Why is a tawdry, second-rate sex scandal worthy of impeachment, wonders Barry Finger
God's squad in the Republican Party never accepted the legitimacy of the Clinton presidency. Their primary legislative agenda, besides shutting down the government, was to convene an ongoing Inquisition to destroy the first family, a couple which had come to represent the hated cultural residue of the 1960s - meaning, as they see it, moral relativism, the elevation of personal agendas above duty to country, the belief that women have rights over their uteruses, a commitment to gender and racial equality above merit, and reliance on collective provision and state largesse against individual initiative.
In short, Clinton had come to represent the forces of darkness against the God-ordained order of white male privilege. Elite reactionaries united with the troglodyte sections of the working class, and rural gun-nut militias with demagogic urban radio talk show hosts to defend the "natural order" that gave rise to the grand American experiment. The impeachment, a second rate burlesque for most of the world, represents for this American Inquisition a Manichean struggle of epoch proportions.
But what is Clinton? When running for President, he refused to commute the death penalty for a mentally retarded man who set aside the dessert from his last meal to eat after the execution. His presidency has shredded the welfare net, threatening hundreds of thousands of families with homelessness and starvation in the next economic downturn. It has expanded the number of federal crimes meriting the death penalty and reduced the time that death row prisoners have for appeal. It has pushed legislation to deport aliens without their lawyers being able to see the evidence against them. It has promoted trade policies utterly lacking in labour union or ecological safeguards. It has maintained funding for Reagan's Star Wars project. And it has engaged in murderously reckless bombing campaigns backed by the most flimsy and transparently self-serving justifications against Sudan and Afghanistan, not to mention a sustained semi-genocidal assault against the people of Iraq, all without even the semblance of democratic debate and discussion.
Clinton has borrowed shamelessly from the Republican program of ending welfare, balancing the budget, cutting capital gains taxes for the rich, and increasing defence spending. Yet he has done so while adapting the rhetoric of liberalism to this sordid task. From the standpoint of the right wing true believers, for whom neither pragmatism nor gratitude were ever strong suits, such behavior smacked of "situational ethics". This, after all, was a president who trimmed and tacked like a buccaneer. He smoked marijuana without inhaling, had sex without ejaculating, and gleefully made love and war.
And, after 12 years of Reagan and Bush, when all traces of the 1960s were to have been irrevocably extinguished, "liberalism" had come roaring back like a mutated monster in a Japanese horror film. The most recent Congressional elections "inexplicably" gave the President's party a whopping vote of confidence, registering rampant disgust with the McCarthyite tactics of the Republican Party and the outrageous prejudices of the "independent" counsel. By this outcome the deepest suspicions of the right were verified: the backsliding American public had become unworthy of whatever influence it still exercised in the republic. The Republicans assumed the grim determination of civilisation's avenging angels.
Why is a tawdry, second-rate sex scandal worthy of impeachment? The Republicans reply that Nixon's Watergate was, after all, only a botched break-in. Perhaps that is all Watergate was for them. For the rest of us, the Nixon presidency was an ongoing felony. He didn't lie about sex, no - he only lied about the Christmas bombings of Cambodia and Laos, and about the American role in the Chilean coup. He didn't subvert justice by demanding lawyer-client privilege, he used the FBI and CIA for domestic spying against his own critics and retaliated by maintaining a "hit list" of those whose psychiatric treatment files were to be rifled through or who would be subject to Internal Revenue Service audits. He targeted Jews for removal from top civil service posts and paid construction union bureaucrats to have anti-war demonstrators assaulted in mid-parade. By the time Nixon resigned - and this was a president who had carried 49 states in his last election - his standing in the population was nil.
The Clinton proceedings are the material of low comedy. Of the Whitewater land deal - nothing; of the firing of the White House travel office staff - nothing again; of the misplaced FBI security files, well - nothing.
Millions of dollars were spent fruitlessly until the right-wing-bankrolled Paula Jones sexual harassment suit opened another avenue of investigation and this intersected with the Starr inquiry. Then, to continue the series of right-wing setbacks, this suit too was dismissed as being without merit before it could even be tried. But prior to its dismissal the President was forced to provide testimony of past sexual behaviour. In his deposition - ruled immaterial to a case itself ruled to be without merit, Clinton lied about Monica Lewinsky. And then Clinton lied about not lying before Ken Starr's grand jury. The right finally had an impeachable offence.
Remember, in the McCarthy hearings people were accused of Communist Party affiliations, which in themselves were not crimes. On the other hand, to acknowledge CP affiliations in the Cold War atmosphere of the day could lose you your job. Victims of the witchhunt had two choices other than telling the truth: "plead the 5th", that is, be silent; or lie. Lying about a matter which was not itself criminal, however, ran the risk of a jail sentence. You were ultimately faced with incarceration or public ostracism. So too in the Clinton case. Having "voluntary, noncoercive, non-sexual harassment oral nonsex sex" (in columnist Katha Pollitt's wonderful phrase) is not a crime. It is just something an upstanding family man such as the President might be not too proud of. Then, for the Republican right, concealing such activity is a crime. To their credit, the American people are having none of it.
Not a few of the radical left seem to welcome the possibility of Clinton's
removal. This may be an understandable response to the sordid behavior of
the liberal left, who have virtually enobled Clinton. But it is still the
politics of delusion. Clinton is not being tried for political crimes as
socialists understand them. The left, whose voice was never heard in this
debate, cannot simply attach itself piggyback style to the process and
claim victory in the unlikely event of Clinton's ousting. What we can do is
help the public sort through the rubble.
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