Of the many things that have been said about the agony of President Clinton’s impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and the sham “trial” that resulted in his acquittal by the U.S. Senate, there seems to have been only one point upon which political factions of every persuasion found it possible to agree: that this whole sordid episode in the nation’s history was in many respects the culmination—though by no means the conclusion—of the culture war that has been raging in this country since the emergence of the radical counterculture in the 1960s. Those on the political Left who claimed that the impeachment of the president was really an impeachment of the 1960s weren’t entirely wrong. Neither were those on the political Right who had long feared the worst from the pot-smoking, draft-dodging, antiwar activist with a history of sexual misconduct who had come to occupy the White House. Both were reflecting upon the same historical reality —the reality of an immoralist in the nation’s highest office. The only difference was that while the Left looked upon this reality as a vindication, the Right understood it to be a national catastrophe.
This is not to say that there were not many grave Constitutional issues involved in the resolution of this bitter conflict, and it is certainly not to say that the prosperity of the American economy in the 1990s did not also play a major role in determining the outcome of what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan correctly described as “a crisis of the regime.” Both contributed a great deal to the discordant public responses to the impeachment process: on the one hand, a feeling of deep foreboding that quickly reduced the political establishment in Washington to a condition of fear and trembling; and on the other, a feeling of complacency and indifference—moral indifference—on the part of a public eager to avert its glance from anything, no matter how loathsome, that might disturb its sense of its own security and comfort.
Yet in retrospect it can clearly be seen that both the Constitutional issues and the economic factors, however important they have been to the outcome, were finally ancillary to what this ghastly proceeding was mainly about: a culture war that preceded Bill Clinton’s election to the Presidency but which his outrageous and unlawful conduct in the White House—and the personal history he brought to that exalted office—had come to epitomize for anyone with the wit to understand what has been the most divisive issue in American life for a third of this century. The culture war that originated in the political and moral uproars of the 1960s has never been a conflict over contending economic ideas or economic reforms. From the outset it has been a conflict about the conduct of life. Its targets have rarely included big business, which, if anything, has grown bigger and bigger over the course of the cultural revolution which the radical movement of the 1960s set in motion, and is nowadays often in the hands of the offspring of the counterculture. The primary targets of the culture war have been the institutions of marriage and the family, and its principal battleground has been a sexual revolution that has made any reference to marital vows and family values an object of derision and contempt. These the incendiaries of the counterculture have largely succeeded in deconstructing in the name of a personal emancipation that acknowledges neither moral obligation nor legal constraint. As a consequence, we live today in a culture of moral ruin.
That the President of the United States has now come to personify this moral ruin is a catastrophe from which the country will not soon recover. That his perjuries and other violations of law have been exonerated amid a chorus of denunciations of the president’s behavior only adds still another disabling layer of moral hypocrisy to the horrific spectacle of political cowardice and ethical failure the country has been made to endure. For it has made the U.S. Senate—and thus, by implication, the entire country— complicit in the president’s misdeeds. Impeachment without removal, crime without punishment, profligacy without accountability—this is the legacy with which the moral fiasco of the Clinton presidency burdens the nation as it enters a new millennium. This is the nature of that famous “bridge” the president promised to build to the twenty-first century. This is indeed the crisis that the thirty-year culture war has brought upon us, and there is no armistice in sight. “Complete moral tolerance,” wrote James Fitzjames Stephen over a hundred years ago, “is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other—that is to say, when society is at an end.” That end has not yet come, but in President Clinton’s triumph in the culture war he has brought us closer to its brink than any other leader in our history.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 7, on page 1
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