Few indeed predicted that after the moderate disaster of the 1998 elections, the narrow Republican majority in the House would hold firm in passing an impeachment resolution against President Clinton. And although it seems unlikely that the Senate will vote to remove Clinton from office, the issue has been infused with a new seriousness. The success of the impeachment effort has for the moment deepened the gulf between Left and Right: as conservatives congratulate the Republicans on their unexpected toughness in the face of popular opinion, liberals accuse them of everything from insanity to treason. The New Republic coverage of the impeachment contains some of the most partisan rhetoric I have seen in that moderate journal; conservative publications, on the other hand, not only unanimously support the impeachment but speak ominously of the moral decline reflected in the general public’s loyalty to the president.
We stand at the intersection of two apparently contradictory trends. On the one hand, the resignations of Joint Chiefs and House Speaker nominees on the basis of revelations of distant adulteries give evidence of a growing “puritanism.” On the other, the ever-increasing explicitness of sexual discourse betrays increase in “licentiousness.” We have the word of Larry Flynt that he and Kenneth Starr should switch jobs, because Flynt can buy sexual confessions more cheaply whereas Starr has been more effective in making the stuff of pornography available to the general public. The two trends are not really opposite at all. They reach their common limit when, discourse having come to include every sexual act we have performed, no one can withstand public scrutiny. What is being maximized under these contradictory names is our mimetic fascination with and resentment of each other’s pleasures.
The claim of moral decline is inseparable from the topos of the “golden age” or the “good old days” inherent in culture’s deferral of violence. All representation creates a utopia of lost presence. The originary “presence” of the central object on the scene of language is experienced as its absence from the world of appropriation; this pattern is repeated throughout history. The distinctions that defer mimetic conflict are never as absolute as the differences of the past; the ethic they define is looser, less dignified. Dignity is a quality of ritual hierarchy; it does not comport well with the unpredictable interactions of history’s movement toward equality.
The ambivalence of our moral relationship to the past may be made clearer by comparing Clinton with two Democratic predecessors: John F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman. One need not be an apologist for Clinton’s disgraceful behavior with Monica Lewinsky to find it an improvement over the steady stream of prostitutes brought into the White House to fuel Kennedy’s sexual urges. These unpublicized commercial transactions had none of the ambiguous sentimentality of Clinton’s affair; the women had no incentive to reveal these experiences and would no doubt have suffered had they done so. Some would say that this historical evolution represents a decline in public morality; Kennedy’s improper activities were kept out of the public view whereas today one can’t let one’s children watch the news. I think rather that indignity is the price we pay for a higher level of reciprocity in human relations. What makes the aristocratic Kennedy-prostitute relation more dignified than the messy Clinton-Lewinsky one is that the latter pair are on a footing of greater equality. That Kennedy’s womanizing is never mentioned in the same breath with Clinton’s only reflects the vestigial respect for sacred difference that is the basis of all nostalgia.
In contrast to Kennedy’s White House whoring, Harry Truman’s upright and unpretentious lifestyle is probably what most people associate with the “good old days.” One cannot imagine old Harry, who wrote love-letters to his wife for sixty years, responding to some intern’s thong underwear. Both Truman and Clinton, as opposed to the wealthy Kennedy, are men of the people, but the man from Hope cuts a poor figure beside the man from Independence.
Yet we must allow that the temptations set before the contemporary “man of the people” are far more varied and insidious than those available to one of Truman’s generation. However much we may admire Truman’s conjugal fidelity, we need models of behavior that resist and overcome these temptations rather than simply antedating them. It is a sign of humility and not merely of fecklessness that we are chary of casting the first stone. Our outrage at Clinton’s conduct is tempered by a sense that moral indignation is more often indicative of hypocrisy than purity. To laugh at Lewinsky jokes is to experience the ambiguous morality of the witness of sexual guilt. Those who accuse Kenneth Starr of pursuing Clinton as a means of expressing his fantasies while at the same time denying them are condemning less Starr than themselves.
Moral debates of this sort are ultimately about human survival. Nostalgia for order is not mere narcissism; we resist the breakdown of old differences lest it lead to the breakdown of the social order itself in a Hobbesian war of all against all. What I would call the “generative” view sees the historical dissolution of differences as reducing rather than increasing resentment. Through the consumer activities scorned or neglected by the nostalgics the fall of formal barriers creates more difference than it destroys; rigid hierarchies give way to nuanced distinctions created by individuals themselves through the countless choices that make up their lifestyle. Yet one can recognize the benefits of consumer society and nonetheless express doubt as to its survivability. The spread of “weapons of mass destruction” is an inevitable corollary of the postmodern expansion of consumer choice. Harry Truman, whose lifestyle harked back to simpler days, also marked the limit of our future; he was and hopefully will remain the only person to order the use of nuclear weapons.
The only lesson of history is to avoid the end of history. The progress of human culture is, pace our sociobiologists, not a blind Darwinian evolution but the development of ever more efficient means of deferring mimetic violence. And among those means is the one we are about to see implemented in Washington.
The founders of the American republic were astute anthropologists in their own right who recognized the need for procedures to generate unanimity when parties or factions cannot agree. Where it is impossible to reach through compromise a single political judgment, the mechanisms of democracy implement unity on a second level; to settle an issue by counting votes is to refound communal unity by affirming our “equal” descent from our common scene of origin.
I think it was fidelity to this intuition rather than pressure from the demonized “right wing” that led moderate House Republicans to support impeachment as an apt means for resolving the current dispute. A judicial decision is based in principle on the evidence alone; a political vote frankly reflects ideological differences. Because the trial that follows impeachment is decided by a body of elected officials, it partakes of both the judicial and political processes. Overwhelming evidence of crime would trump political division, but Clinton’s is an exemplary impeachment in that the evidence is not of this sort. The vagueness of the constitutional “high crimes and misdemeanors” is the product not of the founders’ negligence but of their sagacity. There is no set of objective rules to follow in deciding whether Clinton’s acts fall within this category. The two-thirds majority required to convict falls in between the unanimity of a criminal jury and the simple majority of everyday politics. Even if a majority of senators vote to convict and the president nonetheless goes free, the mechanism of judgment itself will have a pacifying effect.
This leads me to the paradoxical conclusion that, although Clinton’s offenses are not serious enough to merit impeachment, carrying the process to its conclusion is a useful affirmation of the health of our political and national life. The fact that despite the partisan motivation of the trial the Senate has been able to reach unanimous agreement on at least its preliminary phases suggests that the cure for the salaciousness as well as the divisiveness that encumbered the news throughout 1998 is not to short-circuit the impeachment process but to carry it to its conclusion. What we need the trial to purge is less Clinton’s own disreputable risk-taking (please see Chronicle 151) than our own psychodramatic identification with it. We cannot recapture the simple dignity of Harry Truman, but we can hope for the maturity to enjoy the benefits of modern consumerism and the accompanying “sexual revolution” without losing our ability to distinguish right from wrong.