The Clinton Scandal and the American Political Character

This article appeared in the Korea Times December 14, 1998

The simple facts of the impeachment debate in Washington today are not in dispute. Bill Clinton committed adultery. Bill Clinton lied about his adultery before the legal system and to the American people. Most Americans don't like that, but they do not consider Clinton's conduct an impeachable offense. And after all is said and done, Bill Clinton will hold on to his office.

The key vote in the next few weeks will be when the House of Representatives decides whether to send articles of impeachment to the Senate for a trial. That could go either way, depending on whether Republicans who control the House vote on party lines or whether a dozen or more moderate Republicans vote against impeachment. But in any case the Senate will not muster the 2/3 majority necessary to remove Clinton from office.

If there is no dispute that Clinton committed adultery and lied to both the legal system and the American people, why is he off the hook? Most Americans makes a clear separation between the personal and the public life of officials. Confucius taught that the ultimate duty of an official was to regulate his family, and that if he regulated his family life properly, his public life would reflect his integrity. But Americans think differently. The recent midterm election showed that the American people chose not to punish Clinton's Democratic party for his personal misdeeds.

At the simplest level, this shows Americans today have greater tolerance for adultery and sexual promiscuity than they did in the past. In these more sexually liberated times, most Americans have a greater fear of sexual McCarthyism than they do of sexual promiscuity. Many Americans identify more with Clinton than with his inquisitors because they have engaged in or are currently engaged in sexual conduct they would rather not have made public knowledge.

At a deeper level, Americans recognize the difference between the Clinton scandals and the abuses of power that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. Clinton is guilty of personal misconduct. The Nixon administration was guilty of subverting the democratic process. Nixon officials burglarized the main opposition party's headquarters, tried to blackmail leading opponents of its Vietnam War policy, ordered tax audits of elected Democratic officials and other political opponents, ran black operations against leading presidential rivals, and generally engaged in gangster-like tactics to hold onto political power in a manner more reminiscent of Park Chung Hee or Ferdinand Marcos than of traditional American politics. There is some parallel in that both Nixon and Clinton tried to cover up their misdeeds, but the scope and magnitude of the basic misdeeds are different.

But the most important reason why Clinton is off the hook is because of the massive political cynicism in America today. Most Americans expect their politicians to cheat and lie to them. Koreans might have a double standard for politicians and powerful men--that it is alright for them to commit crimes forbidden to ordinary people. But most Americans do not think like that. In fact, they have a lower standard for politicians. Like when buying a used car, most Americans expect to be lied to by politicians and thus would not punish one simply for that fact.

If all the above is true, why all the fuss about Monica Lewinsky? There are two key reasons--the Republican religious right and the media. The religious right which has a hold on the Republican party are the spiritual descendants of the Puritans of early American history. This moralistic minority is not like most Americans. It holds to traditional ideas of sexual and public morality on issues from adultery to homosexuality.

More specifically, the Republican right has a visceral hate of Bill Clinton. To them Clinton is a draft-dodging, pot-smoking, free-loving, fast-talking, big government liberal hippie who has undermined traditional values ever since his first days when he legalized gays in the military. Clinton represents everything they hate about the new morality and new politics of the boomer generation. Of course, like the Pharisees of old, the religious right strains at the gnats of Clinton's indiscretions while it swallowed whole the whale of Nixon's crimes because he mouthed traditional values and anti-communism. But the religious right has traditionally excused crimes like racism and political terrorism as long as they were conducted in God's name.

Finally, the media cannot escape blame in this fiasco. The media is fascinated by scandal in part because scandal sells. While the public proclaimed its boredom with the Lewinsky affair, for many months every time a newsmagazine put her picture on the cover it boosted sales. While most Americans are no longer so judgmental of sexual morality, many are salaciously titillated by the details of sexual intrigue. But at a deeper level the media loves scandal because it is easier to cover than public policy. Covering the major policy choices the United States faces requires that reporters educate themselves about difficult issues. Covering scandal just requires reporters cultivate insider tattlers.

In fact, it was almost certain the American people's feeling that Washington's obsession with the Clinton scandal was hindering its ability to deal with real policy problems that affect real people's lives that kept the Democrats from suffering any losses in the last election. Democrats were able to capitalize on the wide-spread feeling that it was the American people who lost out in the recriminations of the past year.