A GENERATION ON TRIAL
Feb 16, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 22 • By DAVID FRUM
The one way that the generation born between 1946 and 1963 differs from all the generations born before -- and perhaps from the generation born afterward -- is in its faith in radical and untrammeled sexual liberty. You can track it in public-opinion polls. In 1972, when a child born in 1950 was 22, the 18 to 23-year-old group is radically more sexually permissive than its elders. In 1982, when that boomer turned 32, it is Americans under 35 who are sharply more sexually liberal than everyone else. And so on down the years. Today, the boomers are in their 40s and 50s, and the morals of their intellectual and cultural leaders set the tone for the larger society. Few of them have used that freedom as fully as Bill Clinton, of course, just as few of the young radicals of the New Deal era drifted as close to Moscow as Alger Hiss. But is it not possible that Clinton's most ardent defenders see in Clinton something of themselves? And understand, uncomfortably, that they cannot condemn him without condemning great chunks of their own lives? Might they not see, as Hiss's defenders saw, that if their man's actions are seriously wrong, then their own approximations of their man's actions might be adjudged wrong too?
As these libertine boomers see it, criticism of Clinton is the first step on a slippery slope. You start with an apparently sensible restriction -- married presidents shouldn't have sex with government employees in the Oval Office -- and the next thing you know, it's back to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Just as the ACLU sees a Frosty the Snowman in front of City Hall on December 24 as the first step toward theocracy, so the president's defenders fear that condemning the Lewinsky affair will ineluctably lead straight back to Puritan New England.
Make no mistake: The defense of Clinton's right to lie about his affair with Lewinsky is not, as some of his defenders optimistically suggest, a defense of "privacy." If it turned out that Clinton were in the habit of making racist jokes in the company of two or three old friends, the privacy defense would not avail him. If he had lied under oath to cover up an improper deduction on his theoretically private tax return, Kaminer, Estrich, and Hertzberg would lift not a finger for him. The right to privacy? This is a White House in which you're not allowed to smoke.
No, what's at stake in the Lewinsky scandal is not the right to privacy, but the central dogma of the baby boomers: the belief that sex, so long as it's consensual, ought never to be subject to moral scrutiny at all. That belief is for large numbers of the baby boomers as fundamental and precious a part of their personality as the nostalgic memory of youthful Marxism was to the generation born between 1900 and 1915. Over the years, they have lost a lot: They have discarded their old disdain for material possessions and their former hopes for radical political change; they have made peace with big business and big law firms; they have been obliged to apologize for their drug use to their children and for their anti-military rhetoric to their parents. But the one thing they have never lost and are not prepared to lose now is their antipathy to the rigors and restrictions of the pre-1965 sexual code. Whatever else they are prepared to jettison as they age, that is the one thing they are determined to keep.
Their president feels the same way. He may have disappointed his supporters on welfare, on the 1995 budget agreement, and on free trade. But he has never given an inch on abortion, and the one issue on which he has defied the polls and staked out a principled position regardless of political risk is gay rights. Where it matters most to his followers, he has kept faith. Now they are keeping faith with him -- no matter how badly they must stain their reputations or strain their consciences to do it. It's a sad end to the vaunted idealism of the Class of 1968. But then again, perhaps it is an end that could have been predicted from the start.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.