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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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"It would be hard to put better," wrote Sullivan in quoting me, "what was so surprising, and so dismaying, about the Starr Report and the Republican Congress's subsequent behavior. The report was driven, as the Republican leadership seems to be, not merely to prove perjury but to expose immorality. In this universe, privacy is immaterial, hence the gratuitous release of private telephone conversations, private correspondence and even details of the most private of human feelings."

Sullivan's article is cited approvingly by Posner. Sullivan, in turn, reviewed Posner's book glowingly for the New York Times Book Review. It is not fanciful to see in their writings the beginnings of an establishment consensus on the events of 1998; one that parcels out, in apparently even-handed measure, equal blame to Clinton himself and to those affronted by his wrongdoing. It's very bad, this view holds, that the president should conspire to defy the law for his personal advantage. But, as Sullivan observed in his New York Times article, "the emergence of religious dogmatists on the far right" had to be considered at least an equivalent "threat to constitutional order and political civility."

Before the new consensus hardens, it might be a good idea to read a little on either side of the offending words of mine that provoked all this viewing-with-alarm. For they mean the opposite of what Posner and Sullivan would have them mean.

The article from which my sentence was snipped was entitled "A Generation on Trial." When it was written, the Lewinsky scandal was barely a month old. In those early days, just about everybody agreed that if President Clinton were proved to have perjured himself and obtained the perjury of others, he would probably have to leave office. Shell-shocked supporters of the president dared argue only that the allegations of obstruction of justice remained unproven, but this play-dumb defense almost immediately wore thin. My article predicted that as it became increasingly impossible to pretend that the president was innocent, his defenders would be forced to say what they really thought: that lying under oath, intolerable under virtually any other circumstance, was permissible if necessary to protect one's sexual freedom -- because in their eyes, sexual freedom was the supreme value, the one individual right that outweighed all other moral and political obligations.

Here, in its entirety, is the original argument: "Just as the ACLU sees a Frosty the Snowman in front of City Hall on December 24 as the first step toward theocracy, so the president's defenders fear that condemning the Lewinsky affair will ineluctably lead straight back to Puritan New England. Make no mistake: The defense of Clinton's right to lie about his affair with Lewinsky is not, as some of his defenders optimistically suggest, a defense of 'privacy.' If it turned out that Clinton were in the habit of making racist jokes in the company of two or three old friends, the privacy defense would not avail him. If he had lied under oath to cover up an improper deduction on his theoretically private tax return, [his supporters] would lift not a finger for him. The right to privacy? This is a White House in which you're not allowed to smoke. No, what's at stake in the Lewinsky scandal is not the right to privacy, but the central dogma of the baby boomers: the belief that sex, so long as it's consensual, ought never to be subject to moral scrutiny at all."

Posner and Sullivan cite that last sentence to show that sex was the central issue of the case for conservatives; in fact, the sentence warned that sex would become the central issue of the case for liberals. My words were not an unguarded remark that spilled the secret of the vast right-wing conspiracy: They were an accurate prediction (almost my only accurate prediction all year) of how people like Posner and Sullivan would ultimately react. If Clinton had ordered up a campaign of obstruction of justice to avoid paying his income tax, I very much doubt that Sullivan would have rallied to his defense (as, after some hesitation, he ultimately did) or that Posner would find himself unable to answer the question he poses in one of his own chapter headings: Should President Clinton have been impeached? "About all that can be said," Posner perorates, "is that a moral rigorist would be inclined to think that the President committed impeachable offenses, while a pragmatist would lean, though perhaps only slightly, the other way."