Why no impeachment? It's the cultural wars, hon

October 05, 1998|By Jay Bookman

TRENT LOTT must lie awake nights, staring at the ceiling and trying to puzzle out why an overwhelming majority of Americans opposes impeachment of that low-down, lyin', cheatin', draft-dodgin' adulterer.

But when Mr. Lott rolls out of bed each morning, puts earth beneath his feet again and stares at himself in the bathroom mirror, the answer to his question stares back at him.

Because fear of Mr. Lott and others like him is the main reason that President Clinton is likely to survive this scandal.

Over the past two decades, U.S. politics has seen the rise of a movement inspired by belief in its moral superiority and eager to use government as a weapon to force that morality on others. Mr. Lott, the Senate majority leader from Mississippi, has been a prominent leader of that movement. Others, such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, may not fully subscribe to the notions of the movement but have enlisted to advance their own ambitions.

Conspiracies abound

For six years, that moralistic movement has focused much of its passion and energy on Mr. Clinton, seeing him as the embodiment of all that they most fear in modern culture. The depth of that animosity is almost unparalleled in U.S. history. "Impeach Clinton" bumper stickers appeared on cars before he had even taken office, and wildly implausible conspiracy theories involving Mr. Clinton have long been standard fare on talk radio.

Many within the movement have never accepted Mr. Clinton's presidency as legitimate. Echoes of that sentiment can be heard when Mr. Lott argues that mere "bad conduct" by a president is enough to justify impeachment. In other words, if Mr. Clinton's crimes do not rise to the level of impeachment, Mr. Lott proposes to lower impeachment to the level of Mr. Clinton's crimes.

However, the national conversation over the past few weeks has made it clear that most Americans do not see Mr. Clinton's behavior as the central issue in this scandal. Rather, they see this controversy as the decisive battle -- the Gettysburg, so to speak -- of a long and bitter cultural war in which Mr. Clinton is only a symbol.

That is true for those on both sides of the issue. Those who demand Mr. Clinton's removal often argue that failure to impeach will cement this country's final and irredeemable moral collapse. Those who oppose Mr. Clinton's removal speak in similar terms, arguing that if we surrender Mr. Clinton to those who have long demanded his head, we also surrender our own right to privacy and personal freedom.

They defend Mr. Clinton not because he is innocent, but because they see the attack on him by Mr. Lott and others as an attack on themselves. Likewise, they see independent counsel Kenneth Starr not as an unbiased investigator, but as the embodiment of government intrusion into private affairs that they fear most from the right wing. And while an affair with an intern is not exactly the high ground that most of them would have chosen to defend, it is the ground that has been forced upon them.

In that sense, Mr. Clinton is a lucky man. The details of his misbehavior almost don't matter anymore. As in many a bitter family battle, we have left behind the specific issue that touched off this brawl and gone on to fight about the things that really bother us. In fact, it seems as though we have subconsciously itched for this fight for a long time.

The struggle ahead promises to be nasty and brutish, but not short. After hearings and debates, the House Judiciary Committee is almost certain to vote along party lines in favor of impeachment. That would mean -- at the least -- a bitter fight and vote on the floor of the House. If a majority of the House supports impeachment, the controversy will carry over into the Senate.

Staking claim

Those who argue that this is not Watergate are correct; in cultural terms it will be something much larger, a fight over who we are as a people.

That's a daunting prospect for Mr. Lott, Mr. Gingrich and others. They have turned Mr. Clinton into the devil incarnate among their political base, and to placate that base they have no choice but to fight hard to oust him. But the harder they fight, the more they confirm the fears of a majority that already distrusts them. This is a battle that they dare not avoid, but probably can't win.

?3 That, too, is enough to keep Lott awake nights.

Jay Bookman is associate editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution. His e-mail address is jbookmajc.com.

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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