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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The outrage that wasn't

The heartland spoke, and it said, "Nobody's perfect"

By Michael Kinsley

December 21, 1998
Web posted at: 2:55 p.m. EST (1955 GMT)

TIME magazine

The most significant political story of 1998 is not that the President had oral sex with a 22-year-old White House intern. The most significant political story of the year is that most citizens don't seem to think it's significant that the President had oral sex with a 22-year-old intern. Yes, yes, and he lied about it. Under oath. Blah blah blah. They still don't care. Rarely has such an unexpected popular consensus been so clear. And rarely has such a clear consensus been so unexpected.

The press and the Washington establishment have been taking a beating for getting this one so totally wrong. But that's not fair. What about you? Suppose someone told you a year ago that the big story of 1998 would be a sex scandal involving the President and that it would reveal a great "disconnect" between Washington and the rest of the country. Then suppose you were asked to guess who was on which side. Put aside your own views on Presidents, oral sex, interns, perjury and so on. Would you have predicted that Washington would be outraged and the rest of the country would shrug it off? If you say yes, I don't believe you. In 1998, thanks to Bill and Monica, we all learned something surprising about ourselves. That's what makes the public reaction, not the events themselves, the political story of the year.

But what is that something we learned? Poor Sally Quinn had her head chopped off for trying to explain, in the Washington Post, why Washington was so outraged by the President's behavior. Her bold suggestion that Washington has moral standards offended almost everybody. An equally intriguing question is why the rest of the country hasn't been outraged. The easy explanation--so easy that someone (me, unfortunately) raced early on to offer it in these pages--is that we've become sophisticated or decadent (take your pick), like the French.

"What ever happened to the scarlet letter?" has become a major despairing theme of conservative political commentary. (Or, "Values, shmalues," as America's leading value peddler, William Bennett, summarized the apparent new culture consensus to the New York Times recently.) Social conservatives used to be smug populists who tarred their critics as out-of-touch elitists. Now they shoot furious thunderbolts at the formerly all-wise American people. Although the dismay of the sanctimony set is enjoyable to watch, their despair may be somewhat misplaced.

Americans don't necessarily think adultery and perjury are perfectly O.K. What they may think--what they certainly know, from personal experience--is that life is complicated and people often make a mess of it. It's complicated and messy in ways the language of politics can't describe or even acknowledge. They may think Hillary doesn't love him, or they may think all men have their brains in their crotch, or they may think Monica made it too easy, or they may have no theory at all. But while Washington boils the narrative down to issues--adultery, lies under oath--Americans who come to the story out of human interest rather than professional obligation are more likely to fill it out with details derived from their own life and the lives around them.

Most people don't want to live in a society that actually tries to make life as normal as we pretend. Or a society that stops us from pretending to more normality than we achieve. Not that everybody is an adulterer or a perjurer. Perhaps there are people who have nothing to be ashamed of. Even they have messes and complications. Is there anybody with no secrets he or she would be tempted to commit perjury for? That's not a blanket excuse for perjury. But when the perjury was a your-secrets-or-your-life stickup staged by a prosecutor who couldn't nail his target on anything else, anyone with an ounce of imagination is tempted to excuse it. People who flesh out the Bill-and-Monica story rather than stripping it down do not imagine that Bill Clinton will go unpunished unless Congress takes him to the woodshed. He'll suffer plenty.

This is not a morally bankrupt notion. In fact, there are obvious biblical resonances: original sin, the flesh is weak and so on. The anti-Clinton vengeance seekers claim to hate the sin while loving the sinner, but their hatred of the sinner is so obvious and so extreme that it even casts doubt on how much they actually hate the sin. Most people don't even pretend to love this particular sinner. But they see how a guy can go from succumbing to momentary temptation to lying about it to a grand jury, and they see it as a seamless human story, not as a series of discrete actions. That's why the Starr report's prurient narrative backfired so badly: by putting flesh on the bones, it made the story plausible. And that is the fatal first step toward empathy. Comic details like gifts of poetry and the semen-stained dress make it harder, not easier, for reasonable people to remain solemn enough for an impeachment.

This appreciation that life is complicated and people are funny has burst on our politics in other ways that most seers, professional and amateur, failed to predict. Tolerance of gays is an example. Despite horrible episodes like this year's torture-murder of Matthew Shepard, the general public is clearly losing patience with homophobia. Even the most obviously prejudiced politician or anti-gay political activist now feels obliged to deny any anti-gay bias, even when demonstrating one. It would be nice if this was because people concluded that gays are perfectly normal. But it's even better if people realize that nobody is perfectly normal.

Or take a small thing like flag burning. Actually, it wasn't always so small. Only a few years ago, a constitutional amendment to ban this activity--the first-ever modification of the Bill of Rights--seemed inevitable. No one dared oppose it without expressing deep horror that anyone would contemplate an act so perverse. What ever happened to all that? People didn't decide that it's O.K. to burn the flag. But maybe they decided that if some weirdo gets his rocks off by burning the flag, what's it to me? My Uncle Bernie used to stir-fry his underwear and feed it to the cat.

This sounds like straightforward libertarianism, but it's not quite the same thing. Libertarians try to persuade you that this or that form of aberrant behavior is actually harmless or beneficial. They believe that freedom from various legal or social restraints makes the individual a better person. What public response to the White House scandal demonstrates is more like the opposite: a belief that we're all weirder than we care to admit, and it's best not to get too pious about it.

Another issue of this sort coming along at year's end is assisted suicide. It is unstoppable. The medical and legal and religious establishments are against it. But people in general are increasingly for it--and for it with surprising intensity. Why? Out of empathy for someone trapped in life's messy complications. In this case empathy is enhanced by the knowledge that they not only could be that person but very likely will be. Abstract principles--even correct ones, or ones you believe in--can't compete. No jury will convict Dr. Kevorkian. Maybe if there were a censure option.

One thing people could be saying in their opposition to impeachment is that we all have the right to our flaws--even the President. Or at least that we don't want the government wringing them out of us. In that sense the new tolerance is not a rejection of conservative values but an application of the lessons conservatives have been teaching. If you can't trust the government to raise taxes or educate children, why on earth would you trust it to discipline people for sexual misbehavior and the inevitable complications that follow? Let communities, families, churches and individuals do that, just as they're supposed to perform other formerly public functions. A pro-impeachment commentator recently suggested that the nation would be "morally bankrupt" if we declined to punish President Clinton merely because nobody's perfect. But maybe what America decided in 1998 was not to abandon morality. Maybe we just decided to privatize it.


Cover Date: December 28, 1998

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