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Putting Sexual Liberation First

To Clinton's defenders, something more important than the rule of law was at stake

Oct 25, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 06 • By DAVID FRUM
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In short, rather than say or do anything that might tend to suggest that what Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky was wrong, Posner and Sullivan, however unhappily, ended by excusing the damage Clinton did to the structure of American law and society. Indeed, after a few lines of worry, Posner explicitly shrugs this damage off: "A clearly guilty O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in 1995, yet this seems not to have interrupted the steady decline in the nation's murder rate."

All of which raises a very interesting problem. Posner and Sullivan both make the familiar polemical point that conservative moral values tend to conflict with the conservative political ideal of limited government. So eager are moral conservatives to scold and reprove that they have succumbed to the temptation to use the state to foist their repressive creed on everybody else.

There is of course some truth to this charge: Witness the war on drugs. But isn't the real lesson of the Lewinsky imbroglio how sharply liberal moral values and liberal political ideals now conflict?

As conservatives are reminded any time they criticize a left-tilting decision from the Supreme Court, liberals put great stock in legality. And as conservatives are reminded every time they complain about the ACLU, liberals even put great stock in legalism. And yet, when the test came, a very great many American liberals decided that the president's right to pursue sexual pleasure without interference mattered more to them than his obligation to uphold the rule of law. In other words: When legality clashed with sexuality, sexuality prevailed.

Since it got going in the middle 1960s, the sexual revolution has been hailed by its advocates as the logical culmination of the American experiment in freedom. In practice, however, the sexual revolution has exposed itself as a surprisingly illiberal force in American life. To it we owe the post-1965 disintegration of the family, the institution that best insures individuals against dependence on the state, and the arguments found in Posner's book suggest that the illiberality of the sexual revolution may run even deeper still.

It may be that a self-centered outlook, impatience with rules and restraint, and a disgust with moral judgment is not the stuff of good citizenship. My sentence expressed at the outset of the Lewinsky scandal a fear that people for whom any hint of moral judgment is anathema will lack the strength and courage to defend republican institutions in a time of trouble. Now the news looks even more troubling: People who disdain moral judgment seem to find it difficult to muster much strength or courage even after the moment of trouble has safely passed.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.