by Patrick J. Buchanan – December 29, 1998
The riddle perplexing conservatives today can be summed up in a single question: “How does he get away with it?!”
Why is public support for Bill Clinton soaring, though he lied under oath, while the popularity of the Republican Congress trying to hold him to account is plummeting? Is this conclusive proof that America is now a decadent society? Not necessarily, friends.
The essence of Clinton’s success has been to persuade America that this scandal is about human weakness, not crime, and that at its core is not a string of felonies but a sin familiar to all — adultery. Clinton knows that while Americans may consider adultery a serious matter, a breach of faith and a betrayal of trust, they also believe it to be a private matter between husband and wife, priest and penitent, not a federal issue.
When aired, it has usually been done discreetly, in a divorce court with records sealed, and the press has rarely published the details. And that is how a conservative America wanted it.
Hence, good people are offended both by the revelations of tawdry Oval Office sex and by those who continue to dwell on the details. Most Americans want this dirty movie over with and out of the house, and the White House plays upon this natural sentiment.
When the story first broke, there was moral outrage aplenty. Even Dick Morris told Clinton he could not survive the full truth. But moral outrage is not easily sustainable after a year of Jay Leno jokes.
Also, unlike those generals and admirals who pop up on Page One, charged with adultery, Bill and Hillary are, well, family. Like J.R. Ewing and his long-suffering wife, Sue Ellen, of “Dallas,” they have starred in our national soap opera for six years. All America has heard stories of lamps thrown and curses traded. So there is an aspect of the burlesque to this, as well as the stuff of high crimes.
The poet Dante wrote that Divine Providence weighs the sins of the cold-hearted and the sins of the warm-blooded on a different scale. So, too, do most of us, and sins of the flesh have usually been ascribed to the second category, perhaps out of self-interest, as few among us have led entire lives of perfect chastity.
Even faithful spouses know friends or family who have fallen. As they would want a merciful God to cut their own some slack on Judgment Day, they are willing to cut Bill a little, too.
In our literature, the scamp is a more appealing figure than his accuser. “Fat Jack” Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and Sir Toby Belch are sympathetic characters in Shakespeare, but censorious, prudish Malvolio is not. Hester Prynne is the heroine of “The Scarlet Letter,” not those who pin the “A” on her.
The “woman taken in adultery” in the Bible is admonished to “go forth and sin no more.” Those about to stone her to death are dealt with more harshly: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” “Judge not that ye be not judged.” “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those … ” So Christians are taught, and the lessons are readily invoked and exploited by our Elmer Gantry president, who has an endless variety of uses for the Good Book.
Among the most beloved Bible stories is that of the prodigal son, who goes off to a far country to squander his patrimony in “riotous living.” Destitute, the sinner returns to his father’s house to beg forgiveness. The joyful father kills a fatted calf to feast the return of he who “was lost and is found.” Repentance and forgiveness are the themes. The prodigal remains a more sympathetic figure than the obedient, faithful son who rages that he has never been shown such paternal favor.
In “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Paul Newman is the prodigal. His elder brother is painted as a jealous, self-pitying whiner, who sucks up to “Big Daddy” to remain first in line for their dying father’s estate.
In favoring censure over Senate conviction and removal, Americans may not be approving of adultery or perjury but saying: “We knew what we were getting when we elected this character. Enough already. Give it a rest. Get it over with.” They may be simply saying the penalty should be suspension, not expulsion, purgatory, not hell.
The father who takes his son to the woodshed, the professor who flunks the quarterback before homecoming, the stern judge who imposes the just but severe sentence — the legislator who adheres to the law and Constitution — remain essential for a free society. When they cease to do their duty, institutions and societies crumble. But the role of principled disciplinarian has never been a popular one.
Between the miscreant feigning penitence and a judgmental jury, Americans will side with the first. Bill Clinton knows this, for our president is wise in the ways of the world.