The Magazine

THE CHARACTER TEST

Feb 15, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 21 • By ERIC FELTEN
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AS PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON has told us time and again, there are three legs to the New Democratic platform: opportunity, responsibility, and community. It is a troika that might, in good conscience, have been trimmed to just opportunity and community (this is, after all, a man whose lack of personal responsibility extends, among other things, to phone sex on unsecured lines). But it's a credit to Slick's chutzpah that he is still flogging the R-word. Here is Clinton at the Democratic Leadership Council's annual shindig in December: "Seven years ago I spoke to the Democratic Leadership Council," Clinton crowed, pointing to his successes in the intervening years. "I said that we had to offer the American people a new choice rooted in old values . . . opportunity, responsibility, community."


Clinton may be comfortable preaching the "old value" of responsibility, but the obvious ironies pose problems for his allies, problems on display in the current issue of the DLC's magazine, the New Democrat. The organization Bill Clinton helped found and once headed stands by its man. Not only does the New Democrat reprint Clinton's DLC speech, the cover of the magazine is devoted to an anti-impeachment editorial. Under the banner headline "The GOP on Trial," the cover reads, "Whatever damage the President has caused the nation pales in comparison to the damage being caused by the GOP drive to remove him from office." The New Democrat dismisses Republicans as "helpless legalists" and "zealous moralists."


No one can accuse the big-thinkers at the DLC of legalism or moralism. At least, not if one looks to another article in the New Democrat, "Certifiably American?" which questions the fairness of the citizenship test administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Authors Harry Boyte and Nancy Kari are quick to point out that the average American would have a tough time answering the civics and history questions that stand between immigrants and citizenship. Would-be Americans need to correctly answer at least eight out of ten questions, which include stumpers such as, "Name the 13 original colonies," and, "How many members are there in the House of Representatives?" It isn't that Boyte and Kari really think the test is that hard -- especially since the INS helps prospective citizens prepare by giving them all the questions and answers well in advance. No, Boyte and Kari just don't like the fact that any citizenship test is given, arguing that "we have essentially empowered a small federal agency to set our nation's official definition of citizenship -- to define for us what it means to be an American." This is especially troubling since that definition is, well, problematic for the DLC's poster boy.


You see, the INS doesn't just ask a string of quiz show brain-teasers. The agency also inquires into whether the applicant has "good moral character." Most famously, immigrants are asked: "Are you now, or have you ever been, associated with the Communist Party or ever knowingly aided or supported the Communist Party directly or indirectly through another organization, group or person, or advocated, taught, believed in, or knowingly furthered the interests of communism?" But they are also asked about their moral fiber and psychological stability:


"Are you a habitual drunkard?"


"Have you ever been confined as a patient in a mental institution?"


"Have you ever knowingly committed any crime for which you have not been convicted?"


"Have you ever advocated or practiced polygamy?"


Now, some might think it perfectly reasonable -- given the limited number of slots for new citizens -- that we weed out drunken commie lunatics and felons with supernumerary wives. But not the New Democrat. Boyte and Kari sneer at the character questions, dismissing them as "a geologic core sample of our nation's political and social biases." It seems the INS is guilty of a new genre of bigotry: anti-scofflaw-ism.


You can't blame the New Democrat too much -- they're just trying to be consistent. What else is the party of Clinton to do? If committing crimes and getting away with them is good enough for the president, who are we to say that the very same fault should disqualify anyone in the teeming masses from gaining citizenship? Equality under the law demands no less.