Magazine article The American Prospect

The Storm amid the Calm

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Storm amid the Calm

Article excerpt

The Framers of the Constitution, as we remember from our civics lessons, sought to design a government so well checked and balanced that it would resist the unruly passions of the multitude. During the impeachment of President Clinton by the House of Representatives, it was impossible not to feel that those expectations had been inverted. The frenzy was in the government, while public opinion remained a rock of stability. Indeed, throughout the past year, sensational events have come and gone, yet the public's judgment of President Clinton and what ought to be done about him has hardly changed. The storm rages, the pundits thunder, but the sea is quiet--people shake their heads, go about their business, and hope only that the unruly mob in their capital will calm down.

It is still too early to reach any definitive conclusions about the significance of the impeachment of President Clinton. As I write in late December, the House has voted two articles of impeachment, and there is debate about whether the Senate will hold a full trial. It seems virtually impossible that the Senate will convict the President, but the story thus far has taken so many improbable turns that only the reckless would predict the last act. After the Starr Report created a drumbeat for Clinton's resignation, the grand jury video was supposed to finish him off. Instead, it generated sympathy and support. The voters then defied expectations by giving the Democrats an edge in the congressional elections, and rather than Clinton falling, it was Gingrich who fell. No sooner had impeachment been pronounced dead than Republicans proceeded to impeach Clinton, in the midst of which the new speaker-elect, Robert Livingston, preemptively fell on his sword because of his own sexual infidelities.

And how did the public react to what was, after all, only the second impeachment of a president for "high crimes and misdemeanors" in American history? Clinton's approval ratings hit an all-time high of 72 percent, while the Republicans' ratings nose-dived.

A script with this plot would be too far-fetched even for Hollywood unless it was intended as a comedy. Of course, the Lewinsky scandal stopped being funny long before the last joke was told about the cigar or the blue dress. We have no choice but to regard impeachment as a grave constitutional matter and to be duly concerned about the procedures followed, the criteria invoked, and the precedents set. But the scandal and impeachment have also been a phenomenon of our political culture, and in that respect the events of the past year are in many ways patently ridiculous, in some ways ugly, and yet--dare I say this?--reassuring.

Since the 1960s, conservatives have been pro claiming that their values are America's values, whatever the picture of American culture and society created by an elite in Hollywood or New York. And while liberals have objected that the right's image of America was nostalgic and inaccurate, Reaganism in the 1980s and the rise of a Republican Congress in the 1990s seemed to validate the conservative insistence that theirs was the true heartbeat of America.

The Lewinsky affair has put to an unexpected test these claims about American moral values. From the beginning of the scandal, not just conservatives but the elite media as well expected the American people to be so outraged by Clinton's conduct that they would turn against him. The Starr Report rubbed our collective noses in the details of his sexual encounters; the grand jury video was intended to impress us with his squirming evasions. But the expected outrage never materialized. The opinion polls have shown large majorities consistently distinguishing Clinton's private conduct from his conduct as president; they think he is probably guilty of lying and other specific offenses but do not think those rise to the level justifying removal from office. They also disapprove of Kenneth Starr's actions as prosecutor; there is clearly a sense that his investigation has been fundamentally illegitimate, that Clinton was set up, and that many reasonable people would lie under the same circumstances. …

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