The Public Square
This is the long promised reflection on what “the Clinton affair” does or does not mean for the state of the republic. It is of course an interim reflection, since people will be trying to sort this out for many years to come. But for now at least some of the dust has settled and the main outline of the story is clear enough. I mean, of course, the story surrounding the White House intern, which, admittedly, keeps bumping into other stories. For the next little while we are stuck with a President who, beyond reasonable doubt, is guilty of perjury, tampering with witnesses, and obstruction of justice, and who probably is a rapist. That we are better off stuck with him rather than having removed him from office was, many thought, the clinching argument of Dale Bumpers, former Senator from Arkansas, during the Senate trial. “If you have difficulty because of an intense dislike of the President, and that’s understandable, rise above it,” Bumpers exhorted the Senators. “He is not the issue. He will be gone. You won’t. So don’t leave a precedent from which we may never recover and almost surely will regret. . . . After all, he’s only got two years left.That the impeached President was not the issue in an impeachment trial was among the more curious assertions in this curious affair.
But it is true that the public contention was about more than Bill Clinton. For a year and a half we have been treated to seemingly endless discussion about what all this means for our constitutional order, our political culture, and, inevitably, “the American character.” In this reflection, it is the last question that is of particular interest. This “journal of religion and public life” does not understand public life primarily in terms of politics as that term is ordinarily used. It should not be surprising, therefore, that in this space President Clinton has seldom been mentioned since his election in 1992. In fact, in more than seven years he has been mentioned about ten times, mainly in connection with his statements and actions relative to abortion. So we have hardly been obsessed with the man.
This is not to suggest, however, that I have not had definite views about him. Permit me to begin with a personal word about how I understand his sinking of our political culture in apparently bottomless mendacity. When he started running for President he was known as a “New Democrat”—meaning a liberal mildly mugged by reality—and I was inclined to see him as among the less bad of a bad lot of Democrats. Until I came across an old video of the program, I had quite forgotten that at the beginning of January 1993, I had done an extended one-on-one interview with Robert MacNeil of what was then the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour about the impending Clinton presidency. Asked by Mr. MacNeil what I expected, I answered: “I think what I expect, and maybe what I wish as well, is that he will continue on a trajectory [of] trying to move the Democratic Party into, if not the center, at least into conversational distance with most Americans. I think he has taken the lessons of the 1972 McGovern debacle very much to heart and he could have a real opportunity, especially when he speaks of a new covenant with America, to engage in a new kind of political discourse.”
Few may remember now, but a “new covenant” with the American people was a major theme of the Clinton campaign of 1992. Because he received only 43 percent of the vote, I noted, “he knows he has to reach out in trying to rebuild trust in a deeply confused and conflicted society.” “That would be a very significant contribution. There is reason to believe he might do that. There is a lot of reason to believe he might not. We have to hope for the best now with Bill Clinton; we have to hope that what he did in order to secure the nomination, which is understandable, is not the last word. He had to really lock himself in tightly to pretty extreme interest groups on issues such as abortion, school choice, homosexual rights construed as civil rights. Now the question is, now that the party is his, can he move to make the American people, this deeply conflicted people, his constituency in something like a covenant, in something like a conversation that can elevate the politics of our time.”
In that interview, I referred to our “culture war”—a term I had been using since the late 1970s—and said it was very sad that Clinton had made the economy the central issue of the campaign, and that George Bush had allowed him to do that. “That’s not what Americans are most disturbed about today,” I said. “They are disturbed about What kind of people are we? And what kind of people are we going to be?” Was I hopeful, MacNeil asked, that Clinton is prepared to lead in addressing these questions, to which I responded, “Of course. The alternative to hope is despair.” MacNeil: “Do you think he is, then?” I said, “I want to hope he is. I hope he takes advantage of what now clearly is an opportunity that no Democrat has had since McGovern.” After elaborating on that at some length, the interview concluded with my saying: “I think that, and this now is a dreadful scenario and it’s the flip side of what I said earlier, if President Clinton were to move vigorously to get passage of the [pro-abortion] Freedom of Choice Act in Congress and if he then, as he at times said he would, put Justices on the Supreme Court for whom it would be necessary to pass the litmus test of Roe v. Wade, we would have a divide, a conflict of morality in our public life, much more intense than anything we have seen since the nineteenth-century conflict over slavery. It’s a frightening prospect.”
I tried, then, to put the best construction on Clinton’s election, but I’m afraid that did not last long. As I said, I had quite forgotten about the MacNeil/ Lehrer broadcast, which is not surprising, since a few days later, on January 10, 1993, I was hit with an emergency cancer operation which I barely survived. Some days later, after I had been removed from the intensive care unit, I was lying in the hospital bed, plugged with tubes and surrounded by friends. We were watching a Clinton news conference following his inauguration, at which he announced that he was rescinding the Reagan-Bush executive orders that placed pitifully modest restrictions on government support for abortion, and said the military should be open to gays. In words that have been frequently quoted back to me since then, I painfully raised my head from the pillow and announced—in what I am told was an oracular tone—“Mark my words. We are watching a man stumbling through the rubble of a ruined presidency.” I have never had a moment’s doubt about the accuracy of that pronouncement. Nobody could know all the ways he would stumble, nor how sordid the rubble would be, but whatever promise this presidency held was ruined from the beginning.
Keeping His Word
The Clinton news conference was on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, the very day that tens of thousands were marching in the streets of Washington to give life a chance. There was nothing in Clinton’s words about his famous propensity for feeling their pain, nor even the slightest gesture of ambivalence about the slaughter of the innocents. Completely absent was any reference to a “new covenant,” or reaching out to create a “national conversation” about who we are and intend to be. For Clinton, it seemed, the thousands of marchers, and the majority of Americans who are morally troubled by abortion, did not exist. Those who believe the defense of the innocent is the great moral cause of our time were undeserving of even passing acknowledgment. In tones of unctuous self-righteousness, Clinton declared himself the champion of the presumably self-evident justice of a “woman’s right to choose.” It is the only promise that he was to keep.
The gays did not get what they wanted with the military, and on other major issues—for example, welfare reform, crime, and free trade—Clinton would prove himself to be what liberals call a “moderate” Republican. As for foreign policy, there, too, he is stumbling through ever deeper rubble. His only ambitious and unabashedly liberal proposal, the effort to socialize medicine led by his wife, went down in flames before it even came to a vote. Although pundits persist in calling him a successful politician, there have been few successes apart from presiding over the enactment of Republican policies. Only on abortion has he kept his word. Also in foreign policy, the one consistent element has been the effort to establish abortion as an internationally mandated human right. In the history books he will be most accurately described as The Abortion President.
Not all readers will agree, and I do not wish to overplay it, but I believe that abortion is the lie of which all his other lies are the excretion. It is said that, if one can lie about this, one can lie about anything. To be sure, many people are less than honest about abortion, but the discussion then turns to what ought to be done about it. Honest people can disagree about that. Honest people cannot deny what is done in abortion. With Bill Clinton, that adamantine denial leaves no room for the slightest suggestion that there might be legitimate cause for moral uneasiness. What is so striking is that this is the one uncompromised and uncompromisable position of his presidency. Never once in all these years has this famously lip-biting practitioner of welling empathy publicly acknowledged even a twitch of uncertainty about the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe v. Wade. The dogmatic assertion of a right to kill the helpless and innocent is a lie so wild that it cannot be—to use the Clinton term of art—compartmentalized.
Of course there have been many other lies. His friends and political allies have said that he is a remarkably good liar. Obviously, that is not true. A good liar does not have a reputation for being a good liar. The other lies, big and little, have been self-serving and opportunistic, as is also the abortion lie. Maybe, as many who have known him claim, he was a liar from the start. His perception of reality, they say, has always been subservient to ambition and desire. In some perverse way, Clinton may, at least most of the time, believe what he says. After meeting with Clinton early in the presidency, my colleague James Nuechterlein described him as “serially sincere.” Clinton seems to be persuaded, it is observed, that he really means whatever he is saying at the time. I don’t know if that is right. Did he believe what he was saying when, in January of last year, he told the American people he had never had any kind of sexual relationship with Miss Lewinsky? If so, we are dealing here not with an extraordinary capacity for compartmentalization but with a species of autism—an absorption in self-centered subjectivity securely insulated from reality. The external referents by which truth and falsehood are determined are made irrelevant by virtue of what appears to be a self-blinding that has brought about the spectacle now evident to all, that of a man stumbling through the rubble of a ruined presidency.
The President We Deserve?
But what does this tell us about “the character of the American people”? After all, they elected him, and did so twice. Not by a majority, to be sure, but by enough to secure his claim to the office, and securing that seems to be his main goal and achievement. The failure of the political process to remove him from office has been turned by some into an indictment of the character of the American people. The people, we are told, got the President that they deserve. In 1976 Jimmy Carter campaigned by promising America a government as good as its people. Now it is said that America has a government, or at least a President, as bad as its people. That, I believe, is a conclusion not to be lightly accepted.
Shortly after the Lewinsky scandal broke, I wrote in this space: “If, as almost all informed parties seem to believe, Mr. Clinton has during his term of office had sex with one or more women other than his wife, and if he has directly looked the American people in the eye and lied through his teeth in denying it, and if the American people know this and still allow him to continue in office, I promise critics who say I have an excessively hopeful view of the American character that I will engage in an agonizing reappraisal of my position. Obviously, I have some explaining to do, and it will take some little doing. I trust it will not be excessively agonizing for the reader.
A most doleful conclusion about the American character was announced by Paul Weyrich, President of the Free Congress Foundation, on February 16, 1999, and has been the subject of widespread commentary. Weyrich is an old war-horse of conservative causes and in the late seventies he was the one who suggested to Jerry Falwell the name “moral majority.” Now he has concluded that it was all a dreadful mistake. “What Americans would have found absolutely intolerable only a few years ago, a majority now not only tolerates but celebrates.” Until now, he says, “we have assumed that a majority of Americans basically agrees with our point of view.” “I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values.” The United States “is very close to becoming a state totally dominated by an alien ideology, an ideology bitterly hostile to Western culture.” We must now face the fact, he says, “that politics itself has failed.” Conservatives must now “secede” and form “some sort of quarantine” from the general culture. Paraphrasing the sixties slogan, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” Weyrich urges conservatives to turn off, tune out, and drop out—in the hope that they can “find places, even if it is where we physically are right now, where we can live godly, righteous, and sober lives.”
It is hard to know how to take Weyrich’s statement. Within weeks he was back at his old political stand, touting Republican presidential candidates, just as though politics had not failed after all. But he says he is deadly serious about his announcement of the end of politics. If so, it is depressing that he labored for more than thirty years under the deadly delusion of there being a moral majority that already agreed with his positions and was only awaiting the opportunity to give that agreement effective political expression. That was not the case and is not the case, and is probably never going to be the case. Most people most of the time are thoroughly indifferent to politics, which is probably just as well. For most who do pay attention, politics is mainly entertainment, much like following baseball. The public contention for moral truth is always a minority vocation; it is a task to be pursued, in St. Paul’s words to Timothy, “in season and out of season.” To say that politics has failed is to say that the American experiment has definitively failed. There have been and are today societies in which politics—free deliberation and decision about how to order public life—is precluded. It is the better part of wisdom to know that, in whatever form, it could happen here and may be happening here—as, for instance, in the judicial usurpation of politics. But the claim that it has happened here, that politics has failed, is an apocalyptic excitement to be kept on a tight leash.
There are other religious and political conservatives saying, in effect, that for thirty years they tried to wake up America and have now concluded that it can’t be done. This is the message of columnist Cal Thomas and Michigan pastor Ed Dobson in their book Blinded by Might. In fact, Dobson, after a stint with Falwell’s Moral Majority, invoked a pox on politics many years ago, and it is hard to know how seriously to take Thomas on this score. He, too, is back to his old political stand in his syndicated column that runs neck and neck with George Will’s in being the most published in the country. But after the failed impeachment effort, the Weyrich-Thomas-Dobson line seems to be gaining ground. To the extent that they are issuing a caution against the dangers of politicizing religion and are underscoring the limits of what can be achieved through politics, their statements should be welcomed. But it is more than that. It expresses a painful deflation of political expectations that can only be explained by a prior and thoroughly unwarranted inflation. In addition, it purports to know much too much about the character of the American people.
Enter the Neo-Puritans
Last October Andrew Sullivan set the party line for one liberal reading of what has happened to conservatism. In a New York Times Magazine article, “Going Down Screaming,” he depicted conservatives as embracing a neo-Puritanism that increasingly rails against a decadent culture. This journal, he said, is “the spiritual nerve center” of a new conservatism of “moral righteousness” (he meant self-righteousness, of course) that sounds increasingly like a twisted replay of the radicalism of the sixties. Alan Wolfe is a sociologist at Boston University who directed interviews of two hundred suburbanites and concluded in One Nation, After All that America is a country of more or less happy liberals. He, too, has had fun with the Weyrich-Thomas-Dobson claims, noting the similarity with sixties radicalism, and suggesting that we may be witnessing the breakup of the alliance between economic conservatives and the “moral regulators” in the Republican party. Both kinds of conservatives, he says, subscribed to a “new class theory” which claimed that sundry elites were radically at odds with the values of most Americans. The Clinton affair, he says, gave the majority a chance to take a stand against the “relativism” of the elites. “But the opposite happened. As the President’s popularity held steady and even grew, conservative moralists decided that the problem was not Bill Clinton but the large majority of Americans who wanted him to remain in office. Faced with its first test, the new class theory failed.”
New class theory was and is a good deal more sophisticated than Alan Wolfe suggests, but that is another argument. I cite him only to illustrate the uses to which some liberals are putting what they take to be conservative despair of the American character. Columnist William Safire is a conservative of a strongly libertarian bent, and he reaches similar conclusions. He is puzzled that so many are so fanatically loyal to a rascal like Clinton. (Forget that George Stephanopolous, Dee Dee Myers, and a host of other associates do not seem to be terribly loyal. The White House calls them the “commentraitors.”) Based on his admittedly unscientific reading of responses he has received, Safire suggests that, if people feel they have to choose between Clinton and the neo-Puritans, they’ll take Clinton. “There we have a snapshot of . . . this President’s remarkably solid support. The loyalists’ Clinton: not a reckless predator of women but a victim of an elitist-moralist plot; not a breaker of solemn oaths but a breaker of moral chains; not a cornered con man but a hero to all who feel hunted. Is this the new, much different, Silent Majority?”
Among conservatives, Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal offers a vigorous riposte to the claim that the failure to remove Clinton is an indictment of the American people. “Those who know Paul Weyrich,” he says, “understand that he will focus on the hole in any donut. But now he sees a hole and calls it an abyss.” Gigot recounts the conservative successes of the past twenty years, from winning the Cold War to welfare reform to the ascendancy of school choice. He cites data suggesting that only 40 percent thought Clinton’s offenses did not deserve impeachment, but more who worried about the disruptive effect of removing him from office, many of whom found the prospect of Al Gore as President “scary.” “This narrow definition of political self-interest,” says Gigot, “may be regrettable, but it isn’t irrational or morally corrupt.” I note in passing that editor James Nuechterlein and the former editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, both indubitably conservative, also opposed removing Clinton from office because it would be too disruptive and polarizing. But this is a Catch-22 situation. If sixty-seven or more Senators had voted to remove him, the action obviously would not have been dangerously polarizing. The prospect of removal was so polarizing only because Democrats (including some who publicly said he was guilty as charged) marched in partisan lockstep toward a predetermined acquittal.
Returning to Paul Gigot, he writes: “Voters weren’t saying they share Mr. Clinton’s morals. They were saying this President isn’t much worse than most politicians, all of whom they mistrust. Throw in the public’s ambivalence toward sexual harassment charges, and Mr. Clinton’s survival seems preordained. The miracle is that he got himself impeached.” Of the readiness of Weyrich and others to throw in the towel, Gigot says, “This tendency always exists on the religious right, which cares more about salvation in the next world than in this one. They tuned out at least once earlier this century, after the Scopes trial.” One rather hopes that they care more about salvation in the next world, and one notes that Weyrich, although his constituency is largely evangelical Protestant, is an Eastern Rite Catholic. But Gigot’s point stands. There is in fundamentalist-evangelical Christianity, as among some Catholic traditionalists, an apocalyptic temper conducive to hyperbolic renderings of both successes and defeats. It is a very unconservative conservatism.
“Conservatives,” Gigot concludes, “used to understand that all political change is slow, that in fact it ought to be slow, and that the task of political persuasion is never done. Russell Kirk, who forgot more about American culture than Mr. Weyrich remembers, liked to say that ‘There are no lost causes because there are no gained causes.’ Conservatives can’t save America by becoming anti-American.” (Actually, it is Kirk quoting T. S. Eliot, but that point, too, stands.) Similar arguments are made within the worlds of evangelical Protestantism. Charles Colson, for instance, writing in the mainline evangelical publication, Christianity Today: “On all sides I hear battle-weary evangelicals talk about abandoning cultural engagement and tending our own backyard instead. I can’t imagine anything more self-defeating, or more ill-timed, for two reasons. First, it is unbiblical. Scripture calls us to bring Christ’s redemption to all of life; despair is a sin. Second, to leave the cultural battlefield now would be to desert the cause just when we are on the verge of making a historic breakthrough. I believe John Paul II is exactly right in predicting that the year 2000 will usher in ‘a great springtime for Christianity.’”
Colson cites a number of evidences that “the tide is turning in the culture war”—including declining rates of divorce, abortion, births to unwed teens, people on welfare, and crime. As to ideas, it is clear that the false gods have failed. “The only remaining ‘ism’ is postmodernism, which is not an ideology but . . . the admission that every attempt to construct a comprehensive, utopian worldview has failed. It is a formalized expression of despair.” Knowing his evangelical audience, Colson’s conclusion is not untouched by the above-mentioned hyperbole: “The dawn of the new millennium is a time for Christians to celebrate, to blow trumpets and fly the flag high. To desert the field of battle now would be historical blindness, betraying our heritage just when we have the greatest opportunity of the century. This is the time to make a compelling case that Christianity offers the only rational and realistic hope for both personal redemption and social renewal.” No dropping out there.
An Obituary for Outrage
Among conservative intellectual heavyweights, few carry more weight than William J. Bennett. Seven months into the Monica Lewinsky phase of the continuing chronicles of the Clinton scandal, he published The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals. The book is an exemplary instance of the venerable genre of the jeremiad, made more effective by his fair-minded statement of opposing arguments. Bennett’s conclusions, however, offer naught for our comfort. “What explains this seeming public indifference toward, and even acceptance of, the President’s scandals? The explanations most often put forth include very good economic times; scandal fatigue; the fact that a tawdry sexual relationship makes people queasy; the President’s hyperaggressive, relentless, and effective spin team; the inclination to withhold judgment until more facts are known or give the President the benefit of the doubt; the fact that there are few leaders in any realm (religious, business, and the academy among them) who have articulated the case against the President; and the fact that Republican leadership—the Loyal Opposition—has been quiescent and inconsistent in its comments about the Clinton scandal, apparently afraid of voter backlash. These are plausible explanations. And still. I cannot shake the thought that the widespread loss of outrage against this President’s misconduct tells us something fundamentally important about our condition. Our commitment to long-standing ideals has been enervated. We desperately need to recover them, and soon. They are under assault.”
Bennett wants to resist the thought, but he is inclined to believe that this is a moment of truth about who we are as a people. “When, rocked with serious, credible allegations of grave misconduct and violations of law, the President retreated for as long as he could to a gilded bunker, obstinately and ‘absolutely’ unwilling to rebut troubling allegations made against him. And the history books may describe how a diffident public, when confronted with all the evidence of wrongdoing and all the squalor, simply shrugged its shoulders. And, finally, that William Jefferson Clinton really was the representative man of our time, when the overwhelming majority of Americans no longer believed that presidential character mattered, and that no man, not even a President, was accountable to the law.”
Seven months later, after the impeachment and Senate acquittal, Bill Bennett publicly opined that he had been forced to the conclusion that his most doleful analysis had been vindicated, that he has for years been wrong about the American people, that maybe he was simply out of touch. In a Wall Street Journal article he reviews again the arguments offered to exculpate the American people, and he finds them wanting. “These wishful assertions do not square with reality,” he says. Restating the articles of indictment against a nation that has lost its capacity for outrage, he writes, “These are unpleasant things to realize. But it is the way things are, and it is always better to accept reality than merely wish it away. . . . There is no escaping the fact that Bill Clinton’s Year of Lies—told and retold, not believed but accepted—has been an ignoble moment for a great people.” In his book, Bennett spoke frequently about “we”—meaning we Americans. But at one point in the book he slips: “We—and by ‘we’ I mean in the first instance the political class itself—need to reclaim some of the high purpose of politics.” There, I believe, he slips into a truth that deserved more attention in his diagnosis. The political class, including political intellectuals inside the beltway, should not be confused with the American people. The political class—notably congressional Democrats who unanimously and shamelessly defended a President whom, one must assume, most of them knew to be guilty of removable offenses—is deserving of Bennett’s outrage. Of course, such politicians calculated that the voters would let them get away with what they did. But that is a somewhat different question, to which I will return. It may also turn out to have been a grave political miscalculation.
The Media Made Us Do It
It is not only conservatives who say that this has been a moment of truth revealing some unpleasant facts about the kind of people we have become. Since liberals generally defended Clinton, at least by opposing impeachment and conviction, they, unlike Bennett, do not take that as an indication of moral turpitude. Many blame the year of horrors on the media. The media made us do it. That is the suggestion of Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, for example. His wrap-up reflection is portentously titled “Exorcism,” and he begins with the line from Troilus and Cressida: “Take but degree away, untune that string. And, hark, what discord follows!” The electronic media, says Lapham, have untuned the string of public reason. Citing Marshall McLuhan as his authority, Lapham asserts that the habits of mind derived from the electronic media have deconstructed the texts of civilization founded on the print media, which leads him to the thought that “maybe the argument at the root of the impeachment trial was epistemological, not moral.” Well, that’s a relief, assuming we can get our epistemology straight.
But, of course, Lapham is on to something about the electronic media, and he puts it nicely: “Sympathetic to a pagan rather than a Christian appreciation of the world, the camera sees but doesn’t think; it cares only for the sensation of the moment, for any tide of emotion strong enough to draw a paying crowd. A plane crash in the mountains of Peru commands the same slack-jawed respect as Mick Jagger in a divorce court, Monica Lewinsky eating Belgian chocolate, cruise missiles falling on Baghdad.” And there is more: “Because the camera doesn’t know how to make distinctions—between treason and fellatio, between the moral and the amoral, between an important Senator and an important ape—its insouciance works against the operative principle of a democratic republic. Such a government requires of both its politicians and its citizens a high degree of literacy, also a sense of history, and, at least in the American context, an ethics derived from the syllabus of the Bible. None of those requirements carry any weight in the Kingdom of the Eternal Now governed by the rule of images. Bring narrative to Jay Leno, or hierarchy to Howard Stern, and you might as well be speaking Homeric Greek.”
Lapham covers his political backside by describing the impeachment as an “attempt at political assassination dressed up in the rhetoric of high-minded conscience.” Yet he seems to be not entirely without sympathy for the congressional Republicans who “objected to the society’s order of value and wished to overturn it.” But in the kingdom of the camera and celebrity, it is simply too late for that. Since they couldn’t impeach the electronic culture, it is understandable that conservatives turned on Clinton. “Who better to bear the blame for everything else that has gone so badly wrong in the once happy land of Christian print?” Henry Hyde’s concluding speech was “a prayer for the safe return of an imaginary American past, and when he finished, the nearly perfect silence in the Senate chamber again brought to mind the ritual stillness of a world out of time. For a long moment none of the Senators moved in their chairs, and in the press gallery skepticism was temporarily in short supply. The evening news broadcasts cut the scene to what seemed like a very long twenty seconds.” McLuhan was right. Get used to it.
Lapham’s reading resonates with Neil Postman’s amusing and depressing book on the electronic media, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Many commentators on the Clinton affair, on both the left and right, come back to the supposedly omnipotent media. Against that explanation, it is pointed out that the yellow and feverishly partisan papers of a century ago were hardly more conducive to calm deliberation. But the news came more slowly then, and the positions advocated, no matter how partisan, had a modicum of continuity. And surely there is a very big difference between reading and looking at the tube, a difference that I have no doubt does something devious to our minds. Yet the electronic media are not omnipotent, and we let ourselves off the hook by thinking otherwise. Were it up to the television networks—and almost all the prestige print media, for that matter—many things would have been very different in recent history; for instance, Reagan and Bush would never have been President, we would not have prevailed in the Cold War, and there would certainly be no pro-life movement.
In addition, the network audience is fast decreasing, and I am among those who believe that the Internet and the multiplication of cable channels, among other things, hold high promise also for public life. Those who fret about a fragmentation that precludes the possibility of a “national conversation” about great issues are usually those who thought they were in charge of national conversations. Apart from times of real crisis, such as a real war, the things that matter do not require a national conversation. To the extent there has been a national conversation about what to do with the miscreant in the White House, it has been pretty much controlled by the people who think they are in charge of national conversations. Had the conversation been more tightly controlled, things would have turned out more or less the way they did, except he would never have been impeached in the first place.
Who Is Responsible?
It is, I believe, dead wrong to reify (if I may borrow the Marxist term) “the media” as though it were a collective agent doing this or doing that. It compounds the wrong to identify the media with the culture. Of course, we fall into these errors because we want to talk about the culture and “the American people” but nobody can talk with the culture or with the American people. All of us have only ourselves and a handful of other people with whom we can talk, even if our friends are intellectuals who are forever talking about the culture and the American people. So people listen to the people whom people in the media have certified as experts on the culture and the American people. There is no doubt that in the last year there has been a further degrading of the media and what it excretes into the general culture. We did not before have prime-time discussions of fellatio, gropings, and semen-stained dresses. Referring to reports on what Clinton does in the office, a mother in my parish remarked, “I’m tired of my kids asking me about ‘oval sex.’“ Pornographer and (according to his daughter) child molester Larry Flynt, who pornographers complain has given pornography a bad name, appears on supposedly reputable talk shows to share his ponderings on the nation’s changing mores. And it is surely no coincidence that in the same year 60 Minutes decides to broadcast a snuff film in which Dr. Kevorkian kills one of his “patients.” That’s not all. I am puzzled that there has not been more discussion of Bob Dole’s commercials for Pfizer about how Viagra helps him cope with his erectile dysfunction. The poor fellow looks like he’s restraining the impulse to unzip and show us the happy change. Longtime Senate majority leader, former presidential candidate. Does anyone remember the last time “statesman” was used with reference to a political leader? Dole’s nervous claim that the subject of his “dysfunction” should not be embarrassing only increases the embarrassment.
Such things did not appear in the mainstream media before. They are a distinct contribution of the Clinton presidency. It is not the media, and certainly not the culture, that decided to define deviancy down. Individual people with names did that. Larry King and Peter Jennings invited Larry Flynt. Mike Wallace, a proponent of euthanasia, favored showing the snuff film, as did his producer, who calculated, correctly, that it would give the program a boost during ratings week. Bob Dole, and presumably his wife, decided to go public with his difficulty. A depressing thought is that, whether Clinton or Dole had won in 1996, the public might have been required to contemplate presidential private parts. Would Dole be publicizing his if Clinton had not publicized his? I don’t know the answer to that. Perhaps there is a political purpose in the Dole commercials, aimed at demonstrating the relative innocence of Republican dysfunctions. In any event, while these vulgarities assault the public, they tell us little or nothing about the American character. They tell us a great deal about individuals in leadership sectors who have abandoned the canons of taste and decency, with Bill Clinton being the chief culprit. And of course they could, in time, have a significant effect on the American character as the country is dragged down to the level of its putative leadership.
On a certain afternoon twenty-plus years ago, somebody at Penthouse decided that the centerfold would exhibit the whole works. More recently on cable television, somebody decided that the f-word is now okay. This is known as the artistic creativity of challenging taboos. For decades Hollywood worried about popular backlash and used the Legion of Decency and the Hays Office to take the rap for prudery. But that was when the great majority of Americans went to movies at least once a month. Then a new movie was part of something like a national conversation; at least it seemed everybody was aware of it, just as they talked about Fibber McGee and Molly, or repeated the Jack Benny jokes from last night’s show. That was a long time ago, when there were depressions, wars, and other crises concentrating the popular mind. Now there is peace (more or less), prosperity, two hundred cable channels, and the Internet, while less than 10 percent of the people go to movies regularly, and they are free to choose their elixir or their poison. Nothing is national, everything is niched. The office of the presidency, apart from the Super Bowl, is maybe the last popularly recognized “national thing.” When Bill Clinton took the office of the presidency on MTV and answered questions about his underwear, that is something that Bill Clinton did. It was not done by the American people; it was done to them. Many Americans loved it. There have always been a lot of slobs. Clinton’s innovation is in pandering to them. Earlier Presidents felt some obligation to maintain the dignity of a national office, even to exemplify national standards. Clinton has niched the national thing that was the presidency, and niched it very low.
As for what this tells us about the American character, remember the patient being given the Rorschach test and the psychiatrist tells him he has a dirty mind. “What do you mean?” he responds. “You’re the one with the dirty pictures.” In this case the patient is right. Michiko Kakutani on Andrew Morton’s book, Monica’s Story: “Its obsessive account of teenage shenanigans, its tiresome prattling about sex and self-esteem, its therapeutic jargon and Judith Krantz prose sadly sum up the sorry state of affairs our culture has reached,” and so forth. As Tonto might have said to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean our culture?” David Brooks of the Weekly Standard, to whose erratic analyses I will return, writes of Barbara Walters’ interview of Monica: “The world we’ve been peering into is somehow beyond good and evil. It’s a world of sentimentality, of makeovers, of people who tear up just before the commercial breaks, and then return with uplifting visions of a life with family by show’s end.” He cites the philosopher Vico, whom he says he does not understand, and who “maintained that each civilization gets the dramas it deserves.” “The Greeks got terrifying and grand tragedies. We’re more forgiving, more comfortable, and more bourgeois. And so we get, in the perils of Monica Lewinsky, a night of pretty engaging television, which we’ll probably all have forgotten by next week.” He’s right about not understanding Vico, and wrong about this being the drama our civilization deserves. It is a subculture “we’ve been peering into.” More accurately, people watch with fascinated disgust as an unstoppable toilet backs up into their living room.
There are those who know such things should not happen, and even plumbers who used to fix matters when they did. The New York Times, for instance, the old gray lady of public rectitude. But that was a long time ago. For some years now she has been telling us to get used to the backup-in the form of transgressive art, obscenity as free speech, gay sex, and, of course, the unlimited license to kill unborn children. But the Clinton eruption momentarily startled her into sobriety. She had some very severe things to say about his behavior. An editorial of September 12, 1998, declared that, until the Starr report, “no citizen-indeed, perhaps no member of his own family—could have grasped the completeness of President Clinton’s mendacity or the magnitude of his recklessness.” Clinton will be remembered “for the tawdriness of his tastes and conduct” and for producing “a crisis of surreal complexity.” Then, most ominously, “A President without public respect or congressional support cannot last.”
Public Deliberation, So to Speak
But, of course, the Times opposed impeachment, and when he was impeached, opposed conviction. How Clinton would be given a pass was signaled in the same editorial. “He and we must await not only the adjudication of Congress, but the even more potent process of public deliberation.” Ah, yes, the venerable process of public deliberation, meaning the spin on tomorrow’s news and the omnipotent polls. Why do people in the media so bridle when it is pointed out that 90 percent of them voted for Bill Clinton, and that it would be remarkable to the point of incredible if their political bias did not affect their reporting? The liberal commentariat, it is true, said harsh things about him. While there were other spins, such as a long Newsday story that told “a political parable” of Bill Clinton cast as Jesus persecuted by the Republican Pharisees, the media, more typically, took FDR’s tack: “He may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.”
The analogy with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is apt, except of course that he was a genuine hero. Like Coriolanus, Clinton contemptuously manipulated the hoi polloi: “I will practice the insinuating nod, and be off to them most counterfeitly; that is, sir, I will counterfeit the bewitchment of some popular man, and give it bountiful to the desirers” (Act II, iii). From 1992 on, the reporters were in on the game; they saw the wink and the nudge, and entertained one another with the feats of their man, “Slick Willy.” Then, quite abruptly, in January 1998, they became the game. He was dealing with them most counterfeitly, and they were furious. Not furious enough, however, to abandon their S.O.B. Not all were prepared to go so far as Nina Burleigh of Time magazine. “I’d be happy,” she said, “to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.” But most were prepared to circle the wagons against the attacking neo-Puritans, while letting Clinton know in no uncertain terms that they were not at all happy about his forcing them to defend the indefensible.
The battle metaphor is no exaggeration in describing the never to be underestimated hysteria of the left. Mrs. Clinton set the tone when, immediately after the Lewinsky scandal broke, she went on television to talk about a “vast right-wing conspiracy” that has long been out to get them. Ken Starr is a “politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right-wing opponents of my husband. . . . It’s—it’s not just one person, it’s an entire operation. . . . I don’t think there’s any doubt that there are professional forces on the right at work for their own purposes and profit. There are just so many curious relationships among a lot of people, and various institutes and entities. And I think that that deserves thorough investigation. . . . There’s just a lot going on behind the scenes and kind of under the radar screen that I think the American public has a right to know.”
A vast conspiracy requiring thorough investigation. McCarthyism, anyone? But, unlike any public figure who might allege a vast left-wing conspiracy, she was not asked to name names, to put up or shut up. Bennett observes, “Mrs. Clinton’s charges are either intentionally preposterous or unintentionally paranoid.” Undoubtedly they were calculated, and, while I don’t know how intentionality enters into it, paranoid is an apt term for a large number of people on the left who seem earnestly to believe that they are the last and desperate defense against Fascist jack boots and the midnight knock on the door. McCarthyism would get mentioned quite a bit in the subsequent months, but it was the “sexual McCarthyism” of the neo-Puritan Fascists. (Terminology tended to get awfully muddled in “the potent process of public deliberation.”)
At impeachment time, artists and intellectuals rallied at New York University. The persecution of Clinton has “all the legitimacy of a coup d’état,” said novelist E. L. Doctorow. Toni Morrison, Elie Wiesel, Arthur Miller, that most distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, and hundreds of others cheered. “Vietnam is almost the last moment I can think of until now when intellectuals, writers, and artists have really raised their voices in a chorus of protests,” said novelist William Styron. Happy days are here again. “There’s the smell of brimstone in the air,” warned legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, sending a frisson of terror through the crowd. Todd Gitlin, loyal archivist of radicalisms past (but not past enough), opined, “For years, the intellectual left has been deeply divided over identity politics. Here’s an issue on which they can agree, and there’s relief.”
Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz had his own distinctive contribution to the solemn process of public deliberation: “A vote against impeachment is not a vote for Bill Clinton. It is a vote against bigotry. It’s a vote against fundamentalism. It’s a vote against anti-environmentalism. It’s a vote against the right-to-life movement. It’s a vote against the radical right. This is truly the first battle in a great culture war. And if this President is impeached, it will be a great victory for the forces of evil—evil—genuine evil.” Then there was actor Alec Baldwin on Late Night with Conan O’Brien: “I’m thinking to myself if we were in other countries, we would all right now go down to Washington and we would stone Henry Hyde to death! . . . And we would go to their homes [Congressmen who vote for impeachment] and we’d kill their wives and children. We would kill their families.” The usual sources warning us against the horrors of “hate speech” were strangely silent.
Back at the NYU rally, feminist intellectual Blanche Wiesen Cook declared: “We are looking at theocrats. We have to mobilize like we mobilized against the war in Vietnam, like we mobilized against slavery. This is about race! This is about crack cocaine in the neighborhoods!” Right. By the time retired Episcopal bishop Paul Moore got his turn, one might have thought that all the apocalyptic imagery had been used up, but the bishop rose to the occasion: “I think of the millions and millions of people who will suffer and die because the Republicans want to get President Clinton for a personal sin.” Writing in the New Republic, John B. Judis deplored the “extreme” language used by the proponents of impeachment who were “turning the factional struggle into a crusade.” Conservatives, he observed, were like the Salem witchhunters and Joe McCarthy in their fanatical opposition to everything associated with the sixties and represented by Clinton—“feminism, free love, Unitarianism, bilingualism, drugs, abortion, and rock ‘n’ roll.” Clinton’s Unitarianism is a really big issue on the right.
But perhaps it was Elie Wiesel, the survivor of unspeakable horrors past and icon of moral gravity, who was most impressive. Told that Henry Hyde had argued that, when people abandon the rule of law, they invite tyranny, including terrors such as the Third Reich, Wiesel exploded: “My God, how dare he!” Clearly Mr. Hyde was infringing upon Mr. Wiesel’s copyrighted piece of history. “What a comparison to make!” declared Wiesel. “Do you use the Holocaust to describe this affair?” Well, as it turns out, yes you do. It seems that people such as Mr. Hyde who insist upon the letter of the law are the real Nazis. “It was the law to put Jews in concentration camps, to kill them,” Wiesel expostulated. And so continued “the potent process of public deliberation.”
Empty from the Start
Moral bankruptcy is an overused term, but nothing better comes to mind to describe the circumstance of the left in its Faustian bargain with Bill Clinton. The rhetoric of moralistic excitements is there, but it is devoid of substance. From the beginning it was not only the feminists turning a blind eye to “bimbo eruptions.” Remember the remarkable case of Rickey Ray Rector, a young black man in Arkansas who killed a policeman and then turned his gun on himself, blowing out part of his brain. In early 1992, then-Governor Clinton, in order to show that he was tough on crime, flew home from New Hampshire just in time to deny him a stay of execution. Rector, who functioned with the mind of a five-year-old, had to be lifted to his feet to walk to the death chamber. With no trace of irony, Rickey Ray asked the guards to say hello to Gov. Clinton, whom he had just seen on television, and said they should save the piece of pecan pie which he planned to eat when he got back. A young black man. A mentally disabled young black man. All of this was well publicized at the time. The left, overwhelmingly and passionately opposed to capital punishment, was quiet. After all, what choice did they have? It was either Bill Clinton or the Fascists.
Terms such as preposterous and paranoid are appropriate. But the fact is that much of the left does believe that conservatives are but the cat’s-paw of the Gestapo waiting in the wings. Many conservatives hate Bill Clinton. Liberals, generally speaking, hate conservatives. Dennis Prager puts it well: “Conservative hatred for President Clinton has often been ugly, and I for one have never taken part in it. But it was directed primarily against one man. Liberal hatred is directed toward millions of fellow Americans—non-liberals, especially religious ones. Indeed, it is almost impossible to debate important issues with many liberal spokesmen because opposing the liberal position opens a person to charges of evil: opposition to race-and sex-based affirmative action means one is racist and sexist; opposition to abortion renders one a misogynist; opposition to same-sex marriage means a person is homophobic; and on and on.” “Where is the outrage?” asked Bob Dole in 1996. It was there. But it was outshouted by the outrage directed against those outraged by Bill Clinton. The loudest shouters with the biggest bullhorns belong to the left that has largely succeeded in its “long march through the institutions.” The winners of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes rally at NYU, not in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They have nothing but contempt for the “process of public deliberation.” How could you trust a public that includes millions upon millions, perhaps even a majority, of conservatives? They elected Reagan, didn’t they? There’s no telling what they would do next time, if given half a chance.
Some conservatives have remarked that the one good thing to come out of all this is the total demolition of radical feminism. I would not bet on it. True, Gloria Steinem was not bothered by Clinton’s groping of a distressed supporter in the Oval Office because, she explained, Clinton finally took No as an answer. This became known as Steinem’s One Free Grope Rule. And true that Betty Friedan said that, even if Clinton did everything he’s accused of doing, and more, “It’s no big deal.” The rape charge did shake some loyalists such as the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen: “Take the rape charge. It is that—get it? I feel I have to emphasize it: The President of the United States is accused of raping a woman back when he was attorney general of Arkansas. An account of this alleged rape ran on Page 1 of the Washington Post. Get it? Page One! The Washington Post! Do you want to know what happened next? Nothing.” He concludes, “The Clintons play by no rules. They have vanquished outrage.” But what could outrage do, even if there were more and undeniably credible charges of this nature? He can’t be impeached again, and statutes of limitation have a way of running out. Feminism’s hypocrisy is exposed, but feminists letting Clinton off the hook does not undo feminism’s damage. Ideologically skewed sexual harassment laws are still harassing thousands of men in the courts and military tribunals. And maybe it is not fair to speak of feminist hypocrisy. They have not disguised the fact that, at the end of the day, their cause is about one uncompromisable, don’t-give-an-inch thing: “reproductive rights.” On that one thing Bill Clinton has kept his word. He is their S.O.B.
This You Will Not Believe
I will not go into detail about the dishonesty and confusion about the polls. Cohen reflects the conventional wisdom: “How can it be . . . that with every outrage, Clinton rises higher and higher in the polls? The rape charge ought to put him about where Roosevelt was for ending the Great Depression and beating the Axis powers.” I don’t believe it for a minute. Of those familiar with the rape accusation by Juanita Broaddrick, 62 percent said it is likely true and 20 percent said it is likely not true. By the end of February, 40 percent had a “generally favorable” view of Bill Clinton, the lowest number recorded to date. But even if that falls to 20 percent, what are those who hold him in understandable contempt supposed to do? Storm the White House and throw him out physically? In his public appearances he is carefully distanced from protesters by all the security that becomes the majesty of his august office. Anyway, as Dale Bumpers would undoubtedly say, it’s only a matter of another year and a half. Plus, storming buildings and disrupting meetings is not what conservatives ordinarily do.
As to what “The American People” really think, read again Robert Jenson’s article of that title in the April issue. The American people have been and, God willing, will be around for a long time. They are not instantiated in responses to a telephone poll that interrupted the watching of a basketball game, or by a question asked as they’re leaving the mall. Yes, it is objected, but the polls are generally accurate about many things, such as predicting who people will vote for. Good for the polls. What does that have to do with what people think about marital fidelity, adultery, lying under oath, rape, and the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors”? About some of these things people think very deeply in ways that cannot be caught by a polling question; about others they have not thought at all, which does not prevent them from having an “opinion” to be registered. Take your own poll. How many fathers (apart from Monica’s) think it is okay for a fifty-year-old man to do that with their twenty-one-year-old daughter? How many wives would put up with their husbands doing it? Of course Clinton and his claque have defined deviancy down, but is there really any evidence that a substantial number of people have in their own lives bought into that definition? Among the more egregiously delinquent, there are no doubt some who are pleased to know that the President is no better than they are. Many others have come to expect less of this President, and maybe of politicians in general, which is not all bad.
It is not true that The American People “knew what they were getting” when they elected him in 1992 and again in 1996. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post again: “Here is a President who has been like no other. If I told you three years ago—even two years ago—that the President was having sex in the Oval Office with a young intern, you would not have believed me. In fact, I would not have believed it myself. The rumors, I thought, were the work of his worst enemies—crazies, mentally unstable.” And so with sex-stained dresses, and keeping Yassir Arafat waiting or chatting with Congressmen on the phone while being serviced by Monica. And now rape. If he had reported such things, says Cohen, “You would have called me deranged, a perverted pundit. No one does that.” Yet it all happened. “You can look any of this up. But you could not make any of this up.” Cohen is being slightly disingenuous. He is paid to pay attention, and anyone who paid attention knows that Clinton lied about Gennifer Flowers back in 1992. It’s on the tape. But that was followed by 60 Minutes with Clinton’s admission of troubles in the past; he and Hillary eyed each other lovingly and promised ever so earnestly that they would be worthy of the high office to which they aspired. It is not to the discredit of the minority of Americans who voted for him that they wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. They turned out to be wrong, of course. They did not know what they were getting.
Pulpit Prophecy and Pandering
A question persistently asked through all of this, especially by Clinton opponents, was, “Where are the voices of religious leadership?” I was asked that again and again, and was a little puzzled about what people expected from religious leaders. I would quote my bishop, John Cardinal O’Connor, who said on several occasions that he really did not think there was much public suspense about where the Catholic Church stood on adultery and lying. But that never satisfied those who pressed the question. They apparently thought clergy should be leading the outcry against presidential perfidy, issuing jeremiads that rattled the rafters and brought the miscreant to book. There is no way of knowing for sure, but I expect that in most of the hundreds of thousands of local pulpits in America the subject of presidential misconduct was addressed more or less directly, and probably more than once. In many instances, no doubt, to illustrate the point that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness, in many others to underscore that we should not be “judgmental,” and in yet others to emphasize the general decadence of the culture. Most clergy likely thought it was not their business to prescribe what ought to be done about the prodigal President; that was a job for the politicians. From many black pulpits and from the more overtly political pulpits of white liberals, of course, the President was vigorously defended against his alleged persecutors.
Shortly after the Lewinsky ignominy was exposed in January 1998, and before Clinton partisans were able to organize the spiking of the initial outrage, Peter Steinfels of the Times put the question this way: “When it comes to questions of morality and public life, sex and power, honesty and the law, friendship and trust, personal conduct and political responsibility, the right to know and the right to privacy, why do the views of historians, psychologists, political scientists, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, and, of course, the news media’s pundits so overshadow those of religious leaders?” Steinfels offered a number of possible explanations. For one thing, clergy understand themselves to be more in the business of forgiving than condemning, and are especially reluctant to condemn when all the facts aren’t known and there is strong skepticism about the media that is reporting the facts. “Clergy want to keep their distance from politically partisan preachers and super-righteous [he means self-righteous] radio hosts. It could be that the aggressiveness of the religious right has actually made it harder rather than easier for many religious leaders to address politically charged moral issues.” Then, too, says Steinfels, clergy may have plenty to say but reporters and editors aren’t asking them to say it. Or it may be that, despite the vitality of religion in the private lives of most Americans, “it has lost its institutional power as a social force.”
An important factor in the relative absence of clerical expressions of outrage is that there was no real public dispute about the gross immorality of what Clinton had done. It was not necessary to call in moral experts to certify that his behavior was outrageous. Even many of his sycophants were outspoken in deploring his shamelessness, recklessness, infidelity, habitual mendacity, and related moral deficiencies. The question of what was to be done about it quickly became a political and legal question. Part of the political equation was to determine whether Clinton was appropriately contrite, at which point the clergy were invited in to certify the state of his soul.
Not all the sycophants, of course, were candid about the President’s wrongdoing. The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, a very liberal Democrat, professor of Christian ethics, and pastor of Foundry Methodist where the Clintons attend, wrote a little book, From the Eye of the Storm (Westminster). There it is suggested that Clinton is the victim of a Western history deeply conflicted about sexuality. Maybe our outrage should be directed not at Clinton but at, for instance, St. Augustine. “Augustine’s own sexual history may also have contributed a discordant note to our culture today. He may have made it more difficult for subsequent generations to see the intrinsic goodness of sex when it is expressed in loving commitment,” etc. Or perhaps the buck stops even higher up. With respect to sexual ethics, Wogaman asks, “Was Jesus placing an utterly impossible standard before us?” He answers, “Maybe so.” But then, letting Jesus off the hook, he adds, “Somehow I do not think Jesus was so much asking us to struggle against feelings that are built into our human nature as he was reinforcing the message about hypocrisy. Do not be so quick to condemn people for doing what you have wanted to do!” Somehow I think the Rev. Wogaman has overlooked, among other distinctions, the difference between being tempted to sin and surrendering to temptation.
But “the deepest question of all,” says Wogaman, is this: “Do we ultimately define ourselves as a community based on law, or is there a deeper sense in which we are a community of mutual caring?” If we are a nation defined by law, Wogaman allows, Clinton “must be removed either through forced resignation or impeachment.” But “we are a society that should understand itself more deeply as a community of love than as a community of law.” Not that law and love are “incompatible,” but insisting upon obedience to the law is “the spirit of legalism [that] is at odds with community and love.” One must sympathize with the theology students, as well as the congregants of Foundry, who are exposed to a steady diet of such sentimental drivel. And be grateful that the Constitution of laws given us by the Framers has not yet been replaced by liberalism’s Constitution of Mutual Caring.
A religious voice heard regularly during the past year was that of the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC). That near-moribund institution was partially resuscitated in the nineties by its much publicized “access” to the Clinton White House, where most of its statements over these months might as well have been, if in fact they were not, drafted. The NCC’s endless refrain was that the country should “move on” and let the President “get on with the job he was elected to do.” Between that repeated refrain were imprecatory incantations against the horrible conservatives who were violating the Constitution of Mutual Caring.
After the defeat of the impeachment effort in the Senate, Ms. Campbell joined with others, including the ordinarily sensible Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, the ever-anguished acquitter Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, as well as Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who has his own interfaith organization, in discussing the merits of a national “Day of Reconciliation.” Lamenting the divide between liberals and conservatives, Ms. Campbell said, “It’s hard for us to be the ambassadors of reconciliation if we’re locked into these camps.” After her camp had, with exquisite mutual caring, trashed the other camp, she invites the vanquished to come on over. Reconciliation means promising not to gloat, or at least not very much.
Another old reliable was Father Robert Drinan of Georgetown Law School. Drinan is in some circles a hero of the Watergate episode in which, unlike the Democrats this time around, Republicans urged their President to do the decent thing and resign. In testifying to the House Judiciary Committee, Fr. Drinan lifted up the easily overlooked fine point of constitutional law that says that God will judge very harshly anybody who votes to impeach President Clinton. In a September 1998 article he argued that “no President has ever before spoken of his wrongdoings in such an impressive manner.” In fact, no President has ever had occasion to speak about wrongdoings such as these in any manner at all. Like so many other Democrats noted for their fiscal frugality, Drinan was deeply distressed by the Starr investigation costing forty million dollars. And all it produced was “a tawdry tale of a President who, after at least twice trying to disengage himself from a star-struck intern, succumbed to temptation.”
Were Clinton to resign or be removed, “the consequences would be enormous.” Specifically, “It would imply that the Democrats not once but twice elected a very unworthy person to the White House.” Clearly, the thought is simply not to be entertained. The “entirely new” thing in all these events, says Drinan, is “the President’s public contrition.” “It is gripping, it is astonishing, it resonates of Old Testament sinners who return to God. One commentator has suggested that a parent should not punish a child who has the level of repentance manifested by Clinton.” Unfortunately, the people who want to punish the child President are “political animals who are most interested in their political survival and advancement.” Thus did Fr. Drinan play the dual role of prophet consigning the persecutors to perdition and of priest welcoming home the prodigal son.
In February 1999, Clinton addressed the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual orgy of civil religion in devotion to Americanism and a mostly unnamed God. He told the congregation of thousands that they should pray “for yourselves,” that we all be “purged of the temptation to pretend that our willfulness is somehow equal to God’s will.” He enjoined them to listen well to all the good things that had been said at the breakfast. Writer Peggy Noonan was there. “I thought: He’s talking to us as if he is a moral leader and we are the nice people being led. He’s providing moral instruction to a room full of ministers. Then I thought: And this is Bill Clinton!”
Noonan was not the only one who had doubts about Clinton’s contrition. After his disastrous televised “apology” of August 17, Clinton convened a clutch of clerics in the White House to testify to his being truly sorry. The National Association of Evangelicals declined the invitation, explaining: “NAE leadership decided no representative would attend the breakfast because there would not be an opportunity to express a prophetic voice. The paradigm of the Old Testament prophets was that they went to the palace to speak God’s word to the King with a call to repentance. . . . NAE did not relish the distinct possibility that it would be considered by the media as part of the President’s ‘amen corner.’” The amen corner at the breakfast, however, was chock full of others who did not suffer such pangs of scrupulosity in certifying the sincerity with which the President felt his pain.
Andy Warhol said everybody gets fifteen minutes in the spotlight. Really big history-making events get half an hour. Clinton tries to look presidential as he stumbles through the rubble, and it is easy to forget that nine months ago and a year ago many thought he was finished. He is less “the comeback kid” and more the Energizer bunny that just keeps on going, more or less. More than 150 newspapers, some of them quite influential, had called for his resignation by last fall. But then the entire drama changed, turning to the impeachment hearings and Senate trial. That revised script had him either losing or winning, but he had already lost. Religious publications, for the most part, pulled their punches. The liberal Christian Century fretted about the quality of his contrition; the evangelical mainline Christianity Today said Clinton’s actions had “rendered this Administration morally unable to lead,” but stopped short of calling for resignation or removal; America, the Jesuit weekly, was in Clinton’s corner and expressed satisfaction that the bishops had remained largely silent during the entire affair.
In September, Bishop Anthony Pilla, then President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted that what Clinton had done was wrong, but he “has indicated his sorrow over his behavior, his acceptance of blame, and his desire for healing.” As to his “accountability in terms of public office,” Pilla said, “it is up to the constitutional process to determine the appropriate response.” Among Catholic moral theologians, Fr. David Hollenbach of Boston College was in the distinct minority calling for resignation or removal.
Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral in California was perceived to be close to Clinton in recent years in the White House, and in December concluded he should resign. “I ask that you look within your conscience and summon the will and strength to end this agony. By stepping aside, you can spare our nation weeks, perhaps months, of divisive debate and repulsive testimony. Your action can help restore public confidence in the moral fabric that sustains our form of government and the moral standards we have a right to demand in our leaders.” Already by October the heads of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Reformed Church in America, and other denominational leaders, including some liberal Methodist bishops, had publicly called on Clinton to resign. On October 9, I was pleased to join many others in a most respectful letter to Clinton from religious leaders coordinated by the Institute on Religion and Democracy and laying out the reasons why he should resign. In sum, hundreds, if not thousands, of clergy of some national prominence publicly called for resignation or removal. This received almost no attention in the media and, of course, no response from the White House.
Resignation was, literally, unthinkable. All those who were thinking about it apparently did not exist in Bill Clinton’s mind. Once again, the autism kicks in. In the March 31, 1999, 60 Minutes II interview, Dan Rather asks, “Did you ever consider resigning?” “Never.” “Never for a second?” “Never, not a second, never, never.” “Never entered your mind?” “Never entered my mind. . . . I wouldn’t do that to the Constitution. I wouldn’t do that to the presidency. I wouldn’t do that to the history of this country. I would never have legitimized what I believe is horribly wrong with what has occurred here over the last four or five years.” Note the time span—the last four or five years. We are back to the vast right-wing conspiracy that has been trying to get the Clintons all along.
That is the overarching explanation of what has happened, with Clinton being sorry that he made some personal mistakes that the conspirators were able to exploit. How does Clinton understand his role in all this? “I do not regard this impeachment vote as some great badge of shame,” he tells Rather. “I am honored that something that was indefensible was pursued and that I had the opportunity to defend the Constitution.” He alludes to “the great figures of the Bible” who also “did things they shouldn’t have done.” The Bible teaches that “everyone sins, but everyone is held accountable, and everyone has a chance to go on.” That, he says, is what our children should learn from the past year and more. “Kids are pretty smart. And they—this is a good lesson, not a bad lesson for them.”
Not only is he honored to have had an opportunity to defend the Constitution and to teach morality to America’s children, but he also bears no grudges against his persecutors. “I realized that particularly in the last year, if I wanted people to give me forgiveness, I had to extend forgiveness. . . . And I have worked very hard at it. I have had very powerful examples. I look at a man like Nelson Mandela who suffered enormously.” And so forth. This takes the breath away. It is crazily Christian in a surreal way, a moral jujitsu whereby he is more sinned against than sinner, but is prepared to forgive those who tried to hold him accountable for what he does. “Forgive them their trespasses as we forgive ours.”
In December, more than two hundred university and seminary teachers of religion signed a “Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency.” This became the basis of a book, edited by Gabriel Fackre of Andover Newton, that will be an invaluable document for the study of this period, Judgment Day at the White House (Eerdmans). Essayists include Jean Bethke Elshtain, Max Stackhouse, Stanley Hauerwas, Fr. Matthew Lamb, and Don Browning. The declaration and most of the essayists did not explicitly call for Clinton’s replacement, but did offer incisive criticism of the political manipulation of Christian themes of contrition and forgiveness. The book also has Wogaman-like opposing views by Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, Lewis Smedes, and Donald and Peggy Shriver. Also in opposition to the declaration is Glen Harold Stassen, who invokes the political wisdom of his father, the perennial presidential candidate, in understanding the role of morality in public life.
Of particular interest is an essay by Edward P. Wimberly of the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, from the viewpoint of “African-American pastoral theology.” The overwhelming black support for Clinton, he observes, is similar to the pattern of “settling” among black women. That is, they don’t expect much from a man and are glad to settle for what they can get. The “almost unanimous” support for Clinton, Wimberly says, is reinforced by his sharing “a small-town, folksy, rural style with black preachers and Southern white politicians.” Nor does it hurt that he, too, depicts himself as a victim. He may be an S.O.B., but . . . Judgment Day reprints a notable essay by Shelby Steele of Stanford University, “Baby-Boom Virtue,” which is, I believe, helpful in understanding the moral confusions surrounding the Clinton debacle. His generation, says Steele, won its rebellion against parents who defined virtue in terms of personal responsibility, largely in the sphere of family, work, and religion. The boomers subscribe to “virtue-by-identification.” He quotes Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa who said last fall that “Clinton is a failed human being but a good President.” Virtue-by-identification means virtue is not a matter of who you are but of what you stand for. Of the boomers Steele writes: “Thus, in the name of virtuousness that could redeem society and allow for our fulfillment, we created a new ‘good’ in which private moral responsibility was secondary, if not passé. . . . We created a virtuousness that could be achieved through mere identification.”
It is a matter of identifying with the right causes and with those who identify with the right causes. “But iconography of this sort,” Steele writes, “is even more effective in its negative mode.” “Because it represents virtue, it also licenses demonization. Those who do not identify are not simply wrong; they are against virtue and therefore evil. Any politics of virtue is also a politics of demonization, and this has been a boomer specialty since the 1960s. . . . We could not have had a Bill Clinton without the generational corruption that allowed virtue to be achieved through mere identification.” And, of course, there are elders who should know better but pander to the boomers. (On demonization, see Elie Wiesel et al. above.)
Generational generalizations such as Steele’s are suggestive, but I continue to be disinclined to blame Bill Clinton or the failure to remove him from office on the American people, or even on the boomer generation. The liberal claim that conservatives in their disappointment have turned anti-American does not, Paul Weyrich and a few others notwithstanding, bear close examination. The January issue of Commentary asked seventeen prominent conservative thinkers whether, “read as a barometer of the national temper,” the November elections and the reaction to the Clinton scandal tell us much about America. Among the questions asked was this: “What is your own sense of where, on moral matters, the public stands?” Six (including William Bennett) thought we had received bad news about the American character, one was undecided, and the ten others put the blame elsewhere, mainly on the ineptitude of Republican leaders. A month later, the Weekly Standard ran a similar symposium with twenty-one participants (two overlapping with the Commentary symposium) and the blame-America count, as I read it, is no more than five out of twenty-one.
There were so many things that went wrong, including the decision not to have a full trial with witnesses in the Senate. Earlier, there was Robert Livingston, on the eve of taking over as Speaker of the House, resigning because of his sexual misdeeds and calling on Clinton to do likewise. Livingston’s resignation was honorable, but the suggested parallel with Clinton undercut the Republican case that the question was not sexual misdeeds but the rule of law. Nor, most important, can one overlook the spectacle of Senate Democrats, some of whom were on record saying Clinton is guilty, many, if not most of whom, had made it clear they thought he should not be removed, and all of whom took the solemn vow to judge his case impartially. In brazen lockstep they voted to acquit. In The Death of Outrage, Bennett makes much of the fact that “we” were the kind of people who twenty-five years earlier forced Nixon to resign, but the “we” then included a large number of Republicans who put the integrity of the office before party. This time around, bolstered by the polls, Democrats felt no need to temper their partisanship.
“The System Worked”
In some quarters it is said that, at the end of the day, “the system worked.” Maybe so. In 1787 when the impeachment provision of the Constitution was being debated, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the President should be impeachable when he has “rendered himself obnoxious.” Had Franklin prevailed, we would have been spared all the talk about high crimes and misdemeanors. In a similar vein, British cousins such as Andrew Sullivan and James Bowman argued that in the parliamentary system Clinton would have been long gone. The American Framers, says Bowman, wanted a system that would, as much as possible, obviate the need for virtue, honor, and trust. The result is a President without virtue, honor, or trust. Bowman writes: “T. S. Eliot observed that the Socialist project was to design a system so perfect that no one would have to be good. The Socialists were anticipated by the Founders of the American Republic, whose aim was to design a system so well that honor would not have to be relied on. But, it turns out, we have to rely on it still.” That judgment of the constitutional order is not quite right. Washington, John Adams, and other Founders repeatedly said the system could not work without virtue, honor, and trust. They were so urgent in their warnings precisely because the system provided no remedy for the absence of those factors that cannot be secured by law.
While on the subject of honor, one cannot fail to mention Representative Henry Hyde, maybe the only politician who comes out of this with his stature enhanced. He was the adult on the Judiciary Committee while juvenile delinquents such as Barney Frank and John Conyers variously clowned and postured, making themselves and, they hoped, the proceedings look obnoxious. At one point Hyde said that he would catch hell no matter what he did, so he might as well do what is right. Apart from the clowns, even his opponents acknowledged, albeit sometimes grudgingly, his integrity. Paul Gigot got it right: “As for Henry Hyde, he likes to joke that when he first came to Washington he wanted to change the world; now he just wants to leave the room with dignity. By impeaching a law-breaking President, he did both.”
The national character, however, was left with little dignity, according to some. Roger Kimball of the New Criterion thought Paul Weyrich was a bit overwrought. “But by and large I think it must be admitted that his unhappy diagnosis is right. At the deepest level—at the level of the culture’s taken-for-granted feelings and assumptions about what matters—the hedonistic, self-infatuated ethos of cultural revolution has triumphed to an extent unimaginable when it began.” He is especially exercised by an article by the erratic David Brooks in the Weekly Standard, arguing that the past year has demonstrated that American culture is in pretty good shape. “Today’s moral attitudes are anti-utopian,” Brooks wrote. “They are utilitarian. They are modest. They are, in fact, the values of the class the counterculture hated most. They are the values of the bourgeoisie.” Kimball calls Brooks’ article “an unashamed paean to philistinism,” and reminds Brooks that “what conservatives have traditionally championed were bourgeois values, not bourgeois vices.” What Brooks espouses “is not conservatism but a cheerful, buttoned-down version of the moral vacancy that Mr. Weyrich rightly laments.”
It Has Never Happened Before
Bennett, Weyrich, Kimball, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and a good many others have drawn such doleful conclusions, but I am not persuaded. So what have we learned from all this? One thing we have learned is what might happen if we had an MTV President. We never had one before. The political philosopher Leo Strauss liked to say that the American system was built on foundations that are low but solid. The Clinton presidency was built on foundations that are low and sordid. For all his successes in life, it seems that Bill Clinton as a person never rose above his origins. That is a difficult subject not untouched by the delicate question of class, but the fact is that Clinton plays to the pit. Maureen Dowd of the Times, who nonetheless opposed the impeachment, writes: “He campaigned and governed using lowbrow forums of popular entertainment . . . and now the lowbrow culture he cultivated has engulfed his presidency and, most likely, his legacy. Just as movie and television comedy is permeated with the ill-mannered, self-indulgent mentality of adolescent boys, Mr. Clinton has reversed the usual pattern of the presidency, switching from a paternal model to an adolescent model. He expects us to clean up, ignore, or forgive his messes. . . . You might call it a vast gross-out conspiracy.”
Lowbrow. As in lower class. It is a term deemed dangerously incorrect today, but it is a reality that cannot be denied. Here it means not the economically poor but the morally impoverished. In the past we were more candid about the fact that a large number of people in any society, including this one, are moral slobs. That recognition is key to Edward C. Banfield’s brilliant 1968 analysis of social policy, The Unheavenly City. Once upon a time there were “our kind of people” and other kind of people. The better kind of people felt an obligation to help uplift the lesser breeds. Today the lesser breeds are victims and the better kind of people are the victimizers—or at least so our academic and media elites would convince us.
Of course the old way was marred by snobbery and hypocrisy, the inevitable attendants of any effort to maintain standards. It is not that people used to be more moral than they are now. Moral slobbery is, I expect, pretty evenly distributed through time and societies. In the nineteenth century, the better kind of people were aghast at the manners and mores of the immigrant hordes, mainly Catholics and Jews. But Banfield notes: “In Boston, which in 1817 had only about four hundred Catholics, the native American residents must have patronized the city’s two thousand prostitutes (one for every six males above the age of sixteen), hundreds of liquor shops, and the gambling houses open night and day. It must also have been the native Bostonians who denied the mayor, Josiah Quincy, reelection after he waged a vigorous war on vice.” Nothing daunted, Quincy and those like him embraced the unending task of elevating public standards.
Like none who held the office before him, the MTV President has exulted in playing to the pit in a populism not of policy but of appetite. In an orchestrated slander against a woman on whom Clinton tried to force himself, and with whom he later settled out of court for a huge sum, a Clinton media lackey spoke of the trash that turns up when you trawl money through a trailer park. It is a fitting image of this presidency, and the trailer park is not just Arkansas, for every state and every community has a subculture that wallows in being pandered to, even as the panderer wallows in their gratitude for his being one of them. Ronald Reagan started in Hollywood and lived it down by living up to the presidency. Bill Clinton’s achievement is to be accepted by a Hollywood responsible for a meretricious popular culture to which he has defined down the presidency. With a wink and a nudge, the media and politics junkies went along with it for a long time, declaring him a political genius. Until it became evident that he viewed them, too, as trash to be trawled—and casually discarded when they would no longer play the game.
Over the year, as noted above, puzzlement was regularly expressed at Clinton’s high ratings in the opinion polls. Playing low can keep the ratings high. A majority was agreeing with Senator Harkin that Clinton is a failed human being but a good President—or at least that he is not so bad a President that he should be removed, or at least that he should not be removed for an adolescent sexual indulgence, or at the very least that he should not be forced out of office by those whom the nightly news portrayed as vicious partisans out to get him.
Moreover, put together the numbers: feminists and those intimidated by them, for whom the only issue is abortion; die-hard liberal Democrats and leftists on the commanding heights of culture for whom conservatism is pure evil; big labor, especially in education and other parts of the public sector, for whom the alternative to Clinton is catastrophe; and blacks who are pitiably grateful for the assurance that Master feels their pain. Add in the very large number of sensible Americans who found the whole thing repugnant and just wanted it to go away, and you ended up with those high “approval” ratings.
This, at least, is my reading of the Clinton squalor that consumed much of the attention of the nation and the world for more than a year. Now attention has turned to what I believe is the grievously misguided U.S.-NATO war in Serbia (see “The Clinton Era, At Home and Abroad” in last month’s Public Square), and God only knows how that will end up. But the one thing we must not do is follow the counsel of those who say we should put behind us the impeachment and the events that precipitated it. It was a moment of important truth not just about this President and not chiefly about what is called the American character, but about the ways of public discourse, so to speak, about who we are and how we live now.
What happened beginning in January 1998 does not tell us much that is worth knowing about “the American people.” The fact is that nothing like this has happened to us before. If it is allowed to happen again any time soon, we might have to reconsider the dark ponderings about the American character that have gained such currency. The most hopeful thought is that enough Americans have learned from this experience never again to entrust the presidency to a person of such reckless habits and suspect character. But that hope comes with no guarantee.
Meanwhile, we have a President who is guilty of perjury, witness tampering, the obstruction of justice, and sexual predation, including, it seems, at least one rape. Very likely there will be further charges, and possibly further crimes, in the months to come. But, in what is presented as the clinching argument of his loyalists, it’s only for another year or so. Until somebody comes up with a better idea, the course of wisdom is to pray for the nation while averting our eyes as much as public duty permits from the sorry spectacle of a man stumbling through the rubble of what remains of a ruined presidency.
Sources for “Bill Clinton and the American Character”
New York Times, January 22, 1999.
FT, Public Square, April 1998.
Free Congress Foundation letter, February 16, 1999.
Sullivan, “Going Down Screaming,” NYT Magazine, October 11, 1998.
Wolfe in NYT, January 22, 1999.
Safire in NYT, January 14, 1999.
Gigot in Wall Street Journal, February 19, 1999.
Colson in Christianity Today, January 11, 1999.
Bennett in WSJ, February 10, 1999.
10]Lapham in Harper’s, March 1999.
Kakutani in NYT, March 5, 1999.
Brooks in NYT, March 5, 1999.
Diane McWhorter in Newsday, December 22, 1998.
Quoted in Bennett, page 65.
Quoted in Bennett, page 56.
NYU rally, NYT, December 19, 1998.
Dershowitz and Baldwin, Washington Update, December 16, 1998.
Cook and Moore in Spectator, January 2, 1999.
Judis in New Republic, January 25, 1999.
Wiesel in NYT, December 18, 1998.
Prager in Prager Perspective, December 1 and 15, 1998.
Cohen in Washington Post, February 2, 1999.
Polls, WSJ, March 3, 1999.
Steinfels in NYT, February 21, 1998.
Day of Reconciliation, NYT, February 27, 1999.
Drinan in Tablet, September 18, 1998.
Noonan in WSJ, February 12, 1999.
NAE, Insight, October 1998.
Catholic and other responses, Catholic Trends, September 19, 1998.
Schuller in WSJ, December 21, 1998.
Bowman in Weekly Standard, March 1, 1999.
Gigot in WSJ, February 12, 1999.
Kimball in New Criterion, March 1999.
Dowd in NYT, August 2, 1998.
Indomitable Faith, Wicked Wit
It has now been some months since J. P. McFadden died, and I am embarrassed that we are so late with a tribute. (The bane of editors is people who don’t write what they say they’re going to write, but I’ll leave it at that.) Jim was an extraordinary man of recklessly indomitable faith and wicked wit. He was for years variously involved in the publishing of National Review and wrote a scintillating, and sometimes scathing, newsletter, catholic eye. But the indispensable contribution was his founding of the Human Life Review, a scholarly quarterly that is, well, indispensable to anyone contending for the culture of life against the culture of death. Not incidentally, his daughter Maria, who is now the editor of HLR, was the first managing editor of this journal. Each month catholic eye was at the top of the pile marked for immediate reading. My friend George Weigel once said that he had for five years put it to the test: Was it possible to get through an issue of catholic eye without being forced to laugh out loud at least once? It wasn’t. Jim was a master of that most delightfully insufferable form of humor, the pun. Of course I remember a personal reference best. Jim once watched a television exchange between myself and the “Ultramundane” (Jim’s term for the type) Sister Maureen Fiedler. He wrote, “Neuhaus Romed while Fiedler burned.”
The current issue of HLR has a number of well-deserved tributes to Jim, including his wife Faith’s affecting description of their life together over the years he struggled with the cancer that finally did him in. Also republished is this fine statement by John T. Noonan, Jr., constitutional scholar, author, and federal judge on the Ninth Circuit. The occasion was a 1979 testimonial dinner for Jim at the Union League Club, which was established in 1863 to support the Union cause and rid the country of the scourge of slavery. Noonan said, “The division in the country is analogous and the causes are similar: human liberty then, human life now.” He continued:
And there has been the same great need for organization, direction, and projection of opinion on the right side. In the case of slavery, there was really only one organ of public opinion in New York, Horace Greeley’s Tribune, which provided a forum in which antislavery thinking could find a national audience. In the case of abortion, Jim McFadden has given the cause of human life what it so badly wanted: a vigorous, articulate organ of opinion in which the many facets of the abortion issue could be analyzed and commented upon and debated. Abortion, and it has been apparent in the pages of this journal, is about as much a single-issue issue as a centipede is one-footed. Jim McFadden has also edited the liveliest, most newsful, and most invigorating newsletter, which has given life indeed to those of us engaged in a campaign which has often needed such encouragement and such invigoration. . . . I would compare him to Horace Greeley in providing a voice for a great cause neglected or caricatured in the establishment newspapers and journals. I would compare him, except that he has a stability and a modesty and a sense of human limitation which Greeley did not possess. . . . If he fights for man, it is not for the average hypothetical figure of the liberal politician. It is for the actual human beings who are united in his faith with Jesus, redemptor hominis. His humanism is founded upon the God who took human flesh and frame in the womb of Mary. His life follows the law which Hopkins captured in the lines: “Our law says: Love what are love’s worthiest, were all known; World’s loveliest—men’s selves. Self flashes off frame and face.” It is in response to these actual human beings, their frames, their faces, that Jim McFadden has acted and continues to act.
I have no doubt that it is still true that Jim McFadden continues to act. In celestial ways that are beyond our present ken. But also, perhaps, in ways terrestrial, for since he took off with the angels catholic eye and the Human Life Review continue to appear and, for the life of me, they bear the mark of the indomitable faith and wicked wit that I would recognize anywhere as the handiwork of Jim McFadden. (For subscription information on either or both, write The Human Life Foundation, 215 Lexington Avenue, 4th floor, New York, NY 10016.) J. P. McFadden. Requiescat in pace.
While We’re At It
• During the Pope’s visit to St. Louis in January, I was doing television commentary for NBC and so had an advance text of his homily at the huge Mass for 110,000 in the Dome (with another 40,000 in an annex). I had underlined what I took to be, so to speak, the three hot lines: “As the family goes, so goes the nation”; a fervent appeal that we be “unconditionally pro-life”; and a rejection of the death penalty as “cruel and unnecessary.” The first two received an explosively enthusiastic response, and I wondered, knowing where most people are on capital punishment, whether that would be the case with the third. The decibel reading was not quite as high, but the response was undoubtedly enthusiastic. The death penalty passage was immediately and pointedly followed by the statement that we need to recover a sense of “the Church as Mother and Teacher.” There is no doubt that the teaching of this pontificate has ratcheted up the Church’s opposition to capital punishment as incompatible with “the culture of life.” The polls say that the general public, Catholics not excepted, is overwhelmingly supportive of the death penalty, but Edward Gaffney of Valparaiso Law School, reviewing a new book on the subject (The Death Penalty in America, edited by Hugo Adam Bedau, Oxford University Press), prescribes a grain of salt: “One of the essays in the Bedau volume shows how ‘little is known about what the American public really thinks of capital punishment.’ As long as pollsters only ask for a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ reply to the question ‘Do you favor the death penalty?’ a strong majority indicates support. But this support may be a mile wide and an inch deep. For example, both polling data and jury behavior show that Americans differentiate among kinds of killings, with much greater willingness to apply the ultimate sanction to a serial murderer, say, than to a battered wife who reaches in desperation for a knife to kill an abusive husband. And a 1991 Gallup Poll showed a marked falloff in support for the death penalty if the public is told of a more effective and far less costly alternative, life without parole. Another study by William Bowers cited in the Bedau volume shows that support for the death penalty plummets still further when a requirement is added that a murderer work in prison industries for money that would go to the families of their victims. Politicians who prey on our fear of violence should not try to fool most of us most of the time with tough talk on the death penalty. Killing killers will not give us the security from violence we all seek.”
• Herewith the headline of a news release that did not invite careful reading: “Teenagers Are Focused on the Future: Barna Research Study Reveals Millions of Teenagers Think About the Future on a Daily Basis.” All of them, I should have supposed. It’s what you do when you don’t have much of a past.
• The Russian Orthodox Church has announced that it is suspending its involvement in the World Council of Churches until the work of a joint commission between the church and council reports, which may be at least three years. The Russian and other Orthodox churches have long been unhappy with what they view as the liberal theological and moral trends in the dominantly Protestant WCC. In fact, without the Orthodox, the WCC is only tenuously ecumenical. Some conservative critics of the WCC in the West are pleased to have what they take to be the support of the Orthodox, but things are a bit more squiggly than that. The Orthodox turn against the WCC is in largest part, according to informed observers, a xenophobic turn against the West in general. The Russian Orthodox leadership is riddled with the abiding corruption of KGB bishops who, in a bitter twist, were ecumenical agents of the Soviet regime, but at least in some instances became sincere advocates of Christian unity and an opening to the West. This convoluted circumstance may lead one to view the Russian withdrawal from the WCC with deepest ambivalence. All this, not incidentally, has put a damper on John Paul II’s hope for a reconciliation in which, as he puts it, the Church may again “breathe with both lungs,” the East and the West. The failure of the effort to bring about such a reconciliation is certainly the greatest single disappointment of this pontificate. At the same time, the appeal and principles set forth in Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) by John Paul II have laid the groundwork for the realization of that hope in the future. Another factor, of course, in the resurgence of Slavic xenophobia is the U.S.-NATO support for the Muslim side in the Serbian war.
• Under the title “Not the Usual Suspects,” Policy Review collects some quotes on school vouchers from unusual sources. For instance, Arthur Levine, President of Columbia University Teachers College: “Throughout my career, I have been an opponent of school voucher programs. . . . However, after much soul-searching, I have reluctantly concluded that a limited school voucher program is now essential for the poorest Americans attending the worst public schools. . . . Today, to force children into inadequate schools is to deny them any chance of success. To do so simply on the basis of their parents’ income is a sin” (Wall Street Journal, June 15, 1998). And, of all people, Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School: “Any objection that anyone would have to a voucher program would have to be policy-based and could not rest on legal doctrine. One would have to be awfully clumsy to write voucher legislation that could not pass constitutional scrutiny. . . . Aid to parents . . . would be constitutional” (New York Times, June 12, 1991). Then there is Brent Staples of the New York Times editorial board: “Democrats who had made careers as champions of the poor opposed the [school choice] plan, arguing that a solution that did not save every child was unacceptable. The Democrats got the worst of the exchange. They seemed more interested in preserving the public school monopoly than in saving at least some children’s lives [through vouchers]” (New York Times, January 4, 1998). Would you believe U.S. Senator John Kerry? He said: “Shame on us for not realizing that there are parents in this country who . . . today support vouchers not because they are enamored with private schools but because they want a choice for their children. They want alternatives, and seeing none in our rigid system, they are willing and some even desperate to look elsewhere” (speech at Northeastern University, June 16, 1998). Finally, columnist William Raspberry: “If I find myself slowly morphing into a supporter of charter schools and vouchers, it isn’t because I harbor any illusions that there’s something magical about these alternatives. It is because I am increasingly doubtful that the public schools can do (or at any rate will do) what is necessary to educate poor minority children” (Washington Post, June 26, 1998). It’s enough to make even the most hardened conservative wonder if invincible ignorance may be on the wane.
• The Illinois Bar Association, like others, has a committee that is supposed to evaluate the character and fitness of those who want to be admitted to law. This is usually a pro forma thing, as witness the character of the bar. But somewhere a line must be drawn, and Illinois drew it by not approving Matthew Hale, head of what he calls the World Church of the Creator and self-described racist and anti-Semite, who uses the Israeli flag as a doormat, decorates his walls with swastikas, and declares that Hitler had the right idea, except he should have promoted the supremacy of all whites, not just Germans. His professed reason for wanting to be a lawyer is to advocate such views, which, said the Illinois panel, are blatantly immoral and render him unfit to be a lawyer. “Under any civilized standards of decency, the incitement of racial hatred for the ultimate purpose of depriving selected groups of their legal rights shows a gross deficiency in moral character, particularly for lawyers who have a special responsibility to uphold the rule of law for all persons,” the panel said. Never mind that it may seem a little late in the day to be setting moral standards for lawyers, and never mind that there is a double standard at work in that I doubt if any bar association has refused admission to someone advocating the hateful doctrines of, say, Mao or Stalin. Never mind those and other possible objections; the Illinois panel is right. But, as is to be expected, moral libertarians, including Harvard’s ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz, are screaming violation of Mr. Hale’s rights to free speech. Hale’s free speech is not the question. The question is a profession’s right to maintain at least the appearance of maintaining a moral standard, however minimal. As reflected in, inter alia, his passionate advocacy on behalf of O. J. Simpson and Bill Clinton, Mr. Dershowitz is a man without scruples, who seems to think the Constitution prohibits all moral judgments but his own. In a typically smarmy aside he says that, if he takes the case, he will have a black co-counsel and contribute his fees to anti-racist groups. The Anti-Defamation League is also opposed to the decision of the bar association, warning about a “slippery slope” that could penalize people with unpopular opinions on issues such as abortion and school prayer. That is touching, in view of the ADL’s record of being ever so solicitous about the rights of anti-abortion and school prayer advocates. The panel of the Illinois bar has explained its decision with admirable lucidity, and should stand by it.
• It may surprise some readers, but I’m regularly asked, “Just who are these evangelical Protestants anyway?” Of course evangelicals themselves have written heavy tomes in response to that question. I frequently refer inquirers to Christianity Today, the mainline publication of the anti-mainline Protestantism that is a defining characteristic of evangelicalism. Yes, it is confusing. Of course there are defining characteristics, such as biblical authority, the accent on conversion experience, and commitment to the missionary imperative. But evangelicalism is very importantly evangelicaldom, a world of maddeningly various spiritual entrepreneurship. The issue of CT at hand, for instance, is 136 pages, no less than seventy of them being full-page advertisements (plus many smaller ads) plugging spiritual uplift, educational opportunities, and sundry products in support of Christian living. It is the American Mall of laissez-faire religion. Evangelicalism is driven less by denominational leadership than by what are called para-church organizations (Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, World Vision, Prison Fellowship, and on and on), typically built around the charism of their founders. Among the many kingdoms within evangelicaldom, Christianity Today Inc. is by no means the least. While on the subject, let me answer a Baptist reader who asks why we don’t usually capitalize the word evangelical. The simple answer is that we usually try to follow the usage preferred by the community in question, and most evangelicals don’t capitalize the word. I have, however, noticed in the last few years, usually in connection with discussions of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” that some evangelicals do use the upper case, probably for reasons of symmetry with “Catholic.” I expect that for most evangelicals upper case Evangelical might have ecclesiological intimations that do not sit well with their doctrine of the church. On the upper case question, we’ll await further developments, and probably follow the lead of CT. As observant readers know, our policy is always to stick with the mainline.
• I earlier mentioned that big national survey commissioned by the Center for Gender Equality. Faye Wattleton, longtime director of Planned Parenthood, thinks the findings are “complex and disturbing,” as well she might. The survey on “religiopolitics” (their term) was intended to examine the “impact of conservative religious political activism on women’s attitudes about their equality and their role in society.” It turns out that women love religion, with three-quarters rating it as “very important” in their lives. The gender benders regretfully report that, “Overall, women think that religious organizations have a positive impact on American life and would like them to be more involved in the public debate. . . . They believe that religious organizations are not a threat to their own interests or to the interests of women in general.” And the news gets worse. “Does your involvement with your religious organization make you feel that to be a good wife you must allow your husband to make decisions for the family?” Sixty-six percent of women say no. “Does it make you feel uncomfortable about your political beliefs?” “About your sexuality?” Eighty-eight percent say no to both. So much for consciousness raising. Incidentally, more than twice as many women think the Christian Coalition serves the interests of women as think it is a threat. Most devastating to the research sponsors, however, is the finding that fully 70 percent of women favor restrictions on abortion, with 40 percent wanting to ban it altogether or making exceptions only for rape, incest, or direct threat to the mother’s life. On Ms. Wattleton’s thinking the findings are “complex,” the Weekly Standard editors remark: “Of course, almost any faithful sounding of real people’s views is bound to seem dizzyingly complex if the only fixed point of your mental universe is that a woman’s dignity depends on her absolute, unhindered right to abort her pregnancies.”
• Funny how one remembers things. I have a very distinct memory of the installation of Archbishop Spyridon as head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the United States in the fall of 1996 because I had gone to Kennedy Airport to meet Edward Cardinal Cassidy of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and we got stuck in traffic behind the police-escorted caravan carrying Spyridon into the city. But the delay was time well used in discussing relations with the Orthodox, and with the Greeks in particular. There were then high hopes that Spyridon, who followed the long rule of Iakovos, would provide a fresh vision, leading a more confident community of 1.5 million into the third millennium. Things seem to have gone downhill since then. First there was a big flap over Spyridon’s intervention to rejuggle the administration and faculty of Holy Cross seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts; then he marginalized some of the more respected leaders in church headquarters, including Fr. Robert Stephanopoulos (father of George, the former Clinton adviser); then he reacted in a way that was thought to be ham-fisted when groups of laity insisted upon more adequate financial accountability. Finally, the five American metropolitans, or senior bishops, concluded that Spyridon had to go. They wrote Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople, who had appointed Spyridon and has jurisdiction over the American archdiocese: “The archdiocese is presently suffocating in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, insecurity, lack of trust, and vindictiveness. The majority of the clergy and laity have lost their trust in their ecclesiastical leadership, which during the last two and a half years has not been able to create and promote new visions and new dreams for the future.” Bartholomew responded that he had appointed Spyridon and Spyridon would stay; the Americans would just have to get used it and learn to cooperate. So that is where things stand at the moment. As with much of Orthodoxy in this country, the question pressed is whether these churches are religio-ethnic tribes in exile from their home countries or ecclesial communities in America that are part of the Orthodox Church. Underlying that question is whether Orthodoxy has any way of giving institutional expression to the idea of the universal Church. The great Orthodox theologian and my dear friend, the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann, said the only way for that to happen would be through a pan-Orthodox council. To which he would add with a smile, “But you must understand that a pan-Orthodox council is an eschatological concept.” Meanwhile, it appears that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese under the leadership of Spyridon will limp across the threshold of the third millennium with the hopes of that bright fall day of 1996 being no more than a memory.
• In the United Kingdom, a new Methodist Book of Worship has just appeared. Included is prayer addressed to “God our Father and Mother.” Excluded is the “prayer of humble access” at Holy Communion, which begins, “We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord.” The liturgical committee thought the prayer was too “grovelly.” Said the Rev. Norman Wallwork, speaking for the committee, “An overriding element of the Eucharist is to be lifted up by the healing of God. We do not want people to be brought down at this holy moment and reminded they are a sinner.” Maybe he is making a point about the collective nature of sin, or maybe his grammar is as muddled as his theology.
• So Elia Kazan finally got his Oscar for lifetime achievement, and it’s more than about time. The director of such great films as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan was blacklisted by Hollywood because in 1952 he testified to Congress against eight associates who were members of the Communist Party. Then and now he publicly defends his action. The former Communists and their friends organized a protest at the awards ceremony. The Times editorially comments that “the protest is certainly merited, but so is the award. . . . The Academy has done what it has not always been able to do—distinguish clearly between the merit of an artist’s work and the merit of his behavior or convictions.” Thus, even at this late date, the editors put themselves on the side of those who claim that members of the CPUSA were innocent victims of “McCarthyism.” The outrageous behavior of the junior Senator from Wisconsin notwithstanding, there is now no excuse for not knowing that the CPUSA was not an innocent band of “liberals in a hurry” but a totally controlled instrument of the Soviet Union devoted to the destruction of our constitutional order and the victory of our totalitarian adversary. The most recent and damning documentation of this isThe Haunted Wood by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (see FT, May), but the evidence has been available for a very long time. In 1952, Congress and Elia Kazan were in the honorable business of attempting to expose those who were traitors to their country. That’s the fact. The business was marked by messiness and mendacity because politics is almost always marked by messiness and mendacity, and, in this instance, because witting agents and dupes of the conspiracy systematically lied about that aforementioned fact, as many continue to do even today. Elia Kazan is accused of “snitching on his friends.” He says he was serving his country. Still today many subscribe to the infamous assertion of E. M. Forster that, if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friends, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country. Forgotten is the reality that one is betraying one’s friends by betraying one’s country. Forgotten, too, is the fact that those who are the friends of tyrants and mass murderers should not be counted as friends. One would like to think that those who approved the award to Mr. Kazan understand these matters better than the organizers of the protest, and better than the editors of the Times.
• The editors of Christianity Today get part of it right when they say, “There is a momentum to the pro-life cause. We are winning the battle of persuasion in the minds of many Americans—a necessary first step if we are to become a truly pro-life nation. At the same time, further clinic protests are not the best way to persuade the unpersuaded or to mobilize the convinced but inactive.” But they are wrong to be so impressed with Alan Wolfe’s report One Nation After All. Sociologist Wolfe had research assistants interview 200 middle-class suburbanites and came up with the unsurprising discovery that people do not like to appear “judgmental.” The CT editors assert, “What persuades in a social order based on the plebiscite of instant polling is the positive image: The image of caring, of compassion, of empathy, of service.” What does instant polling have to do with persuasion? Is the point to win polling numbers? “Clinic protests,” the editors continue, “too easily lend themselves to images of judgmentalism, anger, and hostility (if not actual violence)-precisely the images that turn off the subjects of Wolfe’s study.” True, but killing babies is something of a turn-off. One might observe that the editors of CT too easily lend themselves to the stereotypes employed by pro-abortionists, which is certainly not what they want to do. There are many ways to be pro-life, and this journal has given sustained attention to the research, strategies, and arguments that might advance that cause. But the fact is that, for more than twenty-five years, there have been thousands of people who have stood vigil at America’s abortuaries; who have prayed, counseled, and sometimes gone to jail, in order to prevent the rest of us from averting our eyes from the horror. It is not the only way of being pro-life or even of being a pro-life activist, but they are heroes and heroines, and we are all in their debt. Catering to the refined sensibilities of the assiduously nonjudgmental may at times have its place, but it is really not very helpful to tell people who have been seized by a vision of the horror that they ought to accentuate the positive.
• Criticism of Muslim complicity with terrorism is now coming from the inside, specifically from the Islamic Supreme Council, a Muslim education group in Washington, D.C. The Council stated in a recent issue of the ISC’s magazine, The Muslim, that “too often we see leaders of the community equivocating between implicit support for extremists and general condemnations of terrorism.” The Council suggests that Muslim groups in the U.S. should “openly disclose their ties to foreign groups and movements, as well as the nature of these associations.” No guilty parties were identified by the Council, however, because, according to the editor Mateen Siddiqui, “these groups should engage in self-disclosure.” Also, as he did not say, some of these groups play rough.
• If, as the current liberal line has it, conservatives are neo-Puritans, the Rev. Jerry Falwell is the witch-burning, gay-bashing genuine article without the prefix. Remember the media flurry over his allegedly having “outed” a cartoon character in a popular television show? Says the Rev. Falwell, “I have never watched the Teletubbies on television. Until the recent media explosion accusing me of ‘outing’ Tinky Winky as being gay, I had never heard of this sweet-looking character. I certainly never criticized Tinky Winky in any way.” So what happened? A magazine of which Falwell is the publisher quoted, accurately, statements by Time and People magazines, as well as the Washington Post, saying that Tinky Winky is a gay figure and represents the cultural mainlining of homosexuality. The same publications, plus many others, then had a journalistic picnic ridiculing the Rev. Falwell for saying that Tinky Winky is a gay figure representing the cultural mainlining of homosexuality, which of course he did not say. The charitable interpretation is that the editors of Time, People, the Washington Post, et al. do not read their own publications, for which they may be readily forgiven. The reality is that, when it comes to bashing conservative Christians, the facts don’t matter. But then, you probably already knew that.
• Among the many fine books written by and about this great Pope, we are especially pleased to recommend A Celebration of the Thought of John Paul II ($19.95
), edited by Gregory R. Beabout of St. Louis University and issuing from a conference marking the Pope’s January visit to that city. The collected essays discuss John Paul’s thought on theology, philosophy, culture, the Gospel of Life, non-Catholics, the family, economics, communism, and faith and reason, and are written by such estimable persons as Avery Dulles, George Weigel, and Janet Smith, with comments by Karol Wojtyla himself. To order, please call Carol Murphy at St. Louis University Press, (312) 977-2244 or fax (314) 977-3943.
• If India is abandoning its constitutional secularism in favor of rabid nationalism, writes Jon Stock in the Spectator, then it’s with good reason. That good reason is the “extreme intolerance of the evangelical, mostly American missionaries who are now working in India.” Stock lists some of these missionaries’ egregious activities: treating leprosy, training and supporting indigenous pastors, channeling funds and resources to India, and, worse yet, praying. Indeed, that the missionaries pray that local animism and Hinduism will give way to Christianity is, to Stock, intolerably intolerant. As far as he is concerned, that explains why Hindu nationalists react with excessive violence, for instance in the case of the Australian missionary and his sons who were burned alive in their jeep. One may infer that Stock believes these missionaries get exactly what they deserve. More likely, he cannot resist an occasion to condescend to the vulgar American cousins. When the Raj was in place, India was ever so effectively evangelized by the more proper Church of England.
• “The Abortion Horizon Today,” an editorial in the Jesuit weekly America, might better be titled “Lowering the Horizon.” After agreeing with George W. Bush that the country is not yet ready for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the editors write: “Finally, believers in the Gospel of Life must be no more discouraged in seeking to diminish abortions than Martin Luther King, Jr. was in seeking civil rights for African Americans.” Dr. King did not seek to diminish segregation but to end segregation. The goal of the pro-life movement remains: Every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. Fortunately, Gov. Bush says he is committed to that goal—even if the editors of America are not so sure.
• Dr. Jack Kevorkian has, at long last, been convicted of murder. The killing of Thomas Youk, which was the snuff film broadcast by 60 Minutes to boost its ratings, left the jury no choice but to convict. Taking, as the saying has it, a fool for his client, Kevorkian, who boasted of helping more than 130 people to commit suicide, conducted his own defense. Vehemently chopping one hand into the palm of the other, he told the jury that the killing of Youk was intended “to end his torture finally and definitively.” “You don’t want to put him to sleep and have him reawake in the same condition he was before. That wasn’t the aim. The aim was a final solution to incurable agony.” Final solution. Endlösung, anyone? Yes of course, one must be very careful in drawing analogies with the Holocaust. But the Kevorkian logic is comparable, right down to his advocacy of using prisoners on death row for medical experiments. They’re going to die anyway, aren’t they? Perhaps wisely, the Michigan prosecutor steered clear of philosophical or moral arguments about mercy killing. He stuck to the simple point that Jack Kevorkian was not legally authorized to kill people and, if he did, he is guilty of murder. It was, if you will, a positivist argument: the law is the law is the law. It was not a morally or philosophically satisfying argument, but thank God it is the law. The moral, philosophical, and political task is to make sure that it continues to be the law.
• Erik v. Kuehnelt-Leddihn, the Austrian polymath who turns ninety this summer and has lived more history than most people have read, will be making his umpteenth lecture tour in the U.S. this October. A very orthodox Catholic who thinks Luther was a theological genius, and a great fan of the social teaching of John Paul II who thinks democracy is the handiwork of the Devil, Dr. Kuehnelt-Leddihn will not bore your audience. You can contact him to make a date at A-6072, Lans, Tyrol, Austria. Enough already. We have called attention to the Israeli government’s unprecedented intervention in calling upon the Vatican not to proceed with the possible beatification of Pope Pius XII, and to Edgar Bronfman’s World Jewish Congress with its strident attacks on the Catholic Church. These are among the developments pertinent to a paper by Edward Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Church’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, prepared for a Baltimore meeting sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cardinal Cassidy praised the great progress made in Jewish-Catholic relations over the past three decades, and suggested the time had now come to move the focus away from inter-group problems to the religious and spiritual truths that bind these communities together under the one God of Israel. He then offered these candid and cautionary words: “For the Catholic Church, the program of study and action that I have set out is one to which we are deeply committed. I believe that the great majority of our members support these efforts, if not by positive involvement, at least by silent approval. But now I must sound a signal of alarm. I have to admit before this prestigious gathering that I am becoming concerned that some of the good work that has been done is under threat. The reaction within the Catholic community to recent aggressive attitudes manifested in our regard by certain Jewish agencies is the cause of this concern. Catholics who for many years have been engaged in promoting Jewish-Catholic relations have come to me to express their dismay at what is happening and their loss of interest in continuing along this chosen and, I believe, blessed path. Nor can I say in conscience that their reaction is unwarranted. Our partner in dialogue for so many years, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation, is no longer in existence. One of its largest members is involved in a systematic campaign to denigrate the Catholic Church. Jewish responses to what we seek to do to improve our relationship are often so negative that some now hesitate to do anything at all for fear of making the situation worse. Our suggestion last year that Jewish and Catholic scholars study together the material from our archives already made available to the public has been completely ignored. Moreover, recent Jewish attempts to influence decisions concerning the internal life of the Catholic Church are strongly resented. Persons very dear to the Catholic faithful are condemned without proof, but simply because they are not personae gratae with the Jewish community. These are not pleasing facts to mention, and yet we cannot speak about a new agenda and take no note of the uncertain atmosphere that is beginning to cloud over our present relationship.” Cardinal Cassidy expressed the hope that the atmosphere can be cleared by a return to sincere dialogue and genuine respect for one another.
• Theology 101, according to the editors of the New York Times. The lead on Easter Sunday was titled “A Season of Sacrifice” and discussed the convergence of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy days. Passover, which gets the most space, is described as celebrating “the emergence of the Jewish people, but its universal drama is that of an escape from oppression, a declaration of freedom and self-determination that remains at issue 3,500 years after it was first heard.” Universal self-determination? So it turns out that it is Moses and not Woodrow Wilson to whom we owe that blood-drenched idea. Easter, on the other hand, “is about a promise of salvation after defeat that is of a deeply personal nature, rather than the emergence of a people.” So much for the Church. Easter, we are told, “celebrates one man maintaining his faithfulness before the military might of an oppressive government and the taunts of the crowd, a lesson of integrity and determination that has molded much of civilization as we know it.” So much for the Resurrection. Then this: “The Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha may be less familiar to most Americans.” Really? The “may be” is a nice touch. The editors do not say so, but they seem to be aware that the reason for the possible lack of familiarity may have something to do with there being a lot more Christians than Muslims in the U.S. In any event, and the evil Mr. Milosevic notwithstanding, all three religions enshrine a “genuine tradition of tolerance,” and the convergence of the holidays is “a powerful reminder of that higher yearning among peoples of all traditions.” In sum, the message of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that we should all be good liberals. It has taken a long time, but Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad presumably should be pleased that they have, at long last, been so clearly understood.
• I’m afraid that Richard Alleva’s sense of perspective fails him when in “Nothing to Laugh About” he scorns the Robert Benigni movie Life is Beautiful. Of course the Holocaust is nothing to laugh about, but joyful laughter is fully warranted over the human capacity to construct and live a narrative that sustains us through all that is hellish in life, and that capacity is what the movie is about. Writing in Commonweal, Alleva says, “It muffles horror, even aestheticizes it. Just as Guido [the main character] transforms the horror of the camp into fun-and-games for the sake of his child’s mental health, so does Benigni tame horror for the sake of the viewer’s mental comfort. But what is heroic in the father is craven in the filmmaker.” That, I believe, misses the point. I am not much of a moviegoer these days, but was moved to see Life is Beautiful shortly after it opened when I learned that the Pope thought it quite wonderful. I don’t want to over-theologize the film, but it is powerfully suggestive of J. R. R. Tolkien’s insight that so influenced C. S. Lewis, namely, that Christianity is the true myth. The father’s myth of a game that sustains his young son through the horror of the concentration camp is analogous to the Christian claim that life is a testing which, faithfully and daringly lived, leads to victory and final reconciliation with the Good. (In the film that is the boy’s final reconciliation with his mother.) All right, so that may be reading too much into it—or out of it, as the case may be. But surely the countless people who see this film will leave the theater thinking, “Despite everything, dammit, life is beautiful.” You might almost say, at the risk of adverting to another horror, that it is a pro-life movie.
• Here’s an invitation from the Philadelphia Society, a venerable conservative institution, announcing its annual meeting. “The topic is ‘Will Western Civilization Survive the 21st Century?’ We expect to have stimulating discussions and to arrive at a definitive answer.” Stimulating discussions, I have no doubt, but for a definitive answer I think I’ll wait for the annual meeting of 2099.
• We will be happy to send a sample issue of this journal to people you think are likely subscribers. Please send names and addresses to First Things, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010 (or e-mail to Ravaughan@aol.com). On the other hand, if they’re ready to subscribe, call toll-free 1-800-783-4903.
On J. P. McFadden, Human Life Review, Winter 1999.
While We’re At It: On capital punishment, Commonweal, January 29, 1999. “Not the Usual Suspects” (article on school vouchers), Policy Review, January-February 1999. On Illinois Bar Association’s banning racist lawyer, New York Times, February 10, 1999. Statistics on women and religion reported in Weekly Standard, February 15, 1999. On Archbishop Spyridon and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the United States, New York Times, February 21, 1999. On United Methodist Book of Worship in Britain, UK News summary, February 18, 1999. On Elia Kazan, New York Times, February 24, 1999. On abortion clinic protests, Christianity Today, March 1, 1999. “American Muslim Leaders Silent on Terrorism?” in Religion Watch, February 1999. On Jerry Falwell and allegedly gay cartoon character, Washington Times, February 26, 1999. On India and evangelicals, “Christian Provocation,” Spectator, February 6, 1999. “The Abortion Horizon Today” in America, March 27, 1999. On Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s conviction for murder, New York Times, March 26, 1999. Edward Cardinal Cassidy on Jewish-Catholic relations, Origins, March 4, 1999. Film Life is Beautiful reviewed by Richard Alleva, Commonweal, March 26, 1999.