The Undertow

As the 1990s began, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argued that America was
due for a
new era of affirmative government in keeping with the cycle of
liberal and
conservative periods that runs through our history. Uncannily, Bill
Clinton's
election came right on schedule, roughly 90 years after Theodore
Roosevelt
became president, 60 years after Franklin Roosevelt, and 30 years
after John F.
Kennedy. But if Clinton benefited from a change in the political
tides (and it
is still an open question whether he really has), he now faces a
powerful
undertow that threatens his ability to lead. By the undertow I mean
the current
of deep distrust, of suspicion of evil purposes and hidden crimes,
that has
emerged from the margins of political respectability to become the
everyday
language of the press and political debate.

Although Clinton's critics say the problems he faces are of his own
making, the
undertow has not struck him alone. The frenzy of suspicion that hit
the
presidency in 1994 hit the Congress years earlier. For several
decades, opinion
surveys have registered a decline of public confidence in nearly
all our
institutions. That sour mood has now turned positively rancid and
created an
environment where the "paranoid style in American politics," as
Richard
Hofstadter once called it, can become the subtext of Wall Street
Journal

editorials and the evening news and set much of the tone of public
life.

Clinton might be less vulnerable to the undertow if he were buoyed
by stronger
organization from below. During the Progressive Era, the New Deal,
and the
sixties, the force of change came not only from elected leaders but
from broad
movements of reform that reshaped the national agenda and mobilized
the
participation of groups who previously had little role or
influence. There are
no comparable movements today, certainly not to the left of the
president,
which could both challenge and support him and thereby, if only
indirectly,
help him govern from the center. Furthermore, many of the older
institutions
inherited from earlier movements, such as labor and civil rights,
have
undergone a long and deep erosion and cannot offset the mobilized
resistance to
change from the right.

Other political realities also increase Clinton's vulnerability to
doubt. The
overhang of the structural deficit from the Reagan years has left
him only
narrow room for new initiatives; he has pledged first to bring down
the
deficit, and he has done so but received little credit for it.
Meanwhile,
people want to see results, and it is hard to convince them that
change is real
when change so often takes the form of pilot programs. Clinton's
political
leverage is also limited because of his own narrow victory, the
narrowness of
his majorities in Congress, and the prospect of further erosion of
those
majorities at the mid-term
elections--the mere anticipation of which has stiffened Republican
opposition.

Thus, Clinton's vulnerability is structural. He is trying to pursue
an
ambitious agenda in a time of tight fiscal and political
constraints. The
ambitious agenda earns him enemies and energizes the opposition;
the need to
compromise, to phase in and scale back initiatives, creates
disappointment and
confusion among friends and reinforces doubts that he can keep his
word.

Partly as a result, there is a stronger mobilization of the
passions today on
the right than on the left. Turn on talk radio and you can hear the
voices of
angry men (and they are disproportionately men), bitter about
social and
cultural changes over the past several decades that they believe
have come at
their expense. Much of that anger is now directed at the president
and Mrs.
Clinton. Her symbolic role in the mind of the opposition is
unmistakable; the
gender tensions that have been boiling for two decades have now
spilled on to
the presidency. Some on the far right are as unreconciled to the
results of the
1992 election as they are to women's equality, and on both fronts
they seem
bent on staging what amounts to a cultural coup d'etat.

The link between this angry, unreconciled opposition and the
undertow of
suspicion affecting the Clinton presidency is direct. A hard core
of Clinton
haters generated the Paula Jones lawsuit and serves as rumor
central for an
endless string of allegations, such as stories that Vincent Foster
was
murdered. This effort would have had little success, however, if it
did not
intersect with the new dynamics of the media. There used to be a
clear line
between the tabloid and the mainstream press. Thanks to intense
media
competition and the loss of traditional standards of journalistic
self-restraint,
that line has now practically been erased. The networks have
created one
tabloid TV magazine after another, often anchored by the same
people who anchor
the evening news; and the evening news broadcasts themselves
(particular on
CBS) have acquired the same tone of breathless innuendo. With more
broadcast
outlets, the appetite has increased for scandal-mongering
and sensationalism. I would not have thought that anything would
make me
nostalgic for television as it once was, but the old network news
operations,
for all their faults, had an ethic of editorial responsibility that
is
disappearing.

It is now almost a ritual of our culture first to elevate and
celebrate
personalities, then to humiliate and destroy them. Fame is an
incitement to
investigative reporting and its tabloid imitation, and the art of
biography has
become the continuation of tabloid exposure by other means. Today,
if a
biographer lacks sources for dialogue or events, no problem: he can
make them
up, and if the subject is a Kennedy or others in the public
spotlight, so much
the worse for them. We have become so used to reading about what
public figures
might feel or might think that we scarcely notice
that much of
what passes for psychological insight even in the high-tone
press is no more than a respectable form of insinuation. Of course,
old-fashioned
insinuation is also respectable, if the Wall Street Journal
editorial
page is any indication. Character assassination (which the
Journal's
editorialists have made their speciality) is now not only sport, as
Vincent
Foster said in his suicide note; it carries no risks for the
assassins. Who in
America has lately paid any penalty for making false and vicious
charges about
someone in public life? The Supreme Court has reduced the
potential costs of
falsehood effectively to zero, while the payoff in self-promotion,
not to mention movie rights, can be highly attractive. You do not
have to be a
believer in pure economic rationality to see that any society that
sets the
incentives so sharply in favor of the accuser will be awash in
accusations
about the prominent.

That the charges so often have a sexual character is also
symptomatic of our
time. In the age of Geraldo and Oprah, there are no inhibitions
against public
disclosure; shame has ceased to be a deterrent. Ceremonial
degradation, often
self-degradation,
has become entertainment, and what better subject for entertainment
than sexual
exposes. What charges of secret subversive associations were to the
Cold War,
charges of private sexual misconduct have become in our day. The
term "sexual
McCarthyism" is exact. Reputations are contaminated, often without
any
possibility of the charges being disproved. And those who must
wrestle in the
mud, even if they ultimately prevail, still get mud-stained.
Paula Jones says the man who is now president of the United States
commited
degrading acts in private. Since no one else was present (if an
encounter took
place at all), her charges can never be corroborated. Nor is it
easy for the
president to prove a negative. An assassin could not hope to strike
with so
little risk.

I do not claim to know the truth about the president's inner
character, but I
know that something has changed about the character of our public
life. In the
past, opponents seem to have observed limits to how far they would
take
personal attacks on a president. It is interesting to speculate
whether our
country would have been better served if Presidents Jefferson,
Jackson,
Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy--all of whom are generally still
revered as
among the greatest in our history--had been forced to answer in
public or
in court the charges of sexual misconduct levelled against them; or
if a
special prosecutor had been appointed to probe Lyndon Johnson's
early business
deals after he ascended to the presidency. No president has ever
before faced
legal proceedings, or even an official investigation, regarding his
conduct
prior to becoming president. The reason is not that they all led
blameless
lives but that political conflict took place within certain bounds.
The bounds
have now been breached, with little thought to the long-run
effects on political civility.

Clinton, of course, may yet ride out the undertow; his fortitude
and tenacity
are astonishing. According to the polls, wide majorities do not
believe his
conduct prior to becoming president is relevant to a judgment about
his
performance in office. As of May, he continued to enjoy a better
than 50
percent approval rating. That, however, was roughly 15 to 20 points
off where
his predecessors stood at comparable points in the business
cycle--a
measure of what the undertow has thus far cost him. If he is forced
to defend
himself in court in either the Paula Jones or Whitewater cases, it
could cost
him far more.



Subscribe to The American Prospect



What the undertow has cost the country, no one yet can measure.
Politics and
public life in America are becoming too dangerous, not just for the
politicians, but for the health of democracy. The undertow doesn't
just
threaten Clinton personally; it is thwarting the changes that the
American
people voted for in 1992, including the very reforms that would
help restore
confidence in public remedy. What the president's opponents failed
to stop in
the elections, they are now trying to stop through different means
by creating
a crisis of presidential legitimacy. This coup must fail.



You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement