play as never before. And sensing that, they made a judgment this year that political processes are too crude as a means to render judgments on matters as complicated as who touched whom where and why.

One other way to know that conservatives also picked the wrong time to make a stand on privacy is that states have been busy lately extricating themselves from the job of sex police. In the same year that Starr was literally sifting through Lewinsky’s dirty laundry, two more states continued a decade-long trend by which their courts and legislatures have been disavowing old sodomy laws, which made oral and anal sex illegal, sometimes just for homosexuals, sometimes for heterosexuals as well. In November the Georgia supreme court struck down one such law in that state. It was the same statute that had been narrowly upheld 12 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bowers v. Hardwick, a landmark setback to gay rights.

The Hardwick in question was Michael Hardwick, who had literally found a police officer in his bedroom. (The officer had come to Hardwick’s house to serve a warrant for failure to pay a fine for public drunkenness, discovered him in bed with another guy and arrested him for that.) The Bowers was Michael Bowers, who was attorney general of Georgia. Last year, when Bowers ran unsuccessfully in Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial primary, it emerged that at the same time that he was prosecuting Hardwick, he was in the midst of a 10-year adulterous affair with an office employee. Georgia law also made adultery a crime. No doubt Bowers’ realities were complicated.

This is precisely where the media got it wrong as well. Government and media–two bumptious and vainglorious institutions–are not the best places to look for judgments on anybody’s personal life. To admit that is not the same as saying that “nobody cares” what Clinton and Lewinsky did. Or that no one is willing any longer to render moral judgments or apply those judgments to others. Or to say that jumping the interns, even the ones who snap their thongs, is anything other than pathetic, unseemly and wrong. It simply means that most people do not accept either government or media, those two clanging vessels, to speak for them on questions touching upon the most private of private behavior.

So on one side we have the physical and ethical gropings of Bill Clinton. But on the other are the hidden tape recorders and pornographic inquiries of Ken Starr. What most people decided this year is that if those are our choices, then Clinton at his most unbuckled and slippery is still less a threat to American values than Starr. They decided that Starr’s questions are worse than Clinton’s lies. That’s a moral judgment too.

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