Article excerpt

Everyone from Alan Dershowitz to a front-page classified advertiser in the New York Times has sounded the alarm about "sexual McCarthyism" in connection with Kenneth Starr, his report and all the rest.

The word "McCarthyism," as many have pointed out [see Navasky, "Dialectical McCarthyism(s)," July 20], is a misnomer since it describes a phenomenon that began before the junior senator from Wisconsin arrived on the scene and persisted after he was retired from it. And each time this umbrella term for the excesses of the anti-Communist crusade is recycled as a metaphor for the latest political mugging, it loses something of its original power and precision as a description of a social pathology.

Moreover, in the case of Starr & Co. the metaphor seems inexact because McCarthy was notorious for the sloppiness of his methods, the manipulation of numbers (first there were 205, then fifty-seven, then eighty-one card-carrying Communists in the State Department) and, as often as not, getting the wrong guy. Whereas the sexual allegations against Clinton appear to be well documented, and Starr seems obsessively precise and meticulous (although the closer one looks at his report the less confidence one has in its integrity).

Is "sexual McCarthyism" a misleading metaphor for what is happening? Not really. Though there are obvious differences, there are at least three significant similarities between then and now. It's important to identify what they are before too many reputations get shredded, too many democratic values violated, too many dangerous precedents established, too much privacy invaded.

First and foremost, there is the attempt to demonize a political target as the Enemy Other. Historians like the late Frank Donner have demonstrated how the great Red hunt of the fifties exploited the nativist impulse, which identifies the foreign with the radical and the immoral.

In the days of the domestic cold war it meant Hoover, McCarthy, Nixon, HUAC, et al.--heered on by such as the Rev. Billy Graham and the American Legion--arguing that to be a Communist (or fellow traveler) was to be a "dirty Red," an agent of an international conspiracy, a spy. The mason Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials of the 1600s, spoke so eloquently to the 1950s was that just as there were no witches in Salem, there was no internal Red menace in the United States of the fifties--no Enemy Other that justified the hysteria that resulted in the wholesale invasion of the rights and liberties of citizens.

Today we have independent counsel Kenneth Starr, Representatives Henry Hyde and Newt Gingrich, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist waiting in the wings to preside over impeachment proceedings in the Senate--cheered on by such as the Christian Coalition and William Bennett--arguing in effect that to have (dirty) sex in the Oval Office means one should be thrown out of office. The Enemy Other is sexual rather than political deviance, the target of opportunity is the President rather than the CP. Arthur Miller's image of a witch hunt fueled by repressed sexuality leading to a form of cultural hysteria survives from the fifties to link the two episodes.

Second, the Red hunters of the fifties succeeded in deploying the legal process to punish people for activities that may have been politically and culturally anathema, but in and of themselves were not crimes. …