The Magazine

A GENERATION ON TRIAL

Feb 16, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 22 • By DAVID FRUM
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This calmness in the face of probable presidential perjury leaves critics of the president speechless and slack-jawed. The Clinton scandals long ago exhausted our capacity for astonishment. The old Iran-contra shock troops, led by Cadet Leader Anthony Lewis, are executing with Prussian precision a sudden and uniform about-face on the merits of the independent-counsel law. The president's feminist allies are carrying on a bizarre imitation of the most mercenary complaisant wife of 50 years ago ("Yes he plays around a little, but he gives me everything I ask for -- look at this lovely daycare program he gave me on our anniversary . . ."). And the pious, good-government Democratic party of Ralph Nader and William Proxmire is reverting before our eyes to the old Girls and Graft ethics of James Farley's Tammany Hall.


Hypocrisy has always been liberalism's besetting vice. But the utter collapse of the good-government impulses that first summoned into politics the baby-boom liberals who now defend the Clintons -- that's a colossal phenomenon that seems to require some larger explanation. Time was, when Charles Reich, the author of The Greening of America and a law professor at Yale when Bill and Hillary studied there, could denounce over-whipped peanut butter as an imposture and a deceit; today, the Clintons are toying with the idea that lying under oath is a perfectly reasonable response to pesky and impertinent inquiries. How in the world did we get from all the way over there to over here? How did so many of the most self-consciously pure members of the generation that regards itself as the most idealistic in history wind up in the service of two such dubious characters as Bill and Hillary Clinton?


Perhaps the answer is contained in the question. The story of Bill and Hillary Clinton is a generational story. Bill Clinton is neither an ideological figure like Ronald Reagan and Hubert Humphrey, nor a strong partisan like Lyndon Johnson and Bob Dole. He never calls himself a liberal, he seldom has a good word to say for any other Democrat. He is instead the first president to grant an interview to MTV to discuss his taste in pop music. He is, above all, a representative of his generation.


One of the first books about the Alger Hiss case suggested in its title that the case really put "a generation on trial." Hiss attracted defenders not so much because his story was believed -- like Clinton's, his version of events flew in the face of the evidence -- as because his experience resonated with that of a cohort of people who had been young and politically active in the 1930s. When Hiss loyalists insisted that their man was " innocent," they meant in many cases not that they rejected Whittaker Chambers's charges as false, but that they did not see Hiss's actions as culpable: For them, a flirtation with communism in the 1930s was a perfectly reasonable -- indeed noble -- response to the failure of capitalism in the Great Depression. Hiss may have gone a little farther than they had. He may well have gone too far. But it was hard to say so out loud. For if Hiss were acknowledged as a traitor, did it not imply that those who never quite went as far as he did, but shared his general outlook, were tainted to some degree with treason, too?


Is it possible that something similar is at work in the case of the Clintons? It's easier to keep calm at Bill Clinton's lies in the Monica Lewinsky case if you think that the behavior covered up by the lie -- a series of casual sexual encounters with a series of women not his wife -- was not especially wrong. And that, it appears, is what a good many members of the president's generation do think.