The Magazine

SMILE WHEN YOU SAY THAT

May 25, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 36 • By DAVID FRUM
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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.