A Generation on Trial
Ninety years ago, Max Beerbohm drew a series of cartoons titled “The Young Self Meets the Old Self” about the strange twists in the lives of the famous and near-famous of his day. Max, we miss you now! A generation of young liberals who were jolted into political activism by presidential lying are now excusing presidential lying. Passionate young reformers who once despised Richard Nixon for his stonewalling and obstruction of justice now chuckle at the success of Bill Clinton’s stonewalling and obstruction of justice. Militant feminists who once raged at lecherous middle-aged men who treated the young women in their employ as walking sex toys now rally to defend a middle-aged man who treats young women in his employ as walking sex toys. Thirty years ago, earnest psychologists would appear on television to explain that the baby boomers wore denim because it was dyed blue, and blue symbolized honesty. Today, the first baby boomer president bids fair to be the most shameless liar ever to hold the office.
This is a moment of testing for the once-earnest, once-young liberals who came of age politically between 1968 and 1974. Until now, the members of that political cohort have championed the Clintons and condoned their ethical lapses. Faced suddenly with the most indisputable evidence to date of presidential lawbreaking, these supporters of the president must decide what to do. Thus far, an amazing number of them have decided to shut their eyes and hush their qualms.
If the Clinton apologists were motivated by cynical political calculation, one at least could make some kind of sense of it. And some of them undoubtedly have entered into a conscious Faustian bargain, accepting the Clintons’ dubious behavior as the necessary price of liberalism’s political success. Since 1960, the Democratic party has nominated five upright men for president—Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis—and three scoundrels—Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton. From an electoral point of view, the conclusion seems obvious: As the weaker of the two political parties, the Democrats cannot afford to be over-scrupulous about their political morality.
Still, this depth of cynicism is rarer than one supposes, even in Washington. Existential characters in old-fashioned novels can knowingly do evil in order that good may come of it, but few of us are existential characters in old-fashioned novels. Instead, the Clintons’ defenders in the political world are splitting up into three broad groups, each formed around a different excuse or justification. The first group are the gullible. If Bill Clinton says something, it’s good enough for them: They fervently believe there must be some perfectly innocent explanation for all those midnight telephone calls and secret office visits. It goes without saying that this group is not very large. The second are the shell-shocked. They don’t know what to think, other than to hope that the case will remain murky enough to permit them to go on more or less believing in the president without looking or sounding either stupid or amoral. This is, for the moment, probably the largest group. And then there is the third group—still small, but growing fast. It’s the group that is actually willing to excuse presidential lying.
Writer Wendy Kaminer offered a fascinating version of this line of defense on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” last week. “Why should we hold the president to standards few of us meet consistently?” she asked. “I’m not saying that the president’s lies and infidelity don’t matter. They must matter a lot to Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. But why should they matter to voters?” In Slate magazine, former Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich makes a similar point: “Should allegedly finding comfort, release, satisfaction, peace in the arms of a beautiful 21-year-old count for more than balancing the budget?” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of the New Yorker, urges us to distinguish like grown-ups between “pernicious falsehoods aimed at covering up crimes against humanity and, say, feeble fibs aimed at wiggling out of some horribly embarrassing but essentially victimless and legal piece of human stupidity.”
This calmness in the face of probable presidential perjury leaves critics of the president speechless and slack-jawed. The Clinton scandals long ago exhausted our capacity for astonishment. The old Iran-contra shock troops, led by Cadet Leader Anthony Lewis, are executing with Prussian precision a sudden and uniform about-face on the merits of the independent-counsel law. The president’s feminist allies are carrying on a bizarre imitation of the most mercenary complaisant wife of 50 years ago (“Yes he plays around a little, but he gives me everything I ask for—look at this lovely daycare program he gave me on our anniversary…”). And the pious, good-government Democratic party of Ralph Nader and William Proxmire is reverting before our eyes to the old Girls and Graft ethics of James Farley’s Tammany Hall.
Hypocrisy has always been liberalism’s besetting vice. But the utter collapse of the good-government impulses that first summoned into politics the baby-boom liberals who now defend the Clintons—that’s a colossal phenomenon that seems to require some larger explanation. Time was, when Charles Reich, the author of The Greening of America and a law professor at Yale when Bill and Hillary studied there, could denounce over-whipped peanut butter as an imposture and a deceit; today, the Clintons are toying with the idea that lying under oath is a perfectly reasonable response to pesky and impertinent inquiries. How in the world did we get from all the way over there to over here? How did so many of the most self-consciously pure members of the generation that regards itself as the most idealistic in history wind up in the service of two such dubious characters as Bill and Hillary Clinton?
Perhaps the answer is contained in the question. The story of Bill and Hillary Clinton is a generational story. Bill Clinton is neither an ideological figure like Ronald Reagan and Hubert Humphrey, nor a strong partisan like Lyndon Johnson and Bob Dole. He never calls himself a liberal, he seldom has a good word to say for any other Democrat. He is instead the first president to grant an interview to MTV to discuss his taste in pop music. He is, above all, a representative of his generation.
One of the first books about the Alger Hiss case suggested in its title that the case really put “a generation on trial.” Hiss attracted defenders not so much because his story was believed—like Clinton’s, his version of events flew in the face of the evidence—as because his experience resonated with that of a cohort of people who had been young and politically active in the 1930s. When Hiss loyalists insisted that their man was “ innocent,” they meant in many cases not that they rejected Whittaker Chambers’s charges as false, but that they did not see Hiss’s actions as culpable: For them, a flirtation with communism in the 1930s was a perfectly reasonable—indeed noble—response to the failure of capitalism in the Great Depression. Hiss may have gone a little farther than they had. He may well have gone too far. But it was hard to say so out loud. For if Hiss were acknowledged as a traitor, did it not imply that those who never quite went as far as he did, but shared his general outlook, were tainted to some degree with treason, too?
Is it possible that something similar is at work in the case of the Clintons? It’s easier to keep calm at Bill Clinton’s lies in the Monica Lewinsky case if you think that the behavior covered up by the lie—a series of casual sexual encounters with a series of women not his wife—was not especially wrong. And that, it appears, is what a good many members of the president’s generation do think.
The one way that the generation born between 1946 and 1963 differs from all the generations born before—and perhaps from the generation born afterward—is in its faith in radical and untrammeled sexual liberty. You can track it in public-opinion polls. In 1972, when a child born in 1950 was 22, the 18 to 23-year-old group is radically more sexually permissive than its elders. In 1982, when that boomer turned 32, it is Americans under 35 who are sharply more sexually liberal than everyone else. And so on down the years. Today, the boomers are in their 40s and 50s, and the morals of their intellectual and cultural leaders set the tone for the larger society. Few of them have used that freedom as fully as Bill Clinton, of course, just as few of the young radicals of the New Deal era drifted as close to Moscow as Alger Hiss. But is it not possible that Clinton’s most ardent defenders see in Clinton something of themselves? And understand, uncomfortably, that they cannot condemn him without condemning great chunks of their own lives? Might they not see, as Hiss’s defenders saw, that if their man’s actions are seriously wrong, then their own approximations of their man’s actions might be adjudged wrong too?
As these libertine boomers see it, criticism of Clinton is the first step on a slippery slope. You start with an apparently sensible restriction—married presidents shouldn’t have sex with government employees in the Oval Office—and the next thing you know, it’s back to Nathaniel Hawthorne. 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, Kaminer, Estrich, and Hertzberg 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. That belief is for large numbers of the baby boomers as fundamental and precious a part of their personality as the nostalgic memory of youthful Marxism was to the generation born between 1900 and 1915. Over the years, they have lost a lot: They have discarded their old disdain for material possessions and their former hopes for radical political change; they have made peace with big business and big law firms; they have been obliged to apologize for their drug use to their children and for their anti-military rhetoric to their parents. But the one thing they have never lost and are not prepared to lose now is their antipathy to the rigors and restrictions of the pre-1965 sexual code. Whatever else they are prepared to jettison as they age, that is the one thing they are determined to keep.
Their president feels the same way. He may have disappointed his supporters on welfare, on the 1995 budget agreement, and on free trade. But he has never given an inch on abortion, and the one issue on which he has defied the polls and staked out a principled position regardless of political risk is gay rights. Where it matters most to his followers, he has kept faith. Now they are keeping faith with him—no matter how badly they must stain their reputations or strain their consciences to do it. It’s a sad end to the vaunted idealism of the Class of 1968. But then again, perhaps it is an end that could have been predicted from the start.