Bill Clinton, in David Brinkley’s estimation, is a bore, and the majority of the American electorate probably agrees. Moralists deplore a nation that seems willing to indulge an administration ridden by scandal and characterized by every sort of personal vice and immorality. Commentators have suggested that had President Clinton been accused of two or five indictable or impeachable acts, he would not today be President of the United States, but the 250 or so offenses of which he is suspected both deaden the imagination and protect the President. More important than their number, perhaps, are the banality and tawdriness of his administration’s alleged crimes and misdemeanors; bank and real estate fraud, money laundering, and influence peddling; illicit fundraising, perjury, and the subornation of witnesses; adultery, fornication, solicitation It is the stuff of cheap novels, bad movies, and worse television concocted by small, conventional, and unimaginative minds for the enjoyment of still lesser intelligences. Even a public titillated by Hollywood and numbed by the national news media becomes jaded. The banality of the Clinton presidency is less the banality of evil than it is the banality of venality. So who cares? Life is short; and the lives of ordinary Americans are filled with banalities and venalities of their own.
Unfortunately, the world—in particular, the political world—is full of banal and boring things that we ignore at our peril. Such are the scandals of the Clinton administration. For the incumbent White House gang, scandal has become a policy of sorts, conveying the assurance of continuity. Like the Little Rascals or Penrod Schofield, the Clintons are perpetually in the soup—which might seem cute or endearing of them, were it not for their status as the nation’s First Adults. Like so many of their generation, the First Couple are children at heart, and so their sequential response to being caught out is childishness itself: “I did not!”; “So and so made me do it!”; “Don’t spank me! I’ll never, ever, do it again!” (“Anyway, all the other kids do it.”)
Confronted by such behavior, adults, having other matters to attend to, are tempted to overlook it. Yet, “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is a fit maxim of political as well as of domestic life. Most politicians, not just the Clintons, are essentially spoiled children: selfish, self-willed, and vain, lacking self-control and given to threats and tantrums, they are little soft balls of unmolded Original Sin. In the absence of discipline, children and politicians grow into tyrants. The majority of America’s overwhelming troubles today are the result of a failure on the part of Americans to pay attention to what their politicians, and their children, are up to, and to call them on the carpet for it. In an age of moral shortcutting, children, politicians, and lawyers—masters of the short cut, all of them—require especial scrutiny. Surreptitiously selling the Lincoln Bedroom as if it were a unit at the No-Tell Motel might appear like a venial sin, until one considers the political legacy of its namesake. President Abraham Lincoln was willing to cut all kinds of constitutional and political corners (in addition to killing and maiming three-quarters of a million men) in order to win a war and save the union (even if that union was largely a figment of his imagination). Today, Lincoln’s successor does not hesitate to circumvent every campaign finance law on the books simply to save his own job, even at the expense of mortgaging Lincoln’s beloved Union to Hollywood vulgarians and Asian dictators. The American Republic has come a long way, morally speaking, since the days of martyred Abraham.