The Magazine


Feb 16, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 22 • By DAVID FRUM
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Ninety years ago, Max Beerbohm drew a series of cartoons titled "The Young Self Meets the Old Self" about the strange twists in the lives of the famous and near-famous of his day. Max, we miss you now! A generation of young liberals who were jolted into political activism by presidential lying are now excusing presidential lying. Passionate young reformers who once despised Richard Nixon for his stonewalling and obstruction of justice now chuckle at the success of Bill Clinton's stonewalling and obstruction of justice. Militant feminists who once raged at lecherous middle-aged men who treated the young women in their employ as walking sex toys now rally to defend a middle-aged man who treats young women in his employ as walking sex toys. Thirty years ago, earnest psychologists would appear on television to explain that the baby boomers wore denim because it was dyed blue, and blue symbolized honesty. Today, the first baby boomer president bids fair to be the most shameless liar ever to hold the office.

This is a moment of testing for the once-earnest, once-young liberals who came of age politically between 1968 and 1974. Until now, the members of that political cohort have championed the Clintons and condoned their ethical lapses. Faced suddenly with the most indisputable evidence to date of presidential lawbreaking, these supporters of the president must decide what to do. Thus far, an amazing number of them have decided to shut their eyes and hush their qualms.

If the Clinton apologists were motivated by cynical political calculation, one at least could make some kind of sense of it. And some of them undoubtedly have entered into a conscious Faustian bargain, accepting the Clintons' dubious behavior as the necessary price of liberalism's political success. Since 1960, the Democratic party has nominated five upright men for president -- Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis -- and three scoundrels -- Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton. From an electoral point of view, the conclusion seems obvious: As the weaker of the two political parties, the Democrats cannot afford to be over-scrupulous about their political morality.

Still, this depth of cynicism is rarer than one supposes, even in Washington. Existential characters in old-fashioned novels can knowingly do evil in order that good may come of it, but few of us are existential characters in old-fashioned novels. Instead, the Clintons' defenders in the political world are splitting up into three broad groups, each formed around a different excuse or justification. The first group are the gullible. If Bill Clinton says something, it's good enough for them: They fervently believe there must be some perfectly innocent explanation for all those midnight telephone calls and secret office visits. It goes without saying that this group is not very large. The second are the shell-shocked. They don't know what to think, other than to hope that the case will remain murky enough to permit them to go on more or less believing in the president without looking or sounding either stupid or amoral. This is, for the moment, probably the largest group. And then there is the third group -- still small, but growing fast. It's the group that is actually willing to excuse presidential lying.

Writer Wendy Kaminer offered a fascinating version of this line of defense on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" last week. "Why should we hold the president to standards few of us meet consistently?" she asked. "I'm not saying that the president's lies and infidelity don't matter. They must matter a lot to Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. But why should they matter to voters?" In Slate magazine, former Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich makes a similar point: "Should allegedly finding comfort, release, satisfaction, peace in the arms of a beautiful 21-year-old count for more than balancing the budget?" Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of the New Yorker, urges us to distinguish like grown-ups between "pernicious falsehoods aimed at covering up crimes against humanity and, say, feeble fibs aimed at wiggling out of some horribly embarrassing but essentially victimless and legal piece of human stupidity."