What the Senate Morality Play Tells About Morality of U.S. Institutions

RICHARD REEVES

October 17, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

Burbank, Calif. - I was part of the Thomas-Hill Affair for a while last week, sitting in the NBC News studios here and doing some commentary between the slime and sanctimony oozing from my elected leaders.

The whole thing made me sick to my stomach, though I was not sure why. After all, it was not the first time I had been exposed to the bile of Sen. Alan Simpson, the Republican Party's designated thug, or the self-righteous wanderings of Sen. Dennis DeConcini's vacuum-packed mind.

The local newspaper, the Daily News, finally put it into perspective for me. Perhaps I should say a reader named Bobbie L. Jacobson of Panorama City made it clear to me what was so wrong about what I was seeing.

''Recently, we have witnessed a deluge of unflattering books about John F. Kennedy,'' she wrote in a letter to the editor. ''All of which are missing something: Kennedy made us feel pleasure being Americans . . . stirred our souls and made us proud to be Americans.''

John Kennedy, a man of many faults both public and private, brought out the best in us. These politicians are bringing out the worst in us.

It is not that they make me ashamed to be American. I am ashamed that they are, or at least I was during 36 hours of watching non-stop posturing. Did we produce these people? Is this what democracy comes down to, that the highest test is whether or not it makes good television?

It is impossible to parody or digest the process and the bungling that led to this. There was Sen. Joseph Biden, constantly trying to say that it was not his fault, sitting between the bookends of American morality: Strom Thurmond, the David Duke of his generation, who ran for president vowing to preserve racial segregation forever; and Edward Kennedy, who does his running in other fields and barrooms.

Neither of those two, thankfully, had much to say. As the 14 senators of the Judiciary Committee talked of fantasies, mine was that Clarence Thomas would leap to his feet, point to Anita Hill and shout at Kennedy: ''Listen, senator, at least she's still alive!''

The judge that President Bush says is the finest in the land -- if he's right about that we are in even worse trouble than I can imagine -- compared the proceedings to the parody anti-Communist hearings conducted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. But to me they seemed more like the Salem witch trials, another example of my country's prurient puritanism.

The only question I came away with from the hearings was whether the principal witch-hunters -- Senators Simpson, Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter -- are actually stupid enough to believe the double-entendre slander they were being handed by the White House, or are they as cynical, small-minded and mean-spirited as they seem?

None of this should have happened, or would have if Mr. Biden and his playmates had the competence to distinguish between the public and the private.

Senators don't have to toady to reporters like me who constantly chant of the public's right to know; they should have closed the doors and their mouths at the first solid indication that Judge Thomas might be a sexual bully-boss.

But the problem of the 14 men judging him and his accusers was that they had no idea that sexual harassment was anything more than a harmless perk of power, just another senatorial privilege.

How out of touch are these guys? Let me count the ways, beginning with a revealing little incident when Mr. Biden was questioning John Carr, who identified himself as a partner in one of the country's oldest and most prestigious law firms, Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett. The chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate had obviously never heard of it.

They live in a world of their own, our lawmakers, members of a self-selected elite of a professional class called politicians. Joe Biden decided as a teen-ager that he wanted to be president of the United States and devoted his life to that goal, going to law school only because he read Who's Who biographies of presidents and discovered that almost all were either rich, war heroes or lawyers. He could only be the last.

What a disgrace! What an argument for making term limits

natural law. But will anyone note or long remember in Post-Shock America? Is there anything at all that would shock us anymore?

Either we are in terminal decline, or the United States and its people and energy, at our best and our worst, are so strong and stable that nothing can upset American equilibrium.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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