Public concern gets boot by raging elite

August 24, 1998|By Froma Harrop

THIS CLINTON/LEWINSKY matter has brought about a remarkable role reversal between the roiling masses and the respectable voices of authority. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the nation's editorial pages have formed into a rampaging mob determined to turn the planet's most powerful political figure into a humiliated and ineffective heap. Polls, meanwhile, show a public calmly assessing the president's sex "crisis" for what it is -- a politically inspired campaign that has lost all perspective.

It sees the deliberations on the stained dress, the secretly taped girl talk, and now the tie, as something out of Seinfeld: grave judgments issued about nothing of consequence. Do not be dismayed, John and Jane America. Your indifference is a sign of mental health.

For the record, this writer is not William Jefferson Clinton's biggest fan. She didn't even vote for him last time around. The president has shown himself to be an undisciplined man. But she joins the majority of ordinary Americans in refusing to tie the nation's leader to a burning stake over private indiscretions. The polls report that two-thirds of Americans want Starr's investigation to go away. In the Gallup survey, half found the president's Monday night explanation to be sufficient, even though only a third thought he had told the whole truth before the grand jury.

What's going on? Why aren't the people following the directives from above? Why aren't they exhibiting blood lust per their instructions? Perhaps the public has a stronger sense of decency, a more nuanced view of morality and better balanced set of priorities than society's designated sages. Clearly, general opinion is going its own way, and that's good news for the quality of our civic culture.

For many, an old-fashioned belief in privacy has been a sticking point in efforts to mortify Bill Clinton. No American, it is widely believed, should be forced to reveal a sexual relationship with a willing adult partner. Nodding to such sensibilities, the political opposition has attempted to elevate this man's private weakness into the more momentous charge of perjury. Yes, the president lied about the relationship. But yes, our courts rarely pursue anyone who lies over a personal matter in a civil case, and this case got thrown out. Further complicating the childlike injunction to never lie is an Old School understanding that "a gentleman does not talk about the night before." While one may disapprove of extramarital affairs, kind people don't expose them. As Walter Bagehot, the 19th century English critic, put it, "Nothing is more unpleasant than a virtuous person with a mean mind."

This writer is simply dazzled by the serious portrayals of the Lewinsky affair as an emblem of decline in the collective morality. To these eyes, the willingness to deny life-saving medical treatment to poorly insured Americans is a far greater national failing than a presidential tryst. To this observer, a husband who cheats on his wife is less objectionable than one who methodically divorces the woman who no longer excites him and trades her in for a younger model.

Many opinion makers, of course, have taken the American public to task for its measured reaction to the Clinton revelations. Pointing their fingers, Moses style, they condemn a fat complacent people for not giving a fig about Clinton's personal behavior as long the economy hums along. Actually, the public has it exactly right. The president's sex life has little to do with his presidential duties while management of the economy most definitely does.

The public rightly worries that as long as the elites are out rioting, no one will be keeping an eye on the crashing Russian ruble and national security. Our only hope is that this inquisition will end. Let us pray that our political and opinion leaders can rise to the level of the masses.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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