THE PRESIDENT INSISTED the impeachment debate was about sex; Gingrich maintained it was about perjury. In reality, it was about much more. The last time the House impeached a president was in the aftermath of the Civil War, as the nation engaged in a passionate debate over the legacy of slavery and the meaning of freedom. The roots of the Clinton impeachment traced back to the cultural conflicts of the 1960s, nurtured during three decades of partisan wrangling, cultivated by a host of powerful interest groups, and brought into sharp focus by a zealous special prosecutor.
In both cases, the decision to impeach a president was part of the nation’s ongoing effort to absorb the profound impact of wrenching social and cultural change. By the time the Radical Republicans in Congress voted to impeach Andrew Johnson in 1868, the war between North and South had been settled, but the nation was still fighting over the meaning of victory. In the modern culture wars there was no dramatic surrender at Appomattox, only an ongoing series of skirmishes, culminating in a constitutional crisis of epic proportions. The Civil War was fought over the lofty issue of freedom versus slavery. At the heart of the cultural civil war of the 1960s was the expansion of sexual freedom and individual expression. It was appropriate that the first representative of the ‘60s generation to occupy the White House would produce a heated national debate over sex. “Sex had been a label to explain a cluster of ideas and values that had upset Clinton’s enemies for decades,” observed Sidney Blumenthal. “He had always been a screen on which were projected conservative feelings about the 1960s, the counterculture, and race. Through it all, sex had been a tracer, a code,” he wrote. “In politics, sex is rarely just about sex.”1