Afoul of the Puritans

Russell Baker

June 17, 1991|By Russell Baker | Russell Baker,The New York Times.

A recent headline in the Boston Globe had Sen. Edward M. Kennedy saying his "lifestyle will change." This was depressing news. The country is infested these days with a busybody Puritanism determined to inflict wholesome goodness on the entire population. If it can force a "lifestyle" change on a spirit as cavalier as Kennedy's, the future is bleak indeed.

Combing through the full page of type and pictures that accompanied the Globe's headline, I was relieved to find little evidence that the senator had promised anything approaching a change of "lifestyle." About all he had told the Globe man was that he would "have to be a little more attentive to behavior."

This sounded like the sort of noncommittal pledge with which unfamous people try to pacify embarrassed relatives the morning after they have made fools of themselves at the Elks Ball. Which is basically what Kennedy did in his celebrated visit ,, with son and nephew to a Palm Beach saloon on Good Friday last.

Once rape charges were brought against his nephew, the full force of the new Puritanism descended on Kennedy. The goal seems to be to make him swear off his well-documented liking for alcohol and the pleasure of women. The spirit of tyranny is at work here.

Why a mature man should not have a midnight drink with his adult sons and nephews is unclear. Why, if a bachelor, he should not enjoy the company of compliant women is equally unclear. Such tastes in pleasure have been shared through history by many statesmen more glorious than Kennedy.

Moreover, his pleasures do not seem to impair Kennedy's ability to work very well indeed in the Senate, where he is regarded as one of the best. Why, then, this passion to make him take up the dour and starchy bluenose life?

Part of it, of course, comes from the terrible do-good impulse that has transformed half the population into a self-righteous, hectoring police force determined to make life miserable for all who resist conforming to the code of what's good for you.

This citizen Gestapo is making life a misery at every turn. A pregnant woman ordering a glass of wine gets, instead, a health lecture from a hygiene gauleiter in waiter's clothing.

A smoker lights up in a tight space, is assaulted by a citizen mob and is lucky to escape without being arrested. Dying people in need of comfort are told instead that their terminal condition is their own fault.

Had they exercised properly, eaten differently, eschewed vice, avoided this air, that water, this cooking pan, that soda pop, never touched sugar, watched their cholesterol, checked blood pressure twice a day, death could never have caught up with them.

Puritanism's assault on politics has been particularly hard on our public life, and the resulting hypocrisy has been a macabre delight to see. For instance, there is a nationwide campaign afoot not only to equip American high school youth with condoms, but also to make sure they know how to use them.

This is consistent with the prevailing hygienic Puritanism: high school fornicators must take proper health measures to outwit old Mr. Death. Yet, while hygienic Puritanism acknowledges rampant sexual action among high school children, political Puritanism decrees that sexual action among grown-ups old enough to be president must be limited to monogamy among the wed and abstinence among the unwed.

Thus Gary Hart, once a formidable presidential candidate, can be made to disappear overnight from public life by the same public that is pressing condoms by the gross on the future leaders of America.

Hypocrisy? Not at all, says the fashionable Puritanism. In modern Puritanism's political manifestation, "character" is the sine qua non for the nation's leaders. "Character" in this sense implies that politicians must live by a sexual ethic so out of date that even high school kids think it quaint -- and that, if they don't, they must not lead the country.

Efforts to make Kennedy change his "lifestyle" reflect the new Puritanic insistence that public people lead seemly lives even in private. But nowadays there is no private life. Anyone who insists on man's right to the unseemly private life needs courage, for the Puritans will gnaw him down to a pipsqueak.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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