MANY AMERICANS - and not only those who admire President Clinton - are appalled by what has just happened in Washington and wish that it had not. Why should private consensual conduct between adults (however outre) be used to humiliate a national leader? Has America gone mad?
There is a plausible response to the attack mounted by right-wing Clinton- haters and Kenneth Starr. You can't change human nature; political leaders have lived irregular private lives since time immemorial; everyone lies about sex. Indeed, this argument should be especially persuasive to us here.
One of the first signs of the new morality in American politics were the Senate hearings for Senator John Tower, accused of liking a drink and female companionship. At the time, I could not help thinking that Churchill had led us through one great war on what many doctors would now call a functional alcoholic's daily intake, and Lloyd George through another when, as AJP Taylor put it, he was the first prime minister since the Duke of Grafton to live openly with his mistress. Both men did, after all, win their wars.
Unlike Lloyd George, Gladstone was a pious Christian, and (despite his quaint encounters with London prostitutes) he was a faithful husband. And he famously said that seven of the 11 prime ministers he had known had been adulterers, which was not said to imply that they were unfit for office.
But are Clinton's partisans the people to complain? Too many of them are hoist by their own petards. In the Seventies, liberal Democrats detested President Nixon and invoked any means to bring him down, from media aggression to the Independent Counsel Act. In the Nineties, conservative Republicans detest Clinton and are using media aggression and an independent counsel to try to bring him down.
And some of Clinton's friends are the very people who led the attack on Clarence Thomas when he was nominated to the Supreme Court. If it is abject and degrading for the American republic when the President is interrogated by a grand jury about his "inappropriate" amorous activity (and I would certainly agree that it is), was it not equally abject and degrading to see the Senate solemnly discussing pubic hairs on a can of Coke? Was what Justice Thomas supposedly did to Anita Hill worse than what …