The Magazine

The Age of Irresponsibility

Bill Clinton and Paris Hilton are the problem. Why couldn't David Petraeus and Sully Sullenberger be the answer?

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Decades from now, historians are going to fill e-tome after e-tome debating when the crisis in American authority began. A good place to start would be the Clinton era. The president of the United States had a tawdry affair, lied about it, and refused to accept any responsibility for his actions. The Republicans correctly pointed out that the president had acted beneath his office. The problem was that many of them were acting beneath their offices, too. In Washington, where the spirit of public service is supposed to reign, both Democrats and Republicans were using positions of power for private indulgence. Many things sprang from the Clinton impeachment. Confidence in authority was not one of them.

We correct for the mistakes of past presidents. George W. Bush (barely) won the White House in part because he promised to restore integrity to the office. And the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, did briefly increase the public's trust in government and its elites. In the tense months following the attacks, the public rallied behind strong leaders like Bush, Rudy Giuliani, and Donald Rumsfeld. These men, who had many private failings, nonetheless were seen to be acting in the interests of the nation as a whole. We seemed to be on the verge of a new era of patriotism and civic renewal.

But it was not to be. The lack of accountability among the elites quickly caught back up. There was George Tenet, whose time as CIA director included two massive intelligence failures. Bush gave Tenet the nation's highest civilian honor in return. There was the FBI, which still hasn't definitively figured out who attacked America with anthrax in late 2001. There was Rumsfeld, who committed too few troops to the fight in Iraq and failed to change strategy when it became clear, early on, that America was losing the war. He stayed in his job until 2006. The generals whom Bush and Rumsfeld tasked with running the war? None of them suffered any consequences for his failures. One of the main opponents of the successful surge strategy in Iraq, George Casey, was promoted to Army chief of staff.

Nor was the crisis in authority limited to politics. There were dramatic instances of public corruption such as the Jack Abramoff scandal, but there were also remarkable examples of private corruption such as the Enron and Arthur Andersen accounting scandals. In the months after September 11, business titan after business titan came under indictment: Enron executives, Martha Stewart, Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski--the list goes on. Chief executives were massively compensated even when they drove their companies into a ditch. No surprise when populism started making a comeback. The private sector and the public sector were failing the common man. Neither acted with any sense of propriety.

The same was true of our cultural elites. The celebrity of the age was Paris Hilton, an exemplar of the inequality and promiscuity that characterize the present moment. Hilton was born into extraordinary wealth but did not achieve true fame until 2003, when her homemade porno movie made it to the Internet. Twenty or even fifteen years ago, Paris Hilton's behavior would have been a scandal. Not today. Why? Because the wealthy, famous, and well-connected can do as they please and suffer no consequences--as long as they possess no shame.

There are moments when it seems as though every figure who waltzes across the public stage is a cheat, a fraud, a liar, or a failure. Child abuse scandals have tarnished the image of Catholic bishops and priests. Steroid scandals have racked Major League Baseball, the Tour de France, and the Olympic games. And then there are the celebrities who write books, make music, and perform in film and television. Where to start?

On any given day, any public figure might be arrested, assaulted, admit to infidelity, go bankrupt, or break down emotionally in front of television cameras. Sometimes all of these things happen at once.

The next day the celebrity will be released from incarceration. He will go into a rehabilitation program or "spend time with the family" and emerge, weeks later, with a tell-all book and publicity tour that make him even richer than he was before. The idea of "rehab" is so ubiquitous that in 2007 it was the title of a hit song. No negative value is attached to poisoning one's body to the point where it requires detoxification. Quite the contrary. "Rehab" is, in some sense, something to aspire to. To go to rehab implies deep financial resources and a life rich with experience (at least in the areas of alcohol and drug abuse). There are no consequences.