SMILE WHEN YOU SAY THAT
May 25, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 36 • By DAVID FRUM
"Civility in politics: going, going, gone." So complained a headline in the New York Times this winter, and sine then hardly a week has gone by without some new offense being reported against good manners and even common decency. Cuddly felon Webb Hubbell worries that a deranged special prosecutor will indict his dog and cat to pressure him to lie about the president. The Annenberg Center released a study purporting to show that rudeness on the floor of Congress ha sunk to depths unplumbed since the mid-1930s. Two of the country's most praised thinkers, Stephen Carter of Yale and Deborah Tannen of Georgetown, have published books this spring deploring the incivility of American life and politics. Only a couple of weeks ago, Washington Post columnist David Broder unburdened himself of the judgment that the verbal excesses of Newt Gingrich deserve equal excoriation with the misdeeds of President Clinton. Not since Zoe Baird had to withdraw from consideration as attorney general because she neglected to pay her taxes has there been so much viewing-with-alarm in Washington. We are present, in other words, at the birth of a great national cliche. And like all cliches, it tells us a great deal more about the people who mouth it than about the situation those people imagine they are describing.
Are we in fact living through an epidemic of incivility in politics? To anyone familiar with American political history, it's an absurd claim. Politics today is gentler, more polite, even more mealy-mouthed than at any other time in American history. Leave alone what Henry Clay had to say about Andrew Jackson. Only 25 years ago, George McGovern was stumping the country charging that the Watergate break-in "was the kind of thing you expected under a person like Hitler." Fifteen years ago, Ronald Reagan's opponents were accusing him of starving the poor and blundering in to a nuclear war. Today, Democratic and Republican congressmen go on retreats together with their wives and children, and presidential debates begin with President Clinton urging that the candidates restrict themselves to exchanging "ideas" not "insults" -- and his opponent meekly complying.
Of course it's true, even in the era of the soccer mom, that people in politics sometimes say rough things about each other. And of course it's also true that politeness is to be preferred to impoliteness. But there are three things that ought to be noticed about the current wave of concern over incivility.
The first is how brazenly one-sided it is. Tannen's new book, for instance, repeatedly cites criticisms of President Clinton as examples of "vituperative, mean-spirited, personal attacks" that "stir up animosities that make it harder for people to work together." But on the one occasion she discusses Independent Counsel Ken Starr -- a man who has been the target of more than his share of personal vituperation -- she herself credulously repeats just such an attack: Starr is "a prominent Republican known for his animosity toward the president." It is curious, to put it mildly, that the sorts of concerns about incivility being voiced now, when a Democratic president finds himself under scrutiny, were utterly absent in, say, 1987, during the Bork hearings or in 1964, in the midst of a media campaign against Barry Goldwater that makes the treatment of President Clinton look by comparison like a tickertape parade.
Stephen Carter, to his credit, takes note of the "hysterical and vicious" campaign against Bork as the example of incivility. And even Tannen will concede that unjust things have sometimes been said about Republicans (like the story that George Bush didn't know what a supermarket scanner was). But in all the chin-stroking over incivility, the whiff of Democratic self-pity is strong. Clinton has repeatedly complained that he has been subjected to more and harsher criticism than any previous president. His memory is short. No protesters stand under his window shouting, "hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today." No Garry Wills is writing about him, winning respectful reviews by suggesting that he is mad or moronic. Nothing that any Republican has said about him remotely approaches the seriousness of the false charge that former Carter official Gary Sick flung at Ronald Reagan: that he treasonably plotted to delay the release of the Iranian hostages.
The second thing that needs remembering is that the obligation to speak respectfully of the president is complemented by the president's obligation to behave respectably. How, please, is the Monica Lewinsky story to be reported on without prurience? Yes, presidents are entitled to a zone of privacy, in which their ordinary human failings can pass without remark. If a president has a mistress discreetly tucked away, if he tried marijuana in college, if he eats a little more than he should, if he and his wife consume a couple of bottles of expensive claret every Sunday night in the family quarters, if he was once treated for VD -- those are nuggets of information that ought, in the ordinary course of events, to go unpublicized. But the zone of privacy has limits. If the charges against this president are true, he has himself directly and personally contributed to a huge increase in incivility in American life: by undermining the rule of law, by engaging in sexual adventuring too gross, flagrant, and irresponsible to ignore. And if the Clinton partisans want to maintain (as many of them seem to) that White House sexual hijinks -- no matter how reckless -- are inherently private and should never be publicly aired, one has to wonder why we failed to hear from them when Simon & Schuster decided to publish Kitty Kelley's prurient biography of Nancy Reagan and the New York Times chose to reprint the book's most lurid allegations on its front page. Where were they when Gail Sheehy was delving into the marital histories of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole in the pages of Vanity Fair?
But what must above all be noticed in all the fingerpointing over the breakdown of political civility is this: whether the airing of the charges against President Clinton detracts from society's civility depends largely on whether they are true. The president's defenders have never been able to produce any convincing reason to believe that they are not. Which is why those defenders are so frantic to convince the public that the charges should never have been permitted a hearing in the first place. Throughout his career, Clinton has specialized in the non-denial denial, in dealing with embarrassing allegations by abusing the alleger. He has taught that technique to an entire generation of Democratic politicians and sympathetic commentators. Complaints about incivility, in their hands, are just the latest version of this trick.
Clinton will not or cannot exculpate himself. As hard as he and his aides try, they cannot minimize the gravity of the charges against him. So what are they left with? Only an attack on the propriety of bringing charges against a president at all.
One of the amazing things about the new Clintonized liberalism of the 1990s is its proclivity for overnight swivels in the party line that would have done proud the Stalinists of old. For years the intrepid Archibald Cox was the very model of a heroic public servant; suddenly here is Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard hailing Gordon Liddy and Rosemary Woods in the New Yorker as the real heroes of Watergate. Throughout Vietnam and Watergate liberals told us that presidential lying and secrecy corrode the fabric of democracy; suddenly here is Charles Lane of the New Republic telling us on C-Span that presidential lying is necessary and even laudable. Scarcely six months ago, Vice President Al Gore applauded Ellen DeGeneres for forcing Americans to confront in their living rooms the most recondite forms of sexuality; now we are all summoned to rediscover the merits of delicacy, propriety, and discretion. It's headspinning.
Look: Sometimes even liars can tell the truth. More politeness on the floor of Congress would indeed be a good thing. That's just as true now as it was when Rep. John Lewis was comparing Newt Gingrich to Hitler. America would indeed benefit from greater deference and respect toward executive branch officials. That's just as true now as it was when Laurence Walsh subpoenaed Caspar Weinberger's private diary. Americans could indeed use a huge, heaping dose of trust in the good faith of people of opposing views. That's just as true now as it was when President Clinton was suggesting that Rush Limbaugh was responsible for the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. By all means, let's have more civility. But let's not forget that besides all the good things it can mean, for this administration civility is the last refuge of the guilty.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.