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The Defensive Press

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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In light of the conclusion of the Senate trial of the president, the editors of THE WEEKLY STANDARD asked 22 writers, thinkers, and political actors the following questions: "President William Jefferson Clinton has been impeached and acquitted. What have we learned? What should we do now?"

ALTHOUGH IT'S DEPRESSING AND ALARMING that the public thinks so badly of Republicans and well of the president, a questionable assumption underlies many of our darker analyses. Americans know what the press tells them. House Republicans have never explained themselves directly to the people. But surely the public must grasp the basics of House Republican thinking, given all those TV hours and newspaper columns devoted to impeachment . . .? I wouldn't bet on it.

The American press constitutes the world's most powerful defensive line. Operating from strongly fortified positions at the center of American life, journalists capture and rewrite every attempted communique from politicians to the people. It's always been this way; what has changed is that the press is more powerful, patrician, and unanimous than ever before. The impeachment drive has been reported almost everywhere with grim disgust, and it's no shock that the public thinks about it with grim disgust -- to the extent it thinks about it at all. (Henry Hyde delivered an eloquent summation to the Senate; the New York Times didn't bother to print it. Occasional excerpts turned up, scattered over a news story. The Times did report that Republican summations showed "a certain fatalistic self-pity.")

The remarkable accomplishment of Gingrich's Contract With America wasn't (in retrospect) the agenda it presented, or even the fact of an agenda. The Contract was a great achievement because it was an armored car that proved capable of delivering a Republican message through hostile lines to the public at large. Leading House Republicans agreed on a clear statement with a snappy title. They referred to it constantly and published it in print ads all over the country. The press laughed it off but couldn't stop it from getting through. Eventually (in a general sort of way) it sank in, and Republicans won a big election victory.

With the trial over, Republicans are preparing to scatter like teenage hoods on the arrival of the cops. Like teenage hoods is how they have been made to feel. They never want to hear the word "impeachment" again. Their plans are understandable but sad; impeachment might have allowed them to set up a clear moral distinction between their worldview and the Democrats', without spending or taxes or race or education or anything else to complicate the issue. "Rule of law" was the wrong way to frame this case; nowadays (unfortunately) that phrase suggests rich arrogant lawyers, "activist" judges, martinet bureaucrats. The message ought to have been phrased in terms of honor and duty. "This president attacked the honor of the United States as we all, each one of us, sat by our windows and watched. We all saw him do it -- saw him lie and finagle and cheat and bamboozle shamelessly; pridefully. We're all tempted to look away from this ugly scene and forget about it, mind our own businesses, let the honor of the United States take care of itself. But we had a duty to speak up and take the bully on. We did it and lost, but we had to try, and we hope you're with us . . ."

House Republicans have said similar things already, but you don't penetrate press lines by making fine speeches and answering reporters' questions. To reach the public you need a concerted strategy -- for example (as in the case of the Contract), you hammer out a text, give it a title, and repeat it relentlessly, circling back to it again and again. The battle-weary House Republicans won't do this, and I don't blame them; they have gone beyond the call of duty already, and they're tired. But they've surprised us before; I wish they would do it just one more time.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.