THE DESTRUCTION OF CLINTON
Los Angeles Times
January 3, 1999 NEAL GABLER
THE DESTRUCTION OF CLINTON
In a battle of absolutists versus relativists--the president's attackers
versus his defenders--no prisoners will be taken.
AMAGANSETT, N.Y.--No doubt, years from now, when historians look back at 1998, they will regard it as the year of Monica: the year when scandal engulfed Bill Clinton's presidency and preoccupied the political process. They will almost certainly fasten on the bitter partisanship, on the war between the Republican right and the Democratic center and on the disconnect between those inside the Washington Beltway, who scream for the president's scalp, and ordinary folks outside the Beltway, who wish the whole mess would disappear.
But the partisan bickering has obscured a far larger and more culturally significant battle, for which Clinton's misbehavior may have only served as an occasion. Indeed, in 1868, the ostensible reason for President Andrew Johnson's impeachment was his firing of the secretary of war in violation of Congress' instructions. The real issue, however, was his disregard for Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South. In 1999, the ostensible reason for President Bill Clinton's impeachment is alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. The real issue, however, may be his embrace of deconstruction in modern America.
For decades, the theory of deconstruction has enjoyed a vogue in academe. It originated in linguistics, where, to oversimplify, it posited the none-too-radical idea that language was a function of shared meaning. In this view, a word had no objective meaning; it could only mean something because people agreed on its meaning. Language was a collaboration between, or construction of, everyone who spoke and everyone who listened.
From linguistics, however, deconstruction passed into textual interpretation, where the results were more problematic. Here, the idea was that a text--say, a novel--had no set meaning; it, too, was a collaboration between the writer and the reader, rendering the latter every bit as important as the former and turning books themselves into a product of culture rather than the product of an individual sensibility. Thus one could "deconstruct" the text to determine not what the author had put there but how we had all erected it.
If deconstruction had confined itself to English departments, it might have served as just another analytical tool. But deconstructionists were rabid partisans who realized their theory had grave implications not just for literature but for the very notion of reality. If nothing was objective, if everything was a matter of collaboration, then the entire world was subjective. At best, people agreed on conventions that enabled us to communicate, but these were conveniences or myths, not all that different from Greek myths, and no more factual.
So the idea of deconstruction wiggled into the general culture, where subjectivity now often trumped objectivity. In some respects, the O.J. Simpson criminal verdict was deconstruction's coming-out party. To those who thought Simpson clearly guilty, the evidence provided objective proof that he had committed the murders: the bloody glove, the DNA analysis. On the other hand, to those who found Simpson innocent, this so-called proof was a collaboration between the L.A. Police Department and white Americans to provide a "text" in which Simpson would seem guilty. In other words, there was no one objective truth; there were only different versions of the truth.
What does all of this have to do with Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky? It may have everything to do with them. When Clinton was accused of taking refuge in narrow legalisms to save his skin, he was really taking refuge in a deconstructionist view of reality. There was, he insisted, no single definition of sexual relations. Rather, there was a series of definitions, which made the whole idea of sexual relations completely subjective. Clinton's definition was just as good as anyone else's.
Similarly, when Clinton claimed that he and Lewinsky were never alone, he was deconstructing the world "alone." No one in the White House is ever really alone, he could have argued. There are always Secret Service agents and other officials about. Indeed, the president is at the center of a vast nexus of individuals, meaning that whenever he is alone with someone, he is alone only in a manner of speaking. If this sounds like sophistry, it may be, but it is also deconstruction.
It should be apparent that if this theory has grave implications for reality, it has equally serious consequences for morality, certainly according to the GOP. When reality itself is a subjective construct, morality is also relative. There is no moral authority in the sky, no moral absolutes. This struck close to home when a deconstructionist pioneer, Yale Professor Paul de Man, was discovered to have written anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi articles during World War II. And it is basically the argument that Republicans have aimed at Clinton. They claim that the president is a moral relativist for whom morality means whatever he wants it to mean.
The House Republicans may not have realized they were entering into the deconstruction debate. They seemed to think they were engaged in a campaign to rid the country of a man they regard as an immoral leader. But in the longer view, the Clinton scandal not only raised the issue of deconstruction; it was the latest and fiercest battle in what we may now recognize as a long cultural civil war, the sides of which the two major parties have come to symbolize.
On one side are the Republicans, most of whom seem to believe in an objective reality and an absolute morality. Though it may sound drastic to say, if they often seem to act like the mullahs of Iran, it is because they think like those mullahs. For them, every issue seems to resolve itself into black and white, wrong and right. Homosexuality is a sin against nature. Abortion is murder because life begins at the moment of conception. Not telling the full truth before a legal tribunal is a crime no matter what the circumstances.
As we saw during the House debate on the articles of impeachment, there could be no argument because there was no give, no tolerance. Just ask former House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.). One toe over the line was like the whole body over the line. Mullahs reportedly chopped off hands for thievery, however petty. The GOP mullahs, invoking some form of constitutional fundamentalism, tried to chop off Clinton's presidency, however petty his offenses.
That is why those who accuse the Republicans of having politicized impeachment may have it all wrong. What they did in voting the articles of impeachment was political in neither the textbook sense, by which one meant the process of resolving competing interests, nor in the colloquial sense, by which one may have been partisan. They were no more interested in the political process than late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had been. As absolutists, they were fixated on extirpating deconstructionist morality for which Clinton was the poster child, the same way that the ayatollah was fixated on extirpating satanic Western influences in Iran. Theirs was a holy war.
Meanwhile, across the battle lines are the Democrats, most of whom seem to believe in a subjective reality and a moral spectrum. If they seem to act like a bunch of aging hippies, it is because they think like a bunch of aging hippies. For them, every issue seems to resolve itself into grays, into provisional rights and provisional wrongs. Homosexuality isn't a sin but just another sexual preference or lifestyle. Abortion isn't murder but a decision that every woman should have the right to make for herself. And not telling the full truth in a court of law isn't necessarily perjury; it all depends on the circumstances. Theirs is no holy war. It is a gigantic therapy session in which everyone is allowed, in 1960s rhetoric, to do his or her own thing.
The battle between Republicans and Democrats, and between Clinton's attackers and his defenders, is really a battle of one truth versus many truths, of fanatics versus relativists, of moral absolutism versus moral fuzziness, of an essentially religious view of politics versus a secular view of politics.
This is why the struggle will continue long after Clinton's fate has been decided by the Senate. This civil war isn't really about who gains office and what policies are promulgated, which is why the Republicans don't seem to mind that the public now reviles them. This civil war is about the belief in an objective reality and an implacable moral system. One suspects we will see people fall on their swords before they give up that fight.
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Somebody gets it.