The Magazine

Impeaching America

Why the Europeans embraced Clinton

Mar 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 25 • By STEPHEN BATES
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A Coup Attempt in Washington?

A European Mirror on the 1998-1999 Constitutional Crisis

by Peter H. Merkl

Palgrave, 288 pp., $ 35

"Where's the outrage?" Republicans wailed during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Well, don't look for it overseas. To news outlets abroad, President Clinton's misdeeds were trivial, and the political response to them, culminating in the first presidential impeachment in over a century, was sheer lunacy.

Peter H. Merkl, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, thinks that the foreign journalists got it right. In A Coup Attempt in Washington?: A European Mirror on the 1998-1999 Constitutional Crisis, he argues that they provided "a more objective view" than excitable American reporters. What's more, this European view closely matched the easygoing compartmentalizing of Middle America: The American counterparts to Parisian cosmopolitans reside in the hinterland, while the bluenoses are assembled in America's metropolitan newsrooms. Further, the overblown scandal cost the United States a good deal of international prestige. "It was not so long ago that Europeans and the rest of the world deeply admired American democracy and its venerable Constitution." No longer.

Merkl offers several explanations for the foreign press's incredulity about the impeachment. Europeans sometimes forget that the United States doesn't have a parliamentary government, in which a legislative majority can easily oust a disfavored leader. Further, they find struggles between major national institutions "rather archaic and disturbing." In addition -- a provocative point that merits more attention than he gives it -- there's a pattern here: Europeans likewise pooh-poohed Watergate, deeming President Nixon's misdeeds "no worse than some actions of their own political leaders."

And, of course, foreign journalists judged the Lewinsky matter a mere sex scandal and therefore insignificant. Merkl quotes the editor of Le Monde: "We have a very French way of looking at things. We think a president who has affairs is charming." In print, Le Monde faulted Republicans for "banalizing the use of the impeachment procedure." Another French newspaper, Le Figaro, sounded out demoiselles on the street, one of whom said: "Clinton has bad taste in women, a weakness for inflatable dolls. But as a gentleman he must lie." "What," wondered the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, "is all this unseemly fuss about a routine extramarital gobble?" The foreign journalists, like many Americans, were never persuaded that it was about obstruction of justice rather than gobbles.

When the foreign press did condemn Clinton, it wasn't for the liaison and the lying, but for the apologies. The expressions of regret that many Americans deemed a belated mea minima culpa struck Europeans as excruciatingly florid. Le Figaro faulted Clinton's "pathetic contrition," and the British Guardian scoffed at his "serial groveling." "The European ethos of masculinity," Merkl explains, "is simply not inclined toward apologizing in matters of sex, least of all publicly."

All fairly interesting. Unfortunately, Merkl can't stick to a cool-headed assessment of the differences between American coverage and foreign coverage. Instead, he rants. Forget the title's question mark; Merkl should have used an exclamation point.

He considers it likely that "enlightened future historians" will use the "anti-Clinton conspiracy as a textbook example of how unrestrained hatred and partisanship nearly ruined the Constitution." But wasn't it the peaceful exercise of a constitutional provision for redressing presidential wrongdoing? Don't be fooled: "The takeovers of Mussolini, Hitler, and of the Vichy government of France typically began with at least some nonviolent steps that were perfectly legal and in partial accord with the constitutions of those nations." And, while the Republicans involved in the impeachment were not "neofascists or neo-Nazis" -- whew! -- "some telling analogies still remain."

Later Merkl devotes three pages to comparing Clinton's impeachment to a lynching. Once again, the similarities overwhelm him. "Typical lynchings . . . frequently included horrible tortures, sexual mutilations for souvenirs, and the showing off of the (often burnt) body of the victim. Is it really such a stretch to compare the ordeal imposed on the president by the media circus of 1998, the salacious Starr Report, the DNA sample, the grand jury videotape, and worldwide humiliations to the lynchings of the past?"